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Foundation Dinner ‘International Understanding’

Race Race Discrimination

Foundation Dinner

International Understanding

Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

International House, University of New South Wales
20 July 2012


Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you tonight.  This is of course a rare opportunity, to address a prestigious group such as this, and also with so many students, representing I understand more than 80 countries from across the world.

I would like to begin by first acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation, and to pay my respects to elders past and present.  In so doing, I am reminded that much of my work deals with racism, and the racism that impacts on Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is one that is rooted in historical dispossession.  I hope for a constructive dialogue around constitutional reform, which will recognise more clearly our First Nations peoples.

I would also like to acknowledge members of the International House community including: the Chairman of the Board of Directors, International House Limited, Dr Ahmed as well as Mrs Parker.  And to the Board of Directors, Consuls General and Consulate representatives, Friends of International House, residents and ex-residents.

I was delighted recently to be reminded that the history of the International House movement commenced with the support of Rotary International. I recently had cause to meet a number of the Rotary Districts in International House in Melbourne, and had not fully appreciated that connection until beginning to think about what I might usefully share with you tonight.

I am aware that this college has been in place since 1968, and that you offer a multicultural college for more than 166 senior undergraduate and postgraduate residents from over 80 countries, including Australia. This is entirely fitting when we think about our own multicultural makeup as a country.  How wonderful to see it reflected in an institution as prestigious as this!

I note that your mission is to ‘promote experiential learning, personal growth and cross understanding between students drawn from different educational, social and ethnic backgrounds.’  I commend you for this mission and note that for those of you fortunate enough to be part of this environment, that you have much to receive and to offer!

The need for cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect has long been recognised, and lies at the heart of the International House movement across the world.  It is something that we can learn from and populate across the community, as cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect are foundations for a true understanding of equality for peoples, irrespective of their race, nationality or ethnicity.

This is the basis of my role as Race Discrimination Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

I am often reminded of that famous Winston Churchill quotation:

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. 

In my role, it is the latter that I take as my challenge.

The mission of the Australian Human Rights Commission is to lead the promotion and protection of human rights in Australia by making human rights values part of everyday life and language, and empowering all people to understand and exercise their human rights. The Commission also does this by: working with individuals, community, business and government to inspire action; keeping government accountable to national and international human rights standards; and securing an Australian charter of rights.

Our statutory responsibilities include investigating and conciliating complaints of alleged discrimination and breaches of human rights recognised under international conventions to which Australia is a party, and to promote and protect these human rights generally.

Under the complaint handling function, the Commission has the authority to investigate and conciliate complaints of alleged discrimination and human rights breaches lodged under a number of federal laws, including:

  • the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986
  • the Age Discrimination Act 2004
  • the Disability Discrimination Act 1992
  • the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and
  • the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

I am appointed under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. This Act gives effect to Australia's obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and its main aims include:

  • promoting equality before the law for all persons, regardless of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin
  • making discrimination against people on the basis of their race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin unlawful, and
  • providing protection against racial hatred.

I have undertaken some specific work that is looking at the human rights of international students.  This arose out of some of the negative experiences that have been reported in the past, but also because Australia has undergone significant reform in the regulation and policy development of international education.  These reforms, in my view, would be enhanced and further developed if we had a simple statement about what the basic human rights principles are that should guide the international student experience in Australia.

We must remember a number of things about international students.

The first is that basic human rights underpin all of the work that we do with international students. These human rights principles and standards range from the principles of non-discrimination and equality, to rights relating to housing, safety, employment and education.

The second point I would like to make is that the international education experience, in the human rights context, relates both to the individual human rights protections of international students and also, the reciprocity of the international education experience. That is, what many as international students can expect to receive when they come to Australia to live and to study, and also what they bring to Australia. International students and their families enrich the fabric of Australian society in a number of ways, including through:

  • enhancing Australia’s cultural diversity
  • fostering a greater understanding and respect among people and societies here in Australia and the countries from which they come
  • contributing to economic growth through their involvement in education, their participation in daily life in local communities and their employment, and
  • growing the skills and ideas they bring to whatever sector they interact with.

And the third key point I would like to make is that international students are entitled to the protections of domestic laws in Australia. We know, particularly through our consultation with international student representative bodies, that international students are not always aware of what their rights and protections here in Australia are and what pathways exist to address potential violations of those rights.

In a sense, the experience of international students should be one that is about an intercultural exchange as well as an education exchange, the very principles upon which the International House movement is grounded.

While the vast majority of international students report high levels of satisfaction with their living and studying experience in Australia, we know that some international students continue to experience challenges that relate to economic insecurity, threats to safety, language and cultural barriers, social isolation and issues related to accessing services and information. Some international students also experience discrimination, exploitation or disadvantage due to their race, culture, religion, language, sex or other attributes. And sometimes, the challenges they face are as a result of a combination of these grounds and factors.

I am working to try to identify principles that will help us ensure the best mutual experience where international education is in play. 

Many international students have family members who live with them during part or all of their stay in Australia, and we also have to take this into account.

Human rights are inherent to all people, regardless of nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language or any other status. Everyone is entitled to human rights, without discrimination. Human rights are often expressed and guaranteed in treaties or general principles. While some human rights are absolute and as a consequence, cannot be limited for any reason, reasonable limits may be placed on a number of rights and freedoms.

International students do experience limitations in certain areas such as hours they are permitted to work, due to their visa conditions and requirements. While recognising these limitations, it is important that international students are aware of the rights and protections they are entitled to, to ensure they enjoy the full benefits of their education and living experience in Australia.

Promoting and protecting human rights forms the basis for enhancing the health, safety and well-being of international students and their families living in Australia, as well as preventing or addressing unlawful discrimination.

Human rights inform many of the experiences of international students in Australia and include: having an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions; liberty and security of person; the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including recognition of the specific health care needs and educational information for women such as in the area of family planning; employment; and privacy.[1]

State party obligations to safeguard human rights in the political, economic, social, cultural and other fields of public life so that they are ensured to everyone without racial discrimination are outlined in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This Convention contains principles of equality and non-discrimination. While the Convention permits distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, Article 1(1) of Convention defines racial discrimination in a way that ensures that the prohibition of discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of one’s ethnic and national origin, extending discrimination beyond a limited biological concept of race.  These obligations assist us to understand how to enhance the experience of international students and to ensure their maximum experience of health, safety and well-being.

We want their experience to reflect the level of safety, security and well-being as those experienced by all members of the community.

I recently had cause to join a study tour of Turkey and to visit many of the ancient ruins in that country.  I was particularly taken with Ephesus, which many of you will have heard, if not visited. 

Over the centuries, Ephesus has been subject to conquests, to transformations.  Its origins are in the Bronze Age of 1500 BC, but habitations occurred through the Greek age the Archaic the Classical period around 78 BC and then through to Hellenistic, Roman Byszantine and then Turkish eras. 

It was interesting to see the ruins, of which only about 20% are visible and fully excavated.  Yet even with this small amount, you can see the flow of the ancient city, the stadium that seated 20,000 people, the beautiful temple and library and the public latrines – for the men only.

It gave me cause to reflect on why, so often, we fight the outsider and fear them – in both ancient times and now.  Yet for one period in the history of Ephesus, this was not the case.  During the Classical period, around 400 BC, where during the thrust and parry of the Peloponnesian Wars, the daily life of Ephesus was not affected that much. They showed the ideal attributes of a modern democracy, by welcoming strangers into their communities, valuing education, becoming a bastion of women’s rights and encouraging women to be artists in addition to more traditional roles.

Around the same time, give or take a 100 years, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said:

Much learning does not teach understanding.

I believe this to be true.

Building understanding is a challenge.

I hope that my work as Race Discrimination Commissioner will assist in encouraging the sense of equality and inclusion that was shown in Ephesus during that period in history and will also assist in encouraging a greater sense of understanding about our cultural diversity.  I hope that the experience that you all have, being part of this International House community will assist in this challenge. I hope that we as a country, will continually grow in our capacity to understand and encourage such diversity.  And just as Ephesus was a bastion of inclusion and equality thousands of years ago, so should we be today.

I would like to conclude by telling you about another piece of work that I am engaged with. This is the development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy for Australia. I lead a Partnership Forum to undertake this work, and at the end of August, we will launch the Strategy and an Anti-Racism Campaign. 

This is important and unique. Just as we feel that there is benefit in explicitly articulating the human rights and protections for international students, so too do we think it is important to ensure that if we are trying to address racism, we should explicitly name it. Much of this emphasis is about building understanding, as racism is poorly understood by those who do not experience it, and harshly felt by those who do.

There is an element of braveness in conducting a national strategy, because it means that we acknowledge that racism does exist – as it does in all countries.  The fear of difference that we saw in Ephesus’ long and ancient history is replicated in modern days, in modern ways – all the way through to the misuse of modern technologies to enact cyber-racism.  The Anti-Racism Campaign will put racism on the agenda, will encourage people to talk about it and to ensure that we are vigilant as a country in preventing it!

We are asking organisations to endorse this Strategy.  The Campaign invites organisations to undertake self-identified activities over the next three years in support of the Campaign. The steps in the process involve endorsing the Campaign, promoting the message and objective of the Campaign through your networks, and identifying a range of activities that will form part of the campaign over the next three years.  It would be great to see International House as supporting this Campaign, and indeed to have a prestigious and established university such as the University of New South Wales endorsing the Campaign would show great leadership.  I hope I hear from you.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you today.


[1] These are found in: Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Article 12(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Articles 10(h) and 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Articles 23(1), (2) and (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as a number of International Labour Organization conventions that set out standards relating to employment, decent work and fair treatment, including the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958; and Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.