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UN Human Rights Commissioner speaks out

Rights and Freedoms
Dr Michelle Bachelet (UN Human Rights Commissioner)

Australian Human Rights Commission conference

Free and Equal: An Australian Conversation on Human Rights

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

8 October 2019


President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Rosalind Croucher and fellow Commissioners

Mr Les Malezer, Member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues,

Members of Parliament and Government representatives

Colleagues and friends,

It is an honour for me to pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, to their Elders past and present, and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land.

I also thank Rosalind and the Australian Human Rights Commission for their invitation to visit Australia this week and to participate in this important national human rights conference.

I am pleased to return to this country that first gave me refuge as a 23-year-old fleeing the Pinochet regime. I recall the solidarity, warmth and generosity Australians showed to me at that time, although I cannot help wonder whether I would experience the same as a refugee today. 

I am especially pleased to join with you in this “national conversation” about what human rights mean to Australians today, and how we can ensure their protection for all -- now and in future generations.

I commend the Australian Human Rights Commission for this important initiative. We all have rights, by virtue of being human. But if we wait for our rights to be conferred top-down through law and policy, we could wait forever. Rights must also be claimed from the bottom up, through empowerment and participation. The very process of discussing and debating rights can help us to understand their value and defend them with greater conviction.

Through this national conversation, which I hope will reach the broadest possible cross-section of Australians, you have the opportunity to define a human rights agenda for Australia over the next five to 10 years and beyond. An agenda that can be owned by young people and those in an “advanced stage of youth” alike. From the newest Australians, from migrant and refugee communities, to the oldest Australians, the Indigenous inhabitants of this land. An agenda for Australians in the big cities and in the smallest rural towns. An agenda for people living with disabilities, for women as well as for men, and for everyone who defines themselves differently. An agenda in which business can see the value added in championing human rights. A human rights agenda for all.

The national conversation will help you to arrive at a set of common goals, around which you can build public support and with which you can engage the Government. These goals can also be presented to the international community next year when Australia undergoes its third Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council. This is an important process in which every single country, big and small, is asked to take stock, every four years, of its human rights progress in consultation with civil society and national institutions like the Australian Human Rights Commission.  Australia will report back to the other countries and receive feedback and recommendations in turn.

Friends and colleagues, you are not starting this process with a blank canvas. The National Human Rights Consultation led by Frank Brennan, 10 years ago, generated many important recommendations. It is important to update and renew that vision today. The Government’s human rights white paper in 2017 also set out Australia’s foreign policy objectives in human rights, both in the region and the world.  Australia has worked through three national human rights national action plans, the most recent from 2012.

Since that time, Australia has also heard the Uluru Statement of the Heart, a clarion call by Indigenous Australia for a constitutional First Nations voice to Parliament, a treaty making process and a revelation of historical truth.  I salute the elders and community leaders who have put forward such a powerful vision of justice and reconciliation – one that is fundamentally rooted in both traditional wisdom and human rights.

Australia has also benefited from a wealth of advice and recommendations from UN human rights mechanisms. It has ratified most of the core international human rights treaties and been reviewed regularly by the human rights treaty bodies. Just last month, Australia was reviewed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Since 2008, Australia has received at least nine visits from UN Special Rapporteurs that have yielded detailed and actionable recommendations on issues such as Indigenous peoples' rights; health; foreign debt; trafficking in persons; human rights defenders; migrants; and violence against women.

So there is no shortage of analysis and diagnosis, of recommendations and advice, with which to advance human rights in Australia. Sometimes I hear Australian commentators bemoan all this attention, suggesting the UN human rights machinery should focus its attention elsewhere. But this scrutiny is not the function of some international policing system enforcing rules from outside.

It is based on international standards that Australia has helped to create; which successive Australian Governments have voluntarily adopted; and which Australians themselves – people like you – have sought to engage and leverage, in your efforts to make Australia a better, more inclusive and humane place.

In many ways, I think Australians have looked outwards to the international human rights mechanisms because of the lack of a comprehensive national human rights legislation or charter. Australians would benefit greatly from a comprehensive human rights law to systematically protect all their rights. I encourage all of you to include this important issue in your human rights advocacy and strategies. Victoria, Australian Capital Territory and most recently Queensland have taken leadership roles in this respect, by developing their own State or Territory-level human rights legislation, and I hope one day this can be achieved for the Commonwealth as a whole, and for all who live in this country.

In the meantime, Australians rely on a patchwork of laws that address different forms of discrimination. But several of these laws need to be updated, protection gaps need to be filled, and broad exemptions and reservations need to be clarified. The laws also tend to frame what should be rights in negative rather than positive terms - prohibiting certain actions, and creating the need for individuals to bring complaints, rather than addressing broader legal and policy issues. As a result, the model is dispute-focussed and remedial, rather than system-focussed and proactive.  I commend the Australian Human Rights Commission's detailed and careful proposals for synthesizing and harmonising these federal and statediscrimination laws.

Friends and colleagues, let me reflect on a few of the issues that have already been highlighted during my visit -- and I look forward to more discussions with various groups over the coming days.

Yesterday in Melbourne I had a chance to talk with a fantastic, committed group of activists and advocates for the rights of Australian women and girls.  Australia has a significantly better track record than many other countries, but still women continue to face many barriers, including unequal pay, workplace discrimination and pervasive sexual harassment. And I have heard for a long time about the exceptionally misogynistic approach to women politicians by many men in Australian political life, and elsewhere in society.

I know from my own personal experience that this is not unique to Australia – nor will it go away overnight.  But enabling more women to take positions of leadership in politics, business and society –  including indigenous women – will help achieve the vision of a “free and equal” Australia.

I also discussed, with groups working with refugees and young people, Australia’s heavy reliance on detention as a means to “deal” with social problems, and how disproportionately this affects certain groups, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

Just last month, I met in Geneva with a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy from Alice Springs, Dujuan Hoosan, the youngest person ever to address the Human Rights Council. I encourage you all to watch the documentary about him, In My Blood It Runs. I was shocked to learn that the age of criminal responsibility in Australia is only 10 years old.  Some 600 children under the age of 14 are locked away in youth jails every year across this country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up almost 70 per cent of them. It is often the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children who come to the attention of the justice system at a young age. As a paediatrician I have seen how harmful this can be and how rarely it is in the best interests of the child.  I very much hope Australia can follow the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s recommendation to raise the age to an internationally accepted level of at least 14 years.

Last month, the Committee on the Rights of Disabled Persons also raised issues around the segregation and institutionalisation of people living with disabilities and the continuing practice of forced sterilisation of children and adults with disability, particularly women and girls. I welcome the appointment of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

Mandatory detention is also a mainstay of Australia’s migration and asylum system.  The people it affects have largely committed no crime; many of them are in very vulnerable situations, and some are children, yet they are subjected to prolonged, indefinite and effectively unreviewable confinement.  This includes those who remain in the offshore centres such on Nauru and Manus Island. We have a wealth of evidence to demonstrate the harmful effect this has on their mental and physical well-being.

I know that Australia’s asylum and migration policies have become entrenched over the years by successive governments. But I strongly believe that we are at a point now where it is time to roll back these policies, or at least mitigate their worst effects. 

I encourage Australia to make greater use of human rights-compliant alternatives to detention, which are non-custodial and community-based. Evidence demonstrates that these alternatives reduce the distress and harm caused to people; increase the likelihood that migrants will comply with immigration decisions; and are often a significantly cost-effective alternative to expensive infrastructure designed for detention.

The so-called “Medevac Law” that came into effect in March this year is another example of the practical improvements that can be made to the asylum system to uphold international human rights obligations and mitigate the harmful effects of detention.  I am concerned that the plans to repeal this law may mean more – and costly – court battles, with lives being put at risk.  I appeal to Members of Parliament not to reverse these small steps of progress that have been made. 

Friends and colleagues, one vital objective for any free and equal society should be a true reckoning with past human rights violations, particularly against Indigenous peoples, and acknowledgment of the many ways this legacy of violence and pain continues to scar society today.  A treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and constitutional recognition of the First Nation people’s voice in national affairs would be historic steps. These changes may require a sustained process of education, debate and consensus-building, but I am convinced they are achievable. 

Australia has benefited from being a multicultural society, with deeply rooted egalitarian traditions, and where the advancement of women has made great strides.  But while the country as a whole ranks highly on most indexes of human development and social wellbeing, there are significant inequalities in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, especially for Indigenous peoples and remote communities.  I encourage the Government to go further with its “Closing the Gap” strategy with full ownership and design by Indigenous communities.  From schools to neighbourhoods, the workplace and in every sphere of life, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be enabled to enjoy full equality of rights, freedoms and opportunities.

Friends and colleagues, as Rosalind has noted, this can sometimes seem a difficult time for human rights, not just here but globally.  It is essential that we take the time to think through what has worked and where we have done less well in responding to people’s needs. This is true globally, but also nationally and locally: good governance, and sound activism, both need to ceaselessly search for new approaches, new strategies, new partnerships, new ways of working.

Rather than labelling people who favour refugee pushbacks as bigots and racists, we need to listen and recognise the fear, anxiety, insecurity or other factors that may be behind such attitudes. We need to move away from abstract notions of human rights and discuss the human beings involved in a language that everyone can understand. We need to use reason and evidence – and empathy – to help temper visceral emotional responses.  We need a “conversation”.

We need to stop working in silos – as women’s advocates, refugee advocates, indigenous advocates.  In fact, we have to stop working in silos as human rights advocates: we need to find common cause with people working on the environment, climate change and sustainable development.  We need to find new partnerships – with businesses, with trade unions, with religious groups, with educators and others – to expand the constituency for human rights.

Above all, we need to include young people. As Rosalind said this morning, their entire lives will be shaped by the decisions taken today – and they surely have a right to participate in making those decisions. We need their energy and their ideas, to ensure we work better to respect, protect and fulfil their rights. And we need the clear legitimacy of their voices in determining the future path of Australian society, and the planet which all of us share.

The broad social movement that was mobilised in Australia on the issue of marriage equality is an inspiring example of what can be possible.  The growing mobilisation around issues of climate change gives us hope for the same.  It shows that ambitious human rights gains are possible to win, that Australians do care, and can be mobilised to uphold the rights of others.

This gathering reminds us that we are more than a collection of individuals.  Together, we can be a collective force for the defence and promotion of human rights in an age of tremendous challenges for Australia and the world.  Civil society participation is the lifeblood of that effort – the vital force which holds up every healthy democracy and society.  This is not about a niche concern of the human rights community, or some globalist agenda, it is the business of each and every person in Australia from every walk of life.

I thank you for the principled, often difficult work you all do. It is an essential effort of hope and positive construction, of what I like to call “strategic optimism”. By anchoring ourselves and our societies to human rights principles, we can better face the challenges and uncertainties of coming years.  We can be certain that we are upholding the true values of humanity – and working towards free and equal societies. I wish you very fruitful discussions in the course of this national conversation.

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