Human Rights, Multiculturalism and Indigenous
Speech by Mr Tom Calma
The National Race
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Reconciliation Strategy Launch
Wednesday 30th July 2008, from 10.30am-
Multicultural Development Association 512 Stanley St, South
I would like to begin today by acknowledging the traditional owners of the
land we meet on today, the Yuggera people.
I also would like to acknowledge the presence of Aunty Ruth Link and Mr
Fraser Power the President of the Multicultural Development Association,
distinguished guests and all of my Indigenous Aunties and Uncles, brothers and
sisters here today.
And thank you Lorella for you efforts to keep me informed of developments and
thank you to the members, clients and workers of the Multicultural Development
Association for inviting me to address you on this occasion.
I'm glad to be here today to launch the Reconciliation Strategy of the
Multicultural Development Association for two reasons. First, occasions like
this one allow me, as both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social
Justice Commissioner and the Race Discrimination Commissioner, to share with you
my thoughts about Indigenous rights and multiculturalism. Indigenous rights and
the rights of people from all backgrounds to participate on an equal footing in
public life, are together, the core concerns of my respective portfolios.
And second, I'm also glad because, it is important that we gather, as
active members of the wider Australian civil society, to share ideas and
exchange models of practice to improve mutual understanding between different
communities in our society.
As the gathering in this room confirms, Australia by the day, is becoming
more diverse. I'm excited by the prospects of this diversity and proud
to be working on ensuring that members of all cultures are proudly calling
Australia home. A home that is inclusive – a home in which cultural,
ethnic and racial backgrounds are mutually respected.
However, with all the goodwill and the good work in countries like
Australia, the challenge of diversity could not be properly meet without first
taking into consideration the rights and concerns of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples – the First Nations Peoples of Australia.
Your Reconciliation Strategy is an acknowledgement of this primary
And in the spirit of reconciliation, I've been asked today to speak on
the inter-section between multiculturalism and Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander history and contemporary issues.
I would like to start by placing this inter-section in the wider context of
human rights to make clear the positive outcomes of employing the imperatives
and instruments of human rights to shape a fair and just Australia.
I do this to place the intersection between Indigenous issues and
multiculturalism in the contexts of both universal values and concrete everyday
work practices; because as I said last month in a conference about social
inclusion; 'practicing human rights in our day-to-day activities are a way
of living, and working, that opens people to a more socially inclusive
life.' Social work and community work play a significant role in
advancing inclusive ways of living in Australia.
As many of you are aware, human rights in Australia are both codified legal
instruments and a moral values system that derive their inspirations from the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and the subsequent UN declarations, conventions and
In the passed 60 years the framework of Human Rights has become more
elaborate, robust and responsive to current needs and realities. Human rights
are often classified as first, second and third generations.
First generation human rights are civil and political rights that include the
right to vote, freedom from discrimination, fair treatment and freedom of speech
Second generation human rights: are economic, social and cultural rights,
like the right to education, the right for adequate housing, the right to health
Third generation human rights are collective rights, like the right for
self-determination and development.
For Indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees the three generations of human
rights are indispensable inspirations and tools in the struggle to achieve
equality and recognition.
Echoing the first generation of human rights, in the mid twentieth century,
stubborn, determined movements in Australia led the charge to advocate the
political and civil rights of Indigenous peoples which had culminated in the
official granting of the right to vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Today, the struggle for the first generation of Human Rights is still taking
place, through the advocacy for upholding the basic rights of all people living
in Australia. The establishment of The Royal Commission into Aboriginal
Deaths in Custody and the call for a charter of rights are ample examples of
Many of you here are actually involved, at large, in achieving the second
generation of human rights through striving to implement and develop more
For example, making submissions regarding adequate housing for refugees,
calling for proper education for culturally and linguistically diverse members
of the community are all part of instilling the second generation of human
rights in the context of everyday work practice.
The Reconciliation Strategy that you are launching today has strong affinity
with the third generation of human rights. This strategy is an excellent
example of a community development approach that focuses on ways to work with
different communities to increase their capacity and ability to find their own
authentic and creative solutions to the challenges of being together. More
significantly, the Reconciliation Strategy acknowledges the primary status of
the first people of this land and their inalienable collective rights.
To me, multiculturalism, as a policy framework, mirrors the ethos of human
rights. Last year in an effort to counter the previous government's
relentless assault on multiculturalism, I released a position paper outlining
the intersection between human rights and the policy of multiculturalism.
I also, in the position paper, made sure to articulate the relationship
between multiculturalism and the rights of Indigenous peoples.
This is, in a nutshell, what I have said in the position paper about
Multiculturalism within a human rights framework;
Multiculturalism, as a policy of recognition and equity, complements the
ethos, standards and obligations contained in the various international
instruments on cultural, linguistic and religious diversity.
There are a variety of international human rights documents and treaties that
deal with issues relevant to multiculturalism: these documents also relate to
racial and religious discrimination, the right to cultural, linguistic and
religious freedom, cultural diversity and minority rights.
The International human rights framework on cultural diversity has
increasingly become more detailed, clear and strong in articulating the reality
of the contemporary world and endorsing multiculturalism to respond to cultural,
linguistic and ethnic diversity.
The starting point for this development is the notion of equality and
non-discrimination contained in the International Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
The Convention defines racial discrimination as: Any distinction, exclusion,
restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic
origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the
recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and
fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other
field of public life.
Article 2(1) of the Convention extends the prohibition on discrimination by
creating a positive duty on States to develop a policy that seeks to eliminate
racism and promote understanding among all races. It clearly sets out the aims
of such a policy and how it should be implemented.
Australia's multiculturalism policy can be seen as a response to the
positive duty articulated in the Convention.
Here in Australia, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 responds directly to
Australia's obligations under the International Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). It confers on HREOC
specific responsibilities, one of which is to promote understanding, tolerance
and friendship among racial and ethnic groups and makes racial discrimination
and racial vilification unlawful.
This understanding of multiculturalism within the human rights framework
allows us to articulate how the rights of Indigenous peoples, and other minority
groups in Australia, relate to each other and how they are differentiated.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, like other minority
groups, risk being excluded from sharing the economic, social and cultural
benefits of being a citizen of Australia. Multiculturalism, as a policy of
recognition and equity, can assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
in gaining access to these benefits.
The 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia clearly states that
multiculturalism is 'applicable not just to immigrants, but to all
Australians, including the Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Also, the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia assumes that both
groups share the quest for the recognition of their right to cultural identity,
the right to social justice and the need for economic participation.
Despite these parallels, multiculturalism is an inadequate response to the
history of dispossession and exclusion that Indigenous peoples have faced in
Australia, for the following reasons:
Firstly, the devastation caused by policies aimed at colonising Australia,
including the policy of assimilation to 'breed out' Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Australians, were far worse in their severity and scale
than the systemic and individual discriminatory practices used against migrants
and their families seeking to settle in Australia.
Secondly, the claims for social justice and human rights by Indigenous
peoples originate from a different source, both historically and in
international law, than claims by other minority groups in Australia.
Indigenous peoples claim not only recognition of their rights as citizens of
Australia but also as Australia's first peoples. This claim has a
specific history and relationship to land and territory which in turn gives rise
to distinct cultural, social, economic and political rights. These rights are
best articulated through the articles contained in the Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples, especially Article 3 that asserts the right of Indigenous
peoples to self determination.
I would like to pause for a moment to recognise Uncle Jim Hagan who is with
us today. Uncle Jim was the first Indigenous Australian to address the United
Nations and also has been involved in the struggle for Indigenous Rights for
For example in relation to the right to enjoy one's culture, Article 27
of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has made
it clear that for indigenous peoples, the right to enjoy culture may consist in
a way of life which is closely associated with territory and the use of
It can be seen from an international human rights view point that while the
recognition of culture is a measure of equality in the case of ethnic
communities, the claim of culture in the case of Indigenous peoples is more
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians the claim is for
recognition as a people, with all the related political and economic rights.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians social justice implies
restorative justice through a proper reconciliation treaty that acknowledges the
historical wrongs done to Aboriginal peoples.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians the question of
economic and political justice is about ensuring that future Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander generations have control over their land, their lives and
their destiny with sufficient resources to fulfil their potentials as the first
people of this country.
In the case of multiculturalism, recognition is largely about inclusiveness,
it is about inclusive social policies that allow people from different cultures
to participate and contribute to the wider society on an equal footing.
In the case of indigenous peoples, recognition is about acknowledgement of
the central place of Indigenous peoples in this society, acknowledgement of the
injustice and the harm that still befalls us as a result. Acknowledgement of
Indigenous rights is a primary step to put in place comprehensive transitional
processes to enable the restoration of indigenous dignity and future vitality.
In short, the three generations of human rights should be fully, not
selectively, implemented to right the wrongs and provide Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Australians with a solid platform to live free of discrimination
This brings me back to my early remarks about the role of community and
social work in fostering, articulating and advancing the intersection between
human rights, multiculturalism and Indigenous issues.
Your Reconciliation Strategy is no doubt an ample representation of the
coming together of a human rights inspired set of values and practices.
"What do we value?" The statement from your strategy
says, and I quote:
'We are committed to respecting the human rights and social justice
principles of fairness, equity, opportunity and dignity for all people.'
I cannot think of a more succinct statement that justly summaries what I
have been talking about today.
These values express the essence of human rights principles including human
dignity and justice. Valuing human dignity and justice means that community and
social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of every person and
respect the human rights expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration
of Human Rights.
By instilling these values in your practices, you ensure the satisfaction of
basic needs; fair access to services and benefits in order to achieve human
potential; and recognition of individual and community rights.
Your reconciliation strategy initiative does that: it puts peoples and their
rights first; and it strikes a delicate balance between rights and
The responsibilities I'm talking about here are the practical and moral
obligations of all Australians, regardless of their background, towards
Indigenous peoples. And the responsibilities of community and social workers to
adhere, in their everyday practices, to notions that recognise Indigenous
peoples rights, needs and desires.
Aunty Ruth, Mr Power, respected members and guests; in my view, laws,
procedures and polices are not in themselves effective tools without strong
affirming leadership. I have always maintained that we need leadership, in
different walks of life, that champion human rights principles, standards and
Your Reconciliation initiative does that, it demonstrates an understanding of
human rights principles; it acknowledges the rights of Indigenous peoples; and
above all, it shows leadership.
Congratulation on a job well done. thank you.