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Transformations:Conference, Canberra

Race Race Discrimination

"Human Rights: Recognising and Protecting Diversity'

Speech by Tom Calma, Acting Race
Discrimination Commissioner and
Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Justice Commissioner
at the Federation
of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia "Transformations:
Culture and the Environment in Human Development' Conference, Canberra
, February 2005

Good morning distinguished guests and conference participants. Before I commence I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal peoples, the traditional owners for the country where we meet today.

In November 2001, members of the United Nations states came together to create yet another international human rights instrument.

The question you might ask is: why?

Don"t we already have enough protection in international conventions and treaties?

Haven"t our fundamental rights and freedoms already been articulated?

The answer is a crisp "no". And the reason is because life is not static. The world is not static. The needs and aspirations of communities are not static.

Globalisation, migration, technology and communication - all these have transformed how we engage with the world; how we engage with ideas about culture; and how we organise and sustain our communities.

And that"s the reason why the universal declaration on cultural diversity was proclaimed by the nations of the world.

It builds on the protections of all the earlier international laws and treaties - right back to the universal declaration of human rights - and promises to recognise and protect the distinct characteristics of minority groups and to provide equal respect and protection to all cultures.

The globalised world in which we now live has made it crucial that we focus on cultural diversity.

Culture encompasses the linguistic, racial, ethnic, social and spiritual values that go to the core of our identity.

And that means cultural diversity has profound implications for social rights and human rights.

Remember - there is no hierarchy of rights.

Cultural rights are no less important than civil, economic and political rights.

Australia is a signatory to the universal declaration on cultural diversity. The human rights and equal opportunity commission, where I work, has made the recognition and protection of diversity and cultural rights an important part of what we do through a number of international treaties ratified by Australia and that the human rights and equal opportunity commission act gives my Commission responsibility for. These include the:

  • International convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination
  • International covenant on civil and political rights (ICCPR) - International
    convention on the rights of the child (CROC)
  • Declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance or discrimination
    based on religion or belief and
  • The international covenant on economic,
    social and cultural rights in relation to indigenous Australians

Education is a central part of how we do this.

As Race Discrimination Commissioner, my role is to promote and monitor compliance with the federal Racial Discrimination Act. This includes promoting research and education programs to combat racism in all its different forms.

In addition, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, my role is to advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples and to promote an Indigenous perspective on different laws, policies and programs. This means talking with Indigenous communities, reporting to governments, working with service providers and raising community awareness.

So, in my work, and in the broader work of the commission, there is a clear recognition of the importance of preserving cultural diversity and safe-guarding the cultural identity of all Australians, including Indigenous Australians and those embraced by Australia"s multi-cultural policy.

I would like to look at Australia"s record

So, how is Australia doing on cultural diversity?

There have been significant achievements - yes. But Australia"s response to events overseas and here at home suggests that respect for cultural diversity is not without threat.

Community consultations carried out by the Commission in the lead up to the world conference against racism in 2001 found that "visible" ethnic and religious minorities were regularly subjected to racism.

And, while the legacy of colonisation was seen as the main cause of racism in contemporary Australia, the second source of racism, according to the consultations, was a result of ignorance, fear and lack of understanding of cultural difference.[1]

Recent media reports about groups in Newcastle illustrates that some Australians remain hostile to immigration and cultural diversity. It shows us that more work still needs to be done.

It is no surprise then, that the events of September 11, 2001 and the Bali bombings of October 2002 had a profound impact on how Australians responded to cultural difference.

Muslim and Arab Australians in particular felt the repercussions of these shocking events. They became targets of violence and retribution.

In 2003, the Commission launched the Isma? project in response to the very real concerns that were expressed to us about the rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice in Australia.

As many of you know, Isma? means "listen" in Arabic and the aim of the project was to listen to Arab and Muslim Australians to better understand the nature and impact of the prejudice that many said they were experiencing.

The project involved three main components:

  • National consultations with over 1,400 Arab and Muslim Australians around
  • Research conducted by the University of Western Sydney to learn
    more about Arab and Muslim Australians" responses to racism and abuse; and
  • An
    audit of existing government and community initiatives that seek to address
    anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.

Throughout the Isma? project, the commission heard that a significant number of Arab and Muslim Australians were feeling fearful, isolated and vulnerable.

These experiences ranged from offensive remarks about race or religion, to physical violence. They felt singled out on the street, in shopping centres, in the media, in schools, the workplace, by police - in short, everywhere.

Muslim women had their hijab pulled off. Seventh generation Australians were told to go back to their own country.

In consultations, people told us that they felt that the major underlying cause for the rise in prejudice against them was a lack of knowledge and misinformation about their history, culture and faith.

There were also concerns about the absence of consistent legal protection from religious discrimination and vilification across Australia and the biased and inaccurate media reporting of issues relating to Arabs and Muslims.

On the positive side, people told us that they had received support and help from non-Arabs and non-Muslims in the community, and that it had given them an opportunity to answer questions about their cultural background and their religion.

The Isma? project identified a number of key areas for improvement and future action, that we have taken up with government, police services and others.

But in broad terms, the Commission"s recommendations seek to encourage and promote the value of cultural diversity.

We have brought with us copies of the report and audio CD, so please feel free to take them with you.

I would like to now move to Indigenous Australians

One of my very real concerns is the entrenched prejudice and discrimination felt by people who belong to the oldest surviving culture in the world continue to be the most disadvantaged group in this country?

Why do we continue to afford so little respect to indigenous Australians?

At the time of European settlement, there was an estimated 250 languages spoken by Indigenous people of Australia, with over 500 different dialects.[2] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities continue to be rich in cultural and linguistic diversity.

However, for the best part of 200 years, non-indigenous Australians have sought to define who is an Indigenous person. In fact, there have been no less than 67 definitions or descriptions of Aborigine in Australian legislation[3] .

This "definitional" control then extended in the tragic government policies that saw children forcibly taken from their families. Families were torn apart; communities broken; identities lost.

A central aspect of these policies of forcible removal was destroying the children"s cultural links. Culture, language, land and identity were to be stripped from the children. The goal was to make them more "white".

Separating kids from their Indigenous heritage in those early years has had profound effects on their experiences of participating in the aboriginal community as adults. Many express it as being caught between two different worlds, and feeling at home in neither.

Being taken from their land has also had profound effects on their spiritual and cultural identity. And let"s not lose sight of the economic consequences of this, for individuals and communities.

That"s why land rights and self-determination need to stay at the top of the agenda. They are crucial to respecting and preserving Indigenous culture, and providing the tools for Indigenous communities to take control of their future and meet their social, cultural and economic needs.

Moving forward

So what have we learnt from the Isma? project and through talking with Indigenous communities?

Firstly, that we need to take practical steps to ensure that indigenous peoples and other Australians have the resources and the means to support and strengthen their cultural or religious identities.

This requires the recognition and protection of values, culture and traditions, so that they can co-exist with the broader society.

We have also learnt that participation and consultation, like education, are powerful vehicles for the restoration of people"s rights. The Commission"s consultative work has taught us that listening to the diversity of voices ensures that everyone counts.

The ability to enter into a respectful dialogue with people of different cultures is a vital skill for individuals, governments and communities.

It"s also one of the best investments we can make towards national and international, peace and stability.

Cultural diversity matters to every one of us. The establishment of the universal declaration on cultural diversity reinforces this.

By sanctioning - either by commission or omission - prejudice towards any one group, we make it more acceptable to discriminate against all minorities. Attacking the principle of cultural respect affects us all.

For too long cultural diversity has been treated as a threat, rather than a gift.

It is a challenging and rewarding journey that demands a genuine commitment. I urge all Australians to make a commitment to take the universal declaration on cultural diversity, and other international human rights instruments, very seriously and to travel that journey.

We must recognise and accept that all of us have the right to enjoy our own culture, to profess and practice our own religion and to use our language without fear of discrimination. Surely that is a goal worth striving for.

Thank you

1. Cited at

2. Cited at source
by Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001, Population Distribution Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islanders 200.

3. Cited at,
source by McCorquadale, J., 'Aboriginal identity: legislative, judicial and
administrative definitions' (1997) 2 Australian Aboriginal Studies 24.