Along with my colleagues at the Australian Human Rights Commission, I began the 2009–10 reporting year awaiting a report from what had been one of the largest public consultations in Australian history, the National Human Rights Consultation.
We had put in a great deal of work to encourage the community to participate in that consultation and to provide them with tools to make their contributions as constructive as possible. We also provided a detailed submission of our own.
We were hoping that the Consultation Committee would embrace our overarching vision of helping to create an Australian nation where the basic human dignity of all people is respected, where our government decision-makers always think about the human rights impacts of their decisions, and where people whose human rights are breached can do something about it. Among other measures, our submission to the consultation advocated strongly for a national Human Rights Act.
We were pleased that the Consultation Committee accepted the majority of our recommendations. While the government did not ultimately agree to legislate for a national Human Rights Act, it did agree to take various positive measures designed to assist federal Parliament to consider the impact of new laws on human rights. These include statements of compatibility for proposed legislation and the creation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights.
The government also agreed with us, and the Consultation Committee, that there needs to be a much greater focus on human rights education if human rights are to be meaningful to, and embraced by, the whole community.
Our belief in the importance of human rights education, is reflected in the Commission’s vision of an Australia where human rights are for everyone, everywhere, everyday. It is also reflected in the way we organise our work. Over the reporting year we identified two priority themes to focus our efforts to increase community awareness of and engagement with human rights. These priority themes of ‘building understanding and respect for rights in our community’ and ‘tackling violence, harassment and bullying’ are described in this report.
Of course, we also continue to monitor some of the major human rights issues facing our country. One of those issues is immigration detention policy, and its impacts on the human rights of asylum seekers and other people in immigration detention.
When I took on the role of Human Rights Commissioner in July 2009, one of the first things I did was visit the immigration detention facilities on Christmas Island. Commission staff conducted a further visit at the close of the reporting period. Despite the significant efforts of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in what are undeniably challenging circumstances, we remain seriously concerned about the detention of asylum seekers in a place as small and remote as Christmas Island. Each of the three detention facilities on Christmas Island became increasingly overcrowded over the past year. Christmas Island’s remote location limits detainees’ access to essential services such as legal assistance, specialist health care, torture and trauma counselling and community and religious support. We especially have concerns about the number of children being detained on the island, which increased from 82 to 246 between our 2009 and 2010 visits.
The Commission also continues to advocate for the ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which would require Australia to establish a national system of monitoring conditions in all places of detention, including immigration detention facilities.
At the beginning of 2010 we said farewell to Commissioner Tom Calma who made outstanding contributions to human rights protections in Indigenous affairs and race relations during his five and a half years with the Commission. At the same time, we had the great pleasure of welcoming Mr Mick Gooda as our new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.
As we close the year and I reflect on what it has brought, I am reminded of the conversations that I have had about human rights with hundreds of people across Australia, from all walks of life. Those conversations give me strength because they reinforce my understanding of just how much human rights matter to a great number of people. They also remind me that, although human rights protections are relevant to everyone in Australia, they are particularly important to those who are most vulnerable to human rights breaches including adverse discrimination. These people include Indigenous Australians, women, children, the elderly, people with disability, asylum seekers, people experiencing homelessness, people of different cultural or linguistic backgrounds, people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual and people with diverse sex or gender identity.
As President of the Commission and Human Rights Commissioner, I maintain a personal commitment to encouraging widespread appreciation of the relevance of human rights for all people, no matter who they are, where they live or what their circumstances. It is my hope and belief that, as our Australian community becomes increasingly diverse, it will be our shared commitment to the promotion and protection of the civil and political rights, and also the social, economic and cultural rights, to which we are all entitled that will bind us together as a nation.
I look forward to the challenges ahead as the Commission commences the delivery of broad-based community education about human rights and continues, through all of our work, to build a community within which respect for the basic human dignity of all people is a fundamental value.
Catherine Branson, QC
President and Human Rights Commissioner