Rights of Passage - 2005 competition


For we are young and free

By Courtney Jones, 16, TAS

Courtney's essay For we are young and free is an eloquent observation of the nature of tolerance in contemporary Australian society.

Australia, the proverbial "lucky country", is indeed fortunate to exist as a developed multicultural nation. As Australians we enjoy a quality of life and freedoms that many in the world will never experience. It was to my horror, that on the front of this morning's paper the headline read 'Tassie gay phobia shame'. 1 A report, 'Mapping Homophobia in Australia', by the Australia Institute found forty percent of Tasmanians believed homosexuality was immoral, making Tasmania the most homophobic state in Australia. The results of this study are even more shocking than at first glance, as Tasmania has the most progressive anti-discrimination and relationship legislation in the country.

This article follows a spate of news stories on human rights issues within Australia. Only yesterday, The Australian reported that a Queensland Neo-Nazi group, the White Pride Coalition, had been harassing Sudanese refugees with verbal abuse, racist mail, rocks thrown at houses, and some refugees have been 'pelted with rotten eggs and potatoes'. 2 How can a country so far advanced in multicultural values and social acceptance be the scene for such abhorrent human rights crimes?

As a white, sixth generation Australian of English descent, the worst harassment I have ever experienced would be directed towards my height, but others are not so fortunate. In the schools where I have studied, multiculturalism is the norm - within my high school class of twenty-eight students, over twelve languages are spoken by the students. The difference in heritage of my classmates was never an issue, in fact quite the opposite; the amount we learned off each other was truly extraordinary. Many had fled war stricken countries - Nou a Hmong girl had seen her uncle murdered by militants as a 'warning' to the rest of her family and Ayda had fled from the war torn Palestine, travelling through Europe before settling in Tasmania. The experiences of these people have not only made me appreciate my life, but also the values Australians hold.

Australia is in many ways unique. It is one of only a few countries born out of peace; we did not have a civil war or struggle for independence. With only two hundred years of federation, Australia has developed without many of the prejudices of tradition, but has become an amalgam of cultures, beliefs and practices. As Australians we are a generous people. We have donated one billion dollars to the victims of the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004 and we give large amounts of aid every year to other causes. We sponsor children through World Vision and Care International and my college ran a cake auction earlier in the year in support of Amnesty International in their campaigns 'Stop Violence Against Women', 'Child Soldiers' and 'The Death Penalty'. Despite our enthusiasm to halt human rights abuses overseas, we are uneasy when it comes to addressing our own domestic problems.

In the United Nations Human Rights Commissions (UNHRC) review of Australia's Human Rights Record in accordance with the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights a number of improvements were listed as being implemented since the previous review in 1988. In the twelve years between 1988 and 2000, Australia implemented the right for individuals to submit complaints to UNHRC; the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tasmania; the enactment of anti-discrimination laws in every state and territory; the establishment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and the improved status of women. The review also highlighted the areas in which improvements needed to be made. These included native title and heritage protection; indigenous self-determination; deportation of people risking torture or summary execution and the mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals.

With amendments to the constitution counting Aborigines as citizens, eligible to vote in 1967, Native Land Title Acts and handovers and education programmes established to address racial division, the discrimination pointed at Aborigines has diminished rapidly. Despite this, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia are still conceived as being part of a demographic with many social downfalls. A recent publication from Amnesty International Australia found that fifty-seven percent of women suffer domestic violence, a horrid statistic that the public are not aware of, but this rate can be up to '40 times higher than for non-indigenous women'.3 It amazes me that Australia can work so hard abolishing international human rights offenders but pays less attention to a problem effecting our own indigenous population.

The second area in which the UNHRC expressed concern was the treatment of illegal immigrants, either through their mandatory detention or the deportation of people risking torture or summary execution. While the virtues of Australia's Temporary Protection Visa programme have been discussed and contended, the fact remains that Australia's current system can not be continued for the foreseeable future without some amendments. We are constantly bombarded with the faces of starving children in Ethiopia and other African nations through World Vision television advertising, but I will never forget the face of the Iranian boy on a Four Corners programme, who was so psychologically damaged by his detention that he refused to talk or eat. More recently, the Cornelia Rau case and the subsequent inquiries only serve to further highlight the problems within Australia's immigration system.

Australians are typically a generous, free-spirited group of people but as a group of people we must stand against our own human rights issues. For in the end human rights are not the legal documentation but people's lives. Human rights are the struggle that people live through in order to exist. I would urge the Australian public to look inward, as well as abroad in order to ensure that everyone is treated equally 'without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status'.4 It is to this end that we can really become the "lucky country" and, as our national anthem states, living "young and free".

1 The Mercury, 27 July 2005, "Tassie's gay phobia shame"

2 The Australian, 26 July 2005, "Neo-Nazis in bid to drive out Africa refugees"

3 Amnesty International Australia, The Human Rights Defender, "A Tolerated Disgrace" pp6-8

4 United Nation, Universal Declaration of Human Rights