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2008 Human Rights Day Oration

Commission Commission – General

2008 Human Rights Day Oration

The Hon Catherine Branson QC
President, Australian Human Rights Commission

Human Rights Medals and Awards, Sydney

10 December 2008

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation,
the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects
to their elders past and present.

May I also acknowledge the Honourable Robert McClelland MP, federal
Attorney-General, Professor David Weisbrot, President of the Australian Law
Reform Commission, Stepan Kerkyasharian AM, President of the Anti Discrimination
Board of NSW, Ross Ray QC, President of the Law Council of Australia, Mark
Hummerston, Assistant Privacy Commissioner, Chris Sidoti, former Human Rights
Commissioner and National Spokesperson for the Human Rights Council of
Australia, Sue Conde AM, President of UNIFEM Australia, Jeremy Jones AM,
recipient of the 2007 Human Rights Medal, and other distinguished guests.

Thank you all for coming here today to celebrate with us this special Human
Rights Day, marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights.

Sixty years ago today saw the historic commitment of all nations to
protecting the freedom, dignity and equality of all people.

The rights and freedoms which the Declaration proclaims remain as important
today as they were in 1948.

Human rights were then, and continue to be now, the foundation of a fair,
democratic, inclusive, and peaceful society. A society where we all can feel
safe and be protected from violence; where everyone has the opportunity to
participate in their community; where we all treat each other with respect.

This year we can celebrate significant progress towards a fairer Australia.

With us today are many individuals and groups that have worked tirelessly to
achieve social justice and equality. Your efforts are often insufficiently
recognised. You are working to create a society where human rights matter.

Australia has taken significant steps forward in the protection of human
rights in our country:

  • We were all profoundly moved by the National Apology to Indigenous peoples
    in February.
  • All Australian governments have committed to closing the gap in Indigenous
    life expectancy, with an unprecedented level of funding for Indigenous health. I
    recognise the efforts and influence of the Close the Gap campaign led by my
    colleague Tom Calma.
  • Discrimination against same-sex couples and their children has been removed
    from Commonwealth laws. This historic development was placed back on the agenda
    by the work of my colleague Graeme Innes, influenced by the continued advocacy
    of the gay and lesbian community and underscored by the commitment of the
    government to reform.
  • Australia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with
    Disabilities, commenced the development of a National Disability Strategy, and
    introduced standards to make sure that all Australians can access our public
    buildings. Again I recognise the work of Graeme Innes, his team and the
    countless disability organisations who have worked to get this momentous
  • Paid maternity leave is squarely back on the agenda, with Elizabeth
    Broderick forging a strong alliance with the business world and unions.
  • The immigration processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island have been
    closed and temporary protection visas have been abolished.
  • Internationally Australia is re-engaging with the United Nations.

We have much to be proud of. These achievements will make an
important difference to the lives of many individual Australians now, and even
more so, into the future.

But we still have a long way to go.

The fact is that Australian law does not always protect our human rights and
fundamental freedoms. Let’s take a few topical examples:

  • Measures to address abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory
    are vitally important, but aspects of the current intervention laws are racially
    discriminatory and were imposed without any proper engagement with the people
    affected. Measures that deny people basic dignity will not lead to sustainable
  • Our anti-terrorism laws allowed Dr Haneef to be unjustly detained for an
    indefinite period.
  • We still have mandatory immigration detention laws and offshore processing
    on Christmas Island.

When the rights of any person in Australia are
denied, we are all diminished.

I want to live in an Australia of which I can be uniformly proud. Where
freedom, equality and dignity matter. Where human rights matter.

I believe that we will have a society of this kind:

  • if those who make our laws are respectful of human rights
  • if those who make decisions under those laws are respectful of human
  • if we all are respectful of human rights and live by them each day in our
    interactions with others.

I believe that we need greater formal
protection of human rights in Australia. A federal charter of rights will send
an important message to those who make our laws, and to those who administer
them, of the rights we want them to protect and respect.

Earlier today, the federal Attorney-General announced that the government
will hold a national consultation about human rights. This consultation will be
a unique opportunity for all Australians to discuss with each other, and tell
our government, what human rights are important to us, and how we want our human
rights to be protected. I would like to congratulate the Attorney-General for
the leadership he has shown in making sure that the consultation became a

I will be working with all sectors of the community, including the federal
government and public service, business leaders, community organisations, and
disadvantaged communities to discuss how human rights impact on our everyday

Australia played a leading role in the development of the Universal
Declaration. Now, sixty years later, we have a chance to bring human rights
home. Let’s talk about our rights and our options for making sure that
they are better protected. Let’s continue to build a fair, inclusive,
tolerant and secure society, one where human rights matter.

Our challenge is to make 2009 the year in which we committed ourselves to
join all other western democracies and place freedom, dignity and equality at
the centre of our national life.