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Launch of Human Rights Week, Tasmania

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Launch of Human Rights Week, Tasmania

Graeme Innes AM

1 December 2008

Hobart Town Hall


I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land on which we
meet, and pay respect to their elders past and present.

I’d also thank the Human Rights Week Organising Committee here in
Tasmania, and congratulate them on their 20th Anniversary. Human Rights Week has
been successfully and continuously marked with a number of events each year over
the past 20 years in Tasmania. And that in itself, is a remarkable achievement.

I'd like to mention another cause for celebration this month.

60 years ago, in the wake of the death and destruction of two world wars, the
cruelty and inhumanity of the Holocaust, the assassination of Gandhi in India,
and the beginning of apartheid in South Africa, a glimmer of hope formed at the
Palais de Chaillot in Paris - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On 10
December 1948, the UDHR was adopted by the member states of the newly formed
United Nations. Members from Afghanistan to China, from Denmark to Haiti, put
aside cultural, religious, political and historical differences, and agreed on a
list of fundamental rights held by all human beings.

The Declaration sought to create a new system of rights protection; a system
whereby certain rights could not be violated, regardless of where they occurred.

It laid the foundation for a system of rights which are universal,
indivisible, and interdependent. In other words, the Declaration does not
differentiate between civil and political rights on one side, and economic,
social, and cultural rights on the other. In order to properly enjoy one set of
rights, you must also be able to enjoy the other. For example, you can't
exercise your right to life, to freedom of thought, or to vote, if you have no
food, housing or basic health.

The Declaration this year celebrates its 60th, its diamond, anniversary -
making it quite a symbolic celebration. The diamond, because of its remarkable
hardness and clarity, reigns supreme among all gems in its representation of
power, strength, brilliance and unparalleled beauty.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that people all over the world
spend exorbitant amounts of money on diamonds.  Yet, what they are
actually paying for is something that is made of one of the most common elements
on earth - carbon. Carbon is a substance that can be found in all living
organisms, including people, animals and plants, and in many types of
rock.  The graphite stick in a pencil, for example, is composed of carbon
just like diamonds. Diamonds are formed hundreds of kilometres below the earth's
surface - the same earth that we all share.

Diamonds are created from a common element on shared land.

In a similar way, the Declaration applies, and is shared by everyone all over
the world. It places positive obligations on states to provide all persons
within their jurisdiction certain basic rights, regardless of their race,
colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social
origin, property, birth, or other status. Without us, humans, there would be no
need for the Declaration. It bestows rights upon us, and duties upon states.
Seen in this way, we as human beings can be seen as the common element of the
Declaration.

As the preamble states:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and
inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of
freedom, justice and peace in the world...."

Another interesting fact about diamonds is that they are the hardest natural
material known to man. Likewise, the Declaration has weathered some tough times.
Just ahead of the advent of the Cold War, the Declaration managed to emerge
successfully from the complex and politically hazardous processes of the United
Nations. In 1948, the Declaration had not managed to achieve full recognition
from the communist and certain middle eastern countries, but at least they had
not voted against it. 48 nations voted affirmatively, none against, and eight
abstained. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, and Eleanor
Roosevelt received a standing ovation from the General Assembly.

Now I realise that with the analogy of diamonds comes the thought of human
rights violations that sometimes occur in their extraction - often referred to
as blood diamonds. A blood diamond is one mined in a zone and sold to finance an
insurgency, invading army's war efforts, or a warlord's activity. The fact that
such violations still occur shows that the Declaration still has a vital role to
play.

Unfortunately, the Declaration’s presence over the past 60 years has
not eliminated human rights violations, overseas or in Australia. But what it
has done is provide a platform from which other human rights instruments have
grown, and a global recognition that such violations are not, and should not, be
tolerated.

The Declaration remains the most famous, and most important, of all human
rights frameworks in the world. It has since become the foundation of the modern
human rights system, or in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt 'the international
Magna Carta'.

Notably, Australia was one of eight nations involved in drafting the
Universal Declaration. As President of the UN General Assembly in 1948, Dr Herb
Evatt, oversaw the adoption of the Universal Declaration.

In ensuring an Australia where everyone enjoys their full human rights, the
Declaration is as important today as it was in 1948. It remains the driving
force behind all human rights standards.

Unfortunately, Australia's record shows that its governments have failed to
protect the rights of the most vulnerable.

Turn your mind back to the images of children, and other immigration
detainees, sewing their lips in protest, the Tampa and children overboard
crises, the stories of Cornelia Rau, David Hicks and Dr Haneef. Think also of
the stolen generations, the 17 year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and
non-Indigenous Australians, and the overriding of the Racial Discrimination Act
in implementing the Northern Territory intervention.

The government has committed itself to holding a national consultation about
how human rights are protected in Australia. We expect that this consultation
will be announced next week, and will be held over the first six months of 2009.
Human rights affect us all: everyone, everywhere, everyday. This will be a
chance for us to tell our government what rights we think are important, and how
we think they should be protected.

The Australian Human Rights Commission supports a federal charter of rights -
a national human rights law for Australia.

Australia is the only Western democracy without a national human rights law.
If Australia wants to be an international leader in human rights - as Evatt was
60 years ago - we need to address this gap. Numerous examples, right here on
Australian shores, show that just trusting that governments will do the right
thing when it comes to human rights does not always work.

The examples I referred to before may have been much different if we had a
federal charter of rights.

The mandatory detention of children asylum seekers may not have occurred,
saving these children from the ongoing impact of what was sometimes years of
detention. The overriding of the Racial Discrimination Act in the northern
territory would have been the subject of greater debate and scrutiny, if we had
a federal charter of rights.

The coming year presents a unique opportunity for Australia to form its own
little gem. After all, ‘a diamond is a chunk of coal that is made good
under pressure'.1 We have the opportunity to work together - perhaps under
immense pressure and opposition - and develop a charter of rights for Australia,
that will protect and promote the human rights of all Australians. We are the
common element - like the carbon which transforms into a diamond - that can make
a sustaining change to the human rights environment in Australia.

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to
home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.
Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in;
the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.
Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal
opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have
meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen
action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the
larger world.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

See Also