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Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO) Forum

Race Race Discrimination

Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO) Forum

Conrad Gershevitch, Director of HREOC’s Education and Partnerships Section, Race Discrimination Unit on behalf of Tom Calma who is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner.

Sydney, 18 June 2007


  • Commissioner Calma extends his apologies to you that he cannot be here in person.
  • I would like to acknowledge the Attorney-General, the Hon Philip Ruddock, the many distinguished representatives of faith communities, fellow plenary speakers, ladies and gentlemen.
  • On behalf of Commissioner Calma and myself I would like to pay our respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and their elders, the traditional owners and custodians of the lands upon which we are meeting today.
  • On behalf of HREOC I would like to begin by acknowledging the support of the Commonwealth government, and the Attorney-General in particular, for making the funding available to the Commission to work with communities across Australia under the National Action Plan.
  • Our approach to these projects is “whole-of-community” so as to help ensure Muslim Australians feel like respected and included members of our society. We believe that HREOC will bring a unique and valuable approach to these initiatives and we look forward to working with many of you in the years ahead.
  • As well as a Commissioner, Tom Calma would also like to speak today as an elder of the Kungarakan and Iwaidja tribal groups and wishes to affirm the important link between inter-faith activities and human rights which, to some, may appear a rather unusual partnership at first sight.
  • The spiritual dimensions of life are very important to all indigenous peoples, not just to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, although they do have unique forms of spirituality and belief.
  • Indigenous Australian spirituality takes many forms including adherence to a range of faiths brought to Australia since 1788. The majority of conversions have been to Christian denominations although since contact with Afghan camelliers and Indonesian pearl divers there has also been an interest in Islam.
  • Traditional Aboriginal spirituality is linked to the Dreaming, a time when ancestral spirits created the land, plants and animals. The Dreaming is not just a creation story but, like the written holy books, it defines social relations and behaviours, laws, land management and ethics. The oral traditions of the Dreaming have also informed Aboriginal languages, education and cultures.
  • While it is impossible to try and generalise about indigenous spiritualities across the world, there is, perhaps, a consistent thread weaving through them: the profound empathy; a defining relationship and desire to sustain the physical places that have nurtured the group.
  • This is a relationship that is deeply spiritual. It defines our relationships with each other, with our environment as custodians of land, it helps construct social relationships, gives meaning, purpose and hope to life, it’s our educator, it inspires us to be creative in dance, music, theatre, painting and other art forms.
  • I don’t want to dwell on this overly today. However, I would like to reflect that while it is now 40 years since the 1967 referendum which included the first Australians in the national census and effectively allowed us to become citizens in our own country, Indigenous Australians continue to experience severe disadvantage across all the social, economic, educational and health determinants of well-being.  
  • Many Aboriginal Australians are still living with the consequences of past policies that involved the enforced removal of children; they continue to fight for access to traditional lands and to rebuild communities and cultural pride.
  • So, how are human rights and religious belief connected? To start with freedom of religion, belief, thought and cultural practice as well as a recognition of the importance that culture plays as a fourth pillar of human development, is strongly and clearly articulated in various United Nations conventions and declarations to which Australia adheres.
  • These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) which both state, under their respective articles 18, that all people have a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
  • It is also worth noting the obligations that article 27 impose and the Human Rights Committee has stated, and I quote “… positive measures by States may also be necessary to protect the identity of a minority and the rights of its members to enjoy and develop their culture and to practise their religion, in community with the other members of the group.”
  • Not only are negative forms of discrimination prohibited, but active and positive measures may be required such as legally enforceable protections.
  • Other important declarations are the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001)
  • The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity states “…the defence of cultural diversity is an ethical imperative, inseparable from respect for human dignity. It implies a commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular the rights of…minorities and…indigenous peoples”.
  • It goes on to say that cultural diversity is as essential to humankind as biodiversity is to nature, it is a tool to avoid the clash of cultures and it is vital to manage development and to humanise the impacts of globalisation.
  • These international principles are enshrined in various federal laws. HREOC is responsible for administering much of this legislation, but also has a vital role in educating and promoting universal human rights principles of which respect, and freedoms relating to individuals’ religious and spiritual beliefs, are essential.
  • What I particularly want to emphasise today is a view often articulated in much of the international literature - the clear intersection between human rights, ecological sustainability and cultural diversity.
  • I do, in particular, want to make a special plea to you to consider the possibility that the cultural rights and activism of Indigenous people is not a “niche” issue, and it is not one we can marginalise as “noisy calls for special privileges”.
  • Instead, I believe these issues should be seen as “mainstream”, not least because they can also be seen as a gift from Indigenous peoples to the wider cause of human development, if not human survival.
  • The knowledge and intuitions of Indigenous people should be deeply resonant with us all. Sustainability on a planet showing signs of ecological stress must become the centrepiece of future policy and planning by both governments and business.
  • The recent announcement by the government to employ Indigenous custodians to manage the environment on their traditional lands is recognition of this relationship, is a good first step and is applauded.
  • There is a strong intuition amongst Indigenous peoples. Cultures evolve in physical environments. These cultures are lost if access to exemplars of cultural meaning – and this can be land or other sacred spaces - are destroyed or prohibited. Any such denials would be (or are) denials of human and cultural rights.
  • Gary Bauma expresses in his recent book Australian Soul that religion is about hope, I quote:

    “I hope because hope is essential to all (human) life. Without  hope we wither and die…The simple act of getting out of bed presupposes hope. Willingness to expend energy for self, for another…requires hope...

    The major work of religious and spiritual activity as meaning is to make sense of the past and paint a picture of the future such that action in the now is worth the effort... Religious meaning systems are characterised by assertions about how a greater… reality guarantees the future and takes, in varying degrees, an interest in the now, thus providing hope.” (page 18)

  • This helps us to appreciate the relationship between Indigenous spirituality and current social and cultural malaise.
  • If you destroy, or deny access to Indigenous peoples to their lands then you destroy their spirituality. Destroy their spiritual inner strength and you destroy their hope for the future as well as their meaning in the present and their understanding of the past.
  • But the price indigenous peoples the world over have paid, as amongst the most vulnerable, will be the price we will ALL have to pay if we do not heed the warnings of the total environment.
  • About half of the world’s population live in equatorial Africa, India, South-East Asia, the Pacific Islands and Central America. These regions include many of the world’s languages and some of its richest cultures.
  • What will happen when these regions become uninhabitable for humans? when the crops fail to grow? when the coastal cities or islands are inundated? when the great rivers dry up? when the monsoons no longer come?
  • What tragedies will we face? It will not just be unparalleled human suffering, economic and ecological disaster, it will also mean cultural annihilation. All the peoples of the world will experience what indigenous peoples have experienced - and we don’t want that to happen to others.
  • What can be learnt from indigenous peoples about these global challenges? This is very clearly stated in the Indigenous Peoples’ Seattle Declaration (1999) which concludes:

    “…Indigenous peoples…are the ones most adversely affected by globalization…However, we believe it is also us who can offer viable alternatives…Our sustainable lifestyles and cultures, traditional knowledge, cosmologies, spirituality, values of collectivity, reciprocity, respect and reverence for Mother Earth, are crucial in the search for a transformed society where justice, equity, and sustainability will prevail”

  • Some commentators in the media try to occasionally paint cultural rights as “dirty words” - a legalistic excuse to allow harm to be perpetrated by those who claim their actions can be sanctioned as cultural practice.
  • I don’t agree with this. Rights to cultural participation and expression are vitally important, but they can never be used as a justification to inflict harm on the innocent or exploit the vulnerable.
  • In conclusion, I would like to try and draw some of these threads together and relate them to the issues at hand today. Human rights and freedoms of religion, of belief and the right to cultural expression are clearly enmeshed and are identified and protected in various international declarations and conventions.
  • The right to a life worth living demands a sustainable physical   and human ecology. That has been demonstrated at great cost by the experience of the world’s indigenous peoples time and again
  • Let us consider the critical importance that religion plays in the cultural and social lives of many people. Let us recognise living sustainably has both a utilitarian as well as a spiritual dimension.
  • Finally, let us use human rights as a critical tool to build understanding and respect between peoples, cultures and faiths as well as to plan for a sustainable future for humanity in all its rich cultural, religious, spiritual, intellectual and racial diversity.

On behalf of Tom Calma, thank you