Human Rights Day Address 2003

The Hon John von Doussa QC
President, Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission

Wednesday 10 December 2003, Human Rights Medal and Awards, Sheraton on the Park Hotel, Elizabeth Street, Sydney

Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

[Welcome and salutations]

It is a great pleasure to welcome you to the annual Human Rights Day Medal and Awards, as we celebrate Human Rights Day.

December 10 marks the day when, 55 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Set against the wreckage and the unthinkable horror of the Second World War, the Declaration was something of a phoenix rising from the ashes, a document which sought to rekindle a human dignity which had been gravely debased in the preceding ten years.

I could go on to talk about the importance of the Declaration as the cornerstone on which a tremendous body of international human rights law is now based.

But I fear this might miss a more fundamental point.

Rather, in the short time I have, I would like to focus on what human rights mean to us today, as individuals and as a community.

Or, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the distinguished group who drafted the Universal Declaration, to look at ‘the small places, close to home’ where human rights are experienced and become real.

Human rights go to the core of each and every one of us.

In understanding them, in knowing them, we begin to uncover answers to our deeper questions.

Who am I? What do I need? What am I entitled to? And - because we live in community with others - how do I help my neighbour?

Discourse about human rights poses an ideal, something we have to go on striving to realise.

Because the simple fact is that, here in Australia, some people are denied their basic rights – the core of who they are – every day.

And this at the beginning of the 21st century.

It is common, though, for our leaders to say that Australia’s human rights record, while not perfect, is better than that enjoyed by most other countries.

As if, through a sliding scale of relativity, we were absolved of our responsibility to do better.

Of course, Australia does embrace the ideal of human rights – in reality, as well as in our rhetoric.

We can see this in our respect for the rule of law, the independence of our press and the way we prize the idea of the ‘fair go’.

We have seen the abolition of the White Australia policy, the 1967 referendum on Indigenous rights, the equal pay decisions of the 1970’s and the enactment of anti-discrimination laws.

These changes may have taken longer to come than they should have - but they have come. And they have not caused the sky to fall in. In fact, they have benefited the whole community,

But to deny our failings, to try and cover them over, is to deny the qualities that lead to justice.

By turning a blind eye or retreating into easy prejudice, we fail to show respect and fairness to those who need it most.

Cast your mind back over the past year or so.

Think of the ‘Pacific Solution’ and the community backlash against ‘illegal’ asylum seekers, which has been fanned by divisive voices for cynical ends.

Our response stands in stark contrast to our nation’s promise to the world made in the Refugees’ Convention to provide a safe haven to those seeking asylum.

More fundamentally, it perverts the basic, decent human response to extend protection to those fleeing persecution, to those who have witnessed and experienced atrocities we can scarcely imagine.

Think of September 11 and the Bali bombings, tragic events which left us grappling with a maelstrom of emotions - horror, grief, confusion and anger. And yet how quickly were these emotions translated into fear and mistrust.

Since then, Arabic and Islamic people have felt a rising wave of prejudice, discrimination and vilification. Muslim women who wear the hijab have been targets for abuse. Mosques have been vandalised.

And all this driven by the fear of difference and a need to find ‘someone’ – someone ‘different’ – to blame.

In the last year the Australian Parliament debated and eventually passed federal laws against crimes of ‘terrorism’. As you would all be well aware, the ASIO Bill was also the subject of intense scrutiny and debate.

Indeed the Joint Parliamentary Committee which examined the Bill in its original form was of the view that it ‘would undermine key legal rights and erode the civil liberties that make Australia a leading democracy.’

The overall effect of these laws is to allow long-standing rights to be wound back.

And then, hidden amidst the noisy public debate that surrounds these issues, the ‘people’s movement’ for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians has slowly, silently ground to a halt.

What began as an attempt to reduce the fear of difference and to open an honest conversation between black and white Australians has now descended into a slanging match about statistics, funding and administration.

All the while, indicators of Indigenous disadvantage continue to reveal the misery of poor health, economic disadvantage and unacceptably low life expectancies. We should be horrified, stirred to action.

But many Australians simply shrug their shoulders and turn their backs. Not so much in apathy, as dismay, overwhelmed by the enormity of this seemingly insoluble crisis.

What then? Does it seem to you that the path to equality in Australia is fast becoming the road less travelled?

This is why we need at times to stop, take stock and reset our moral compass. We need to clearly grasp the notion that true equality is still far off.

And the way forward?

We need to speak out in defence of basic rights.

We need to insist on the fundamental role of the courts to scrutinise matters – because a democratic state can not comprise this foundational principle without, in some way, compromising itself.

Furthermore, and I would say especially right now, we need to develop a culture of dialogue, tolerance and understanding.

We need to be advocates for equality and reconciliation.

In times such as these, we must all see education as a priority. It certainly is for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Our goal is to help people to understand their rights as well as their obligation to respect the rights of others.

To understand that the assertion of rights is not an attempt to take something away from those that ‘have’, but rather, it is a way to extend to those who ‘have not’ something that is theirs. And that this will benefit the whole community.

How are we trying to do this at the Commission?

We have just completed a very extensive series of consultations with Australians who have an Arabic and Muslim background. Called ‘Isma’ – which is Arabic for ‘listen’ - this forum gave us a chance to understand how they have experienced religious and racial discrimination in recent times – and to listen to what strategies they believe would help combat harassment and vilification.

Foremost amongst useful strategies these groups have developed have been open days and information sessions conducted to explain their cultures and beliefs to the wider community.

We also run Youth Challenge programs in high schools around the country, providing students with practical ways to help them understand their rights and to counter myths and stereotypes, which are often at the heart of discrimination and harassment.

Today, I’m pleased to launch another module in our Youth Challenge program. The Bringing them home module helps students explore one of the most tragic episodes in Australian history – the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families.

The module looks at the findings and the recommendations of the Commission’s National Inquiry, and what has happened since the report was tabled in 1997. It also looks at the effects of separation on individuals, families and communities.

Clearly linked to each state and territory’s curricula it is a comprehensive – yet highly accessible – resource that can be used with junior and secondary classes.

Let me be clear - the aim of the Bringing them home resource is not to present a singular and uncritical approach to understanding Australia’s past.

Rather, we understand how important it is for young people to have reliable information and resources, to be able to ask questions, analyse, debate and, finally, draw their own conclusions.

This is the real stuff of education.

Please take the time to browse the material, either on the computers provided here today or on the CD in your kit - we would welcome your comments.

Like the Bringing them home education resource, it is vital that we take advantage of all the opportunities at our disposal to provide simple, clear information that will the counter the voices of fear and division in our community.

I would urge you all to do the same.

As I said before, discourse about human rights poses an ideal. And what we need as we strive towards that ideal is for people of good conscience to continue to speak out about the things they value and believe.

We need to forego the easy, talkback monologue of recent times and start up a genuine, inclusive dialogue about the things that we care deeply about – equality, justice and the recognition of rights.

We need to begin the conversation in our neighbourhoods, in our schools, in our media and in our parliaments.

And we need to question, question relentlessly.

In so doing, we become engaged in creating an Australian society of which we can be truly proud. One that recognises its strengths at the same time that it seeks to redress its failures.

And never underestimate the transformative role that you play – no matter how large or how small it may seem to you.

Because, as John Stuart Mill once said: ‘One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.’

Thank you.

Last updated26 August 2004Last updated 26 August 2004.