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Annual Report 2001-2002: Statement from the President

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Annual Report 2000-2001

Statement from the President

Professor Alice Tay - President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity CommissionThe
Commission’s vision is of and for an Australian society in which
the human rights of all people are respected and promoted. Our task
is to find practical, pragmatic ways to turn the rhetoric of human rights
into an everyday reality for all Australians and build a more tolerant
and inclusive community. As this report indicates, this past year has
been a period of substantial achievement as we strive towards this goal.

It has also been
a period of significant change in terms of our leadership and our responsibilities.
In the past year the terms of two Commissioners, Chris Sidoti and Susan
Halliday, came to an end. In addition, we have completed our first full
year under legislative amendments that came into effect in April 2000,
of which a detailed overview can be found in last year’s annual
report. As a result of these amendments the Commission can be said to
have reached a major watershed in its history.

One of the significant
changes to our statutory responsibilities contained in this legislation
was the transfer of the Commission’s function to hear complaints
into matters of unlawful discrimination to the Federal Court of Australia
or the Federal Magistrates Service. This new procedure was made smooth
by the close cooperation that the Commission enjoyed with both Courts.
It has also confirmed several positive features of the constitutional
change – legal issues that the Commission’s hearing function
could not deal with can now be more fully examined and pronounced upon
by Federal Court and the Federal Magistrates Service in their newly
acquired responsibilities. Additionally, in the past year a total of
37 complaints referred to hearing under the previous arrangements were
settled and only a small number now remain outstanding.

The Commission’s vision is of and for an Australian society in
which the human rights of all people are respected and promoted. Our
task is to find practical, pragmatic ways to turn the rhetoric of human
rights into an everyday reality for all Australians and build a more
tolerant and inclusive community. As this report indicates, this past
year has been a period of substantial achievement as we strive towards
this goal.

It has also been
a period of significant change in terms of our leadership and our responsibilities.
In the past year the terms of two Commissioners, Chris Sidoti and Susan
Halliday, came to an end. In addition, we have completed our first full
year under legislative amendments that came into effect in April 2000,
of which a detailed overview can be found in last year’s annual
report. As a result of these amendments the Commission can be said to
have reached a major watershed in its history.

One of the significant
changes to our statutory responsibilities contained in this legislation
was the transfer of the Commission’s function to hear complaints
into matters of unlawful discrimination to the Federal Court of Australia
or the Federal Magistrates Service. This new procedure was made smooth
by the close cooperation that the Commission enjoyed with both Courts.
It has also confirmed several positive features of the constitutional
change – legal issues that the Commission’s hearing function
could not deal with can now be more fully examined and pronounced upon
by Federal Court and the Federal Magistrates Service in their newly
acquired responsibilities. Additionally, in the past year a total of
37 complaints referred to hearing under the previous arrangements were
settled and only a small number now remain outstanding.

Further changes
to the structure of the Commission outlined in the Human Rights Legislation
Amendment Act No 2, which proposes the creation of three Deputy Presidents
to replace the current five specialist Commissioner functions, remain
before Parliament. However, a timetable for the implementation of this
legislation remains uncertain.

Work of the
Commission: programs, policies and projects

Addressing the
human rights issues and concerns of a community is a wide-ranging and
multi-layered task. There are no simple answers to countering discrimination,
intolerance and disadvantage. Therefore, the work of the Commission
reflects the many important human and societal aspects of promoting
and protecting human rights, including resolving complaints of discrimination,
implementing education programs, running national inquiries into issues
of particular concern, conducting research and providing policy advice
to government and other agencies. The Commission also takes an active
role on the international stage, providing advice and assistance to
governments and national human rights institutions in our region and
further afield to strengthen and promote the observance of international
human rights standards.

Receiving and conciliating
individual complaints of discrimination remains a core statutory function
of the Commission’s work. A total of 35% of complaints were successfully
conciliated – above the Commission’s target of 30% - and the
average time from receipt to finalisation of a complaint was seven months.
This focus on the timely and successful resolution of complaints has
led to high satisfaction levels from complainants and respondents alike.
In addition, a new facility was established on our website that allows
complaints to be lodged electronically, with complaint information available
in 11 community languages.

Human Rights education
is one of the highest priorities of the Commission and forms a fundamental
part of all our activities. Effective education requires well-researched
and well-structured programs that provide individuals and groups with
the opportunity to learn, share ideas and grow in their understanding.
It is also a form of advocacy as it challenges and encourages people
to recognise and make room for those on the margins and to treat each
other with greater understanding, tolerance and generosity.

Over the past year,
the Commission has developed a comprehensive education and information
program to reach a broad cross-section of the community. The ‘Youth
Challenge’ series - an interactive, curriculum-based program on
sex, race and disability discrimination - was presented to secondary
school students across the country. We were delighted to work in partnership
with other state Equal Opportunity Commissions to present this innovative
program to students in regional areas. We also established Action Exchange
with the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, a project that
recognises the practical and creative contributions that young people
make to promoting tolerance and respect for human rights in our community.

The Commission
initiated substantial education activities to raise awareness about
its complaint-handling role, presenting information sessions to 170
community and stakeholder groups throughout Australia. Additionally,
specialist investigation and conciliation training courses were provided
for a range of government and non-government agencies in Australia and
overseas.

Following a Commission-led
National Summit on Racism and Civil Society in May 2001, we have commenced
a series of public forums around the country to listen to people’s
views and experiences of racism and to collect ideas for overcoming
racial discrimination and intolerance. These forums will provide valuable
information that the Commission will present to the forthcoming World
Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and other
forms of Intolerance, to be held in South Africa later in 2001.

The Commission’s
website was revised and re-launched during the year to provide visitors
with easier navigation and access to information. We have also continued
to develop our electronic mailing lists, which allow us to distribute
information to people quickly and efficiently and keep them abreast
of human rights issues. Engaging with national, metropolitan and regional
media outlets is also an important way that the Commission has been
able to highlight and advocate on important human rights issues in the
past year. Furthermore, individual Commissioners have developed a range
of targeted education projects, as outlined in greater detail in this
report.

As we near the
end of the Decade for Human Rights Education, the Commission will redouble
its efforts to ensure open, informed and productive discussion of human
rights with a view to promoting real and lasting change.

In August 2000, Chris Sidoti completed his five-year term as Human Rights
Commissioner. His deep commitment to the protection and promotion of
human rights informed his work. He was closely involved in the National
Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Children From Their Families and more recently completed a national
inquiry into education and human rights as they affect people in rural
and remote Australia. Other areas of concern were age discrimination,
religious freedom, the rights of gay and lesbian people and the rights
of refugees and asylum seekers. He was also instrumental in the establishment
of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. His
energy and enthusiasm will be greatly missed.

Dr Sev Ozdowski
commenced his appointment as Human Rights Commissioner, along with a
one-year position as Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner,
on 8 December 2000. Formerly Chief Executive of South Australia’s
Office of Multicultural and International Affairs, Dr Ozdowski brings
to the Commission a wealth of experience in law, human rights, immigration
and multiculturalism. Since his commencement, he has visited a number
of immigration detention centres to monitor their processes for dealing
with unauthorised arrivals. One of his initial goals is to enhance Australians’
knowledge and understanding of human rights through a national dialogue
on human rights.

In the past year
a number of very positive steps have been taken to improve access to
services for people with disabilities. These include a pilot scheme
by the major cinemas of captioned movies for people with a hearing impairment
and improved mobile phone services for people using hearing aids. These
significant changes are the result of the Commission’s open and
constructive approach to resolving complaints of discrimination from
individuals and clearly highlight how individual complaints can provide
the impetus for the elimination of systemic discrimination. Further,
the Commission has been working closely with the Australian Bankers
Association and community and industry groups to establish industry
standards that offer older Australians and people with a disability
improved access to new technologies and e-commerce facilities. Dr Ozdowski
and Susan Halliday, the previous Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner,
received valuable support in this work from Deputy Disability Discrimination
Commissioner, Graeme Innes.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Halliday, completed her three-year
term in April 2001. During that time Ms Halliday achieved a remarkable
amount to promote the rights of women. Her recent accomplishments included
guidelines for employers arising from the National Inquiry into Pregnancy
and Work, advocacy for improved pay equity standards and the rights
of casual employees, a campaign targeting advertising that demeans women
and the production of a range of publications to promote gender equality.
She was a strong advocate for Australia’s adoption of the Optional
Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against
Women and was part of the Australian Government delegation at the Beijing
+ 5 conference in New York in 1999. Her outstanding work will be ably
continued by the incoming Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward.

In the wake of
the 2000 Olympic Games, Indigenous disadvantage, the ‘stolen generations’,
reconciliation and calls for a treaty continued to be at the forefront
of national debate. Throughout the past year, Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Acting Race Discrimination
Commissioner Dr William Jonas has highlighted the human rights dimensions
of these critical issues through his annual Social Justice and Native
Title Reports to federal Parliament. He has called for a commitment
to overcoming Indigenous disadvantage as an urgent national priority
and has continued to advocate for the establishment of a reparations
system to assist Indigenous people forcibly removed from their families
as an alternative to protracted and costly litigation.

Of course, such
an extraordinary breadth of work – often mundane, requiring meticulous
attention to detail, patience and also fresh perceptions - is not easily
achieved. The Commission is fortunate to have committed, enthusiastic
and professional members of staff. They have contributed enormously
to the substantial achievements of the past year and their efforts deserve
particular recognition.

 

International
Work of the Commission

The Australian
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission continues to play a significant
role in the international arena. The Commission is widely viewed as
a national human rights institution that has specialised expertise with
which it can support new or emerging institutions. This support can
take the form of assisting new institutions to develop complaint-handling
procedures, conduct investigations or establish and run inquiries into
breaches of human rights. Exchange of technical assistance is an important
way that Australia can assist its regional neighbours to develop their
capacity to promote and protect human rights, often in very difficult
and challenging environments.

Over the past year,
the Australian Commission has provided technical assistance on a range
of bilateral projects, funded by the Australian Government’s international
aid and development agency, AusAID. One of the most notable projects,
running for the past four years, is the China Human Rights Technical
Assistance Program, which forms part of the annual Human Rights Dialogue
between Australia and the People’s Republic of China. This program
emphasises that constructive dialogue and cooperation based on mutual
respect is an effective approach for working towards the improved protection
of human rights. In addition, the Commission has provided advice and
assistance to national institutions and human rights agencies in Indonesia,
South Africa, Hong Kong, Uganda and Vietnam.

Since its establishment
in 1996, the Australian Commission has hosted the Asia Pacific Forum
of National Institutions. Over the past five years the Forum has grown
from its original four members to its current total of eight, including
Australia, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Nepal, New Zealand, the Philippines
and Sri Lanka. While the growth of the Forum reflects the success of
its endeavours to strengthen human rights protection and promotion in
our region, it also presents significant legal, governance and financial
challenges. At the Fifth Annual Meeting, held in New Zealand in August
2000, Forum members gave ‘in principle’ support to the legal
incorporation of the Forum. The transition of the Forum to a more independent
structure will, it is hoped, provide a flexible and workable framework
to enable greater participation by all member institutions. AusAID,
the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,
the New Zealand Government and private donors have provided generous
funding to support the activities of the Forum.

The Future

It is properly
and widely recognised that the ultimate test of our worth as a democratic
nation is to be found in how we treat the most vulnerable and disadvantaged
members of our society. By giving flesh and bone to the principles and
values that inform our understanding of human rights, we give dignity
and respect to each other and therein build a fair, just and inclusive
Australia.

This is not an
easy task and the challenges that face our country today are profound
indeed. Pre-eminent among them is the question of forging a true reconciliation
between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and finding lasting
solutions to entrenched Indigenous disadvantage. We need to address
the manner in which we respond to unlawful arrivals to Australia, establishing
processes that are humane and in accordance with our obligations under
international human rights treaties. Overcoming discrimination and intolerance
and ensuring that each person, regardless of their race, sex, disability,
age or religious background, has the opportunity to participate fully
in our society is another goal towards which we strive.

We hold a broad
and difficult charter. However, the Commission will continue to pursue
these aims in a spirit of cooperation with government and non-government
organisations, business, community groups and individuals. Such partnerships
enhance and strengthen important ties within our community and set the
foundations for a fair and inclusive society.

The changes that
the organisation has undergone in recent times have placed us in a position
that allows us to better focus our energies on addressing and advocating
on the important human rights issues that face us here in Australia
and in our region.
I look forward to working with the Australian community to meet the
challenges of the coming year.