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Human Rights Day address: Chris Sidoti (1996)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Human Rights Day address

Speech delivered by Chris
Sidoti, Human Rights Commissioner, Centrepoint Convention Centre, Sydney,
15 December 1996

Forty eight years
ago this Tuesday, on December 10 1948, the United Nations General Assembly
adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was
a response to the trauma that many of the world’s nations had experienced
in World War II. The trauma was especially strong among the nations of
Europe, particularly because of the Holocaust, but it was also evident
in East Asia, South Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific.

When towards the
end of the War the international community agreed on the formation of
the United Nations it included among the functions of the new organisation
the promotion and protection of human rights. This was seen as an important
element of international peace and security, the United Nations’
primary responsibility. There was a commitment to human rights in the
United Nations Charter but more was needed. So the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights was drafted, negotiated and finally on December 10 adopted
by the General Assembly.

A recent statement
on human rights by the Australian Bah ...’i Community describes the
significance of the Declaration well.

The Universal Declaration
of Human Rights enshrines ideals and values with ancient roots in the
cultures and traditions of all peoples. The achievement of the Declaration
was to bring together those traditions and to recognise that 'human'
rights are, by their nature universal, inalienable and indivisible:
that they belong to all people. They are a standard of achievement which
the world acknowledges as the minimum to which every human being is

This statement sees
the Declaration as arising from 'the cultures and traditions of all peoples'.
Certainly I find in our Australian culture and traditions three fundamental
values that are strongly reflected in the Declaration: the equality of
all people, the right of all to a fair go and acceptance of people on
the basis of who they are. The Prime Minister has described us rightly
as 'a tolerant society ... a compassionate society'. We have not always
lived up to these values, these ideals, but they are present in our tradition
and continue to inspire us.

In observing the
anniversary, it is important to do three things: to celebrate achievement,
to recognise and acknowledge failure and to make commitments for the future.

Celebrating achievement

Much has been accomplished
for human rights since the Universal Declaration was proclaimed in 1948.
We must remember and celebrate that.

During that time
we have experienced the development of a comprehensive body of international
human rights law. The Declaration was only the beginning of that. It was
followed by stronger bindings statements of rights in the two International
Covenants, one on Civil and Political Rights and the other on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights. These treaties create obligations on nations.
They are not just statements of aspirations. I find it significant that
they are called 'Covenants', a term of solemn commitment with almost religious

In addition there
are other international human rights instruments: treaties that apply
for the benefit of particular groups or regions or that cover particular
activities, declarations, principles, rules and standards.

Parallelling the
development of international human rights law has been the development
of international human rights mechanisms to monitor and at times enforce
that law. The United Nations and its organs, particularly the Commission
on Human Rights, are the primary mechanisms. I have been encouraged to
see in recent years the expansion of the United Nations’ peace keeping
role to the prevention of gross violations of human rights. There is also
The Hague War Crimes Tribunal which in the last few days has convicted
and sentenced the first war criminal in almost fifty years. The Tribunal
may well become what we have needed for a long time, a permanent international
criminal court to try war crimes, crimes against humanity and gross human
rights violations.

The most successful
advances for human rights have been achieved because of the growth of
popular movements that support and are supported by international human
rights standards. These movements over the last ten years have achieved
the democratisation of Eastern Europe and the republics of the former
Soviet Union, the overthrow of military regimes in Central and South America
and in East Asia, pressure for economic, social and cultural rights, including
the right to development and successes in the action against racism, most
notably the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa.

There are many achievements
we can point to in Australia. The Prime Minister recently described some
of the most important of them.

There are few
nations in the world that can boast such a record of democracy, such
a record of fair treatment and such a record of harmonious blending
together of people of different racial backgrounds than Australia. Australia
remains one of the very few nations of the world that has been continuously
democratic for the whole of this century. It pioneered many liberal
reforms in many areas. Its record of achievement in integrating into
a very harmonious and united nation people from all parts of the world
is something of which all of us can be immensely proud and something
to which all of us have made a special contribution.

In Australia too
we have drafted and adopted laws to protect human rights and anti-discrimination
laws. This has been difficult to do in a legal tradition that does not
have a history of legal protection of human rights. Now even our courts
are calling on international human rights law to develop Australian law,
as we saw most significantly in the High Court’s Mabo decision
on native title to land.

The Mabo decision
itself is a cause for celebration. It overturned two centuries of legal
lies by recognising the legal rights of Indigenous peoples for the first
time, fundamentally altering the balance of power between Indigenous and
other Australians.

There are many other
Australian achievements for human rights since the Declaration. There
is greater respect for self-determination of Indigenous Australians and
recognition of their status as citizens. There has been an end to the
death penalty, military conscription and physical punishment of children
in almost all schools. The White Australia Policy has been abolished,
leading to a society that is richer economically, socially and culturally.

Here too effective
human rights institutions have been established. In fact December 10 is
also the fifteenth anniversary of the first Human Rights Commission and
the tenth anniversary of its successor, the present Human Rights and Equal
Opportunity Commission. Under Australia’s federal human rights legislation
the Commission and its predecessors have handled almost 28 000 complaints,
primarily without monetary costs to complainants and the majority securing
resolutions acceptable to both parties. The Commission has undertaken
inquiries that have both brought significant (even fundamental) changes
in law and policy and increased community understanding of human rights.
They include inquiries relating to homeless children, people with mental
illness, racist violence, women’s employment and over-award payments,
compulsory retirement and its two current inquiries into children and
legal process and the separation on Indigenous children from their families.
The continued existence of the Commission has been in jeopardy at times.
At the 1987 and 1990 elections, for example, the then Opposition was committed
to its abolition. But it is now accepted by all major political parties
as an essential part of the institutions of Australian democracy.

Recognising and
acknowledging failure

Celebration of achievement
is essential but it is not enough. We must also recognise and acknowledge
failure. This is part of knowing our history as a whole, knowing the full
truth and not some selective version of it. Knowing the past is necessary
for knowing the present and planning for the future. What business can
succeed if past performances are not objectively examined and analysed,
weaknesses identified and addressed and strengths reinforced? If that
is not done the business will soon be stagnant and then bankrupt. If we
do not subject our history to the same critical analysis we will soon
find ourselves intellectually stagnant and morally bankrupt as a nation.
This requires a clear sighted view of history. We need to judge our history
and to remember that in time history will judge us.

What then have been
the failures since the Universal Declaration was adopted? The international
ones are obvious. There have been many recurrences of genocide. The most
obvious examples are Rwanda, Cambodia and in Europe former Yugoslavia,
but these are not the only ones. There have been persistent human rights
violations by undemocratic or semi-democratic regimes. We have had continued
persecution based on race or ethnicity, religion, politics, gender and
sexual orientation - the Bah ...’i community in Iran has been one of
the victims. Poverty, disease, illiteracy and homelessness remain.

We must recognise
our continuing failures at home too. Some have international dimensions.
Australia’s development assistance has declined to about 0.3% of
our gross domestic product, less than half the level the United Nations
has set and Australia has promised to reach. We have a mixed and inconsistent
record of addressing human rights violations in other countries. Our shortcomings
are purely domestic issues: the treatment of children, unemployment and
homelessness, the abuse of older Australians.

Our most significant
failures however all seem to have a racial basis. Indigenous people are
still the most disadvantaged by any measure. Their treatment is the wrong-doing
on which today’s Australia is built. Racism is a continuing stain
that has discredited much of our history and continues to infect our present.
The current racist episode has caused great damage to many of our fellow
Australians and others who share this country with us and indeed to our
society itself. In recent months the number of complaints of race discrimination
has reached record levels. Our Commission has been told of racist abuse
and violence, often directed against children. A Queensland woman whose
husband is of Asian descent told us of her children being abused on the
streets. A NSW Aboriginal woman told us of her son being assaulted while
abused for being Aboriginal. Reports of racism in school playgrounds are
especially worrying. Queensland National Party Senator Bill O’Chee
described the experience of schoolyard racism in a moving speech in the
Senate on the day the bipartisan resolution was passed. Victorian Liberal
Party backbencher Peter Nugent said that a school principal in his electorate
has described racism in his school for the first time in over a decade.
On the day Senator O’Chee spoke my own twelve year old daughter was
told by a school friend 'your father is a bastard - he sticks up for Abos
all the time'.

The Executive Council
of Australian Jewry recently published its 1995-96 report on anti-Semitism
in Australia. The Council was notified of 275 incidents of anti-Semitism
in the year to the end of September 1996. During that year the number
of most serious incidents was up 26% on the preceding year, incidents
involving personal violence up 29%, anti-Semitic telephone calls up 86%,
to the greatest number in any year since 1990-91 (Gulf War), and racist
graffiti up 10%.

Much of the recent
racism has been justified as the exercise of free speech. Of course debate
on matters of public importance is acceptable provided it is fair, truthful,
sensitive and tolerant. But what we have been experiencing has not been
debate. Debate requires logic, facts and rational argument. We have heard
not debate but pure racism.

The bipartisan parliamentary
motion on racism, immigration and Indigenous affairs was the turning point
in this latest episode. The Prime Minister described that motion as a
statement of 'some common Australian values which are held by all Australians,
irrespective of whether they were born in this country and irrespective
of whether their ancestors came from the British Isles, Europe, the Middle
East or Asia'. The motion was welcome and unfortunately necessary but
it will take quite some time to heal the wounds our community has suffered
this year.

Recognising and acknowledging
past and present failures is not for the sake of making people feel guilty
for other people’s actions. It is about accepting responsibility
for today’s society and for tomorrow’s, making the commitment
to change. Last month the NSW Parliament passed a bipartisan motion similar
to that passed by the federal Parliament. In the debate the Premier, Mr
Carr, said of the policies towards Aboriginal peoples:

It was all done
in the name of the State and in the name of this Parliament. That is
why......I reaffirm in this place, formally and solemnly as Premier,
on behalf of the government and people of NSW, our apology to Aboriginal
people....I extend this apology as an essential step in the process
of reconciliation

Commitment to
the future

Observing anniversaries,
celebrating achievement and acknowledging failure are meaningless unless
they are accompanied by a commitment to the future. Whether the past was
good or bad we cannot change it. But we can and must change the present
and together create a just and peaceful future for our country and in
our world.

In the same speech
Premier Carr said,

The claim which
the Aboriginal people....make on Australia is exactly the claim we Australians
of the fifth or first generation make for ourselves, no more, no less.
It is the right to belong to Australia, in full dignity, worth and equality
and justice.

This is the claim
of every human being on all other human beings, on our governments and
parliaments, on public and private institutions and organisations. It
is the claim to have our human rights fully respected, protected and promoted,
the claim to enjoy what our Australian tradition espouses: equality, a
fair go, acceptance.

The dimensions of
this claim are clear and the priorities are obvious:

  • true national
    reconciliation between Indigenous and other Australians
  • full acceptance,
    belonging, for all who share this country, on the basis of equality
  • opportunities
    to contribute - through work, the arts, political and social participation
    - to the development of our community, our country and our planet
  • access to education,
    health care, housing and other services for individual well-being and
    national advancement
  • membership of
    the international community of peoples, sharing responsibility for the
    common good of all humanity.

These are the elements
of the commitment for the future we are called to make today as we celebrate
the 48th Human Rights Day.

Other anniversaries
approach, the centenary of the Australian federation in 2001, the half
centenary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998. We look
forward to being able to say on those occasions that we are well advanced
in meeting our commitments.

updated 1 December 2001

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