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Statement by President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

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It is said that there are only six degrees of separation between every human being in the world... that we all share more in common than we are divided by differences in colour, race, culture, religion, gender or ability.

This was certainly one o f the underpinnings of the Universal Declaration o f Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on this day 48 years ago.

It is also a principle on which this Commission, founded ten years ago today, is based.

Sadly, it cannot be said in general terms about Australian society in 1996.

1996 has not been a very good year when it comes to human rights. I ’ d like to have been able to say otherwise.

Tire preamble to tire Universal Declaration - on which Sir Alan Walker worked with Doc Evatt in 1948 - acknowledges a truth of fundamental importance: that Governments cannot legitimately give or withhold human rights. They can do no more than recognise the human rights which human beings, by virme of their being and destiny, already possess.

There was nothing particularly new in the Declaration. It had been asserted by philosophers, jurists and theologians from earlier times. What was new was that the world community, recoiling from the savagery o f the Second World War and from the dawning horror o f tire holocaust, saw the need for a binding statement o f these truths and rights.

Human rights cannot be taken for granted. Closely identified as they are with freedom, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

International Human Rights Day provides the occasion for u$ to reflect on this truth and affirm cur belief in the fundamental equality of all the peoples of the world.

It is also a time to reflect critically on our performance within Australia in giving practical expression to the universal standards of the Declaration. It is a time to consider our values as a nation.

Recently both Houses of Parliament passed a bipartisan resolution affirming this country’ s core commitments to:

• the rights of all Australians to enjoy equal rights regardless o f race, colour, creed or origin;

♦ racial tolerance and maintaining Australia as a culturally diverse, tolerant and open society;

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a non-discriminatory immigration policy, and

reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

In introducing die motion the Prime Minister said it was in die national interest to send an unambiguous signal to regional countries about the nature of Australian society.

Leading editorials welcomed the motion as a “ necessary first step in repairing community faith..... " which restated the “ common principles which underpin Australian society.” The road down which we were peering was a poisonous one, and, reminded one editorial, integrity and

decent humankind should be our real goals.

The passage of this resolution is welcome. However, just as the circumstances giving rise to the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 were horrific, what is profoundly disturbing today was the need for the Australian Parliament to make such an affirm ation of basic principles.

If public and private actions within this country deny these principles and the rights articulated in international treaties ratified by Australia, then the resolution will not stand as an affirmation of this country’s values: it will stand as a benchmark of our hypocrisy.

We must assess ourselves, and be judged internationally, not merely by our words but more importantly by our actions.

Australians have always professed a deep and unpretentious belief in a fair go for everyone irrespective of who you are and where you come from.

Openness, straight-forwardness, generosity and confidence are the qualities which support respect for human rights within this country.

But this is only part of the picture because despite these ‘traditional qualities’ , Australia’s early and more recent history has not been so reflective of them.

The first policy legislation passed by the Australian Parliament at the beginning o f this century' was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 - an overtly racist piece of legislation. The White Australia policy, dumped only one generation ago, was an historical reality.

During dns century, and even before federation, the Indigenous peoples of Australia were brutalised, dispossessed and treated with contempt. While explicitly racist provisions within our Constitution were removed by overwhelming vote in the referendum of 1967, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continued to be wrenched from their families. The stories of

forcible separation heard by the National Inquiry throughout this year have opened the eyes of Australians to what has until now been a hidden chapter.

The more recent race debate, giving rise to tire resolution in Parliament, clearly proves how vulnerable arc the values of this country. Our respect for human rights, tolerance and non­ discrimination cannot be taken for granted.


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Fliese values must be renewed and affirmed in practice on a daily basis by both governments and individuals.

The mandate of this Commission is to monitor the observance of human rights throughout our country - both the international obligations to which Australia is bound, and the implementation of legislation passed by our own Parliaments. As a Commission we seek to integrate our thinking about human rights and focus on the human person in all its wholeness.

This Commission since its establishment 10 years ago today and its predecessor established 5 years before that have both drawn public and parliamentary attention to those areas where we have not measured up; where the flow of rhetoric has not been backed up by actions.

Let me remind you o f a few of our achievements:

• visits to remote Indigenous communities such as Toomelah and Momington Island put human rights needs on the map in this country;

• Inquiries into Homeless Children, the Rights of the Mentally 111 and Racist Violence resulted in long-overdue funding and policy change;

• the establishment o f the Asia-Pacific Forum on Human Rights means that rather than hectoring from afar, we are actually working with other countries to strengthen national independent human rights institutions where they are most needed;

• the SHOUT campaign - about the sexual harassment of young women in the workplace and the development o f Codes of Practice worked to reduce instances o f sexual harassment;

• the development o f disability standards in areas of public life especially in public transport, education and building;

• the enactment o f the Privacy Act; the Disability Discrimination Act and other legislative achievements such as - after a 20 year wait - the Racial Hatred Legislation - just in time for the most significant period of racial tension in Australia’s recent history.

Yet despite achievements, many challenges remain.

The Commission and its predecessors have dealt with more than 27.000 complaints of discrimination and human rights violations. A ll, I might add, without any necessary monetary cost to the complainants, a situation which unfortunately may change once the hearing aspect of the Commission’s functions is transferred to die federal court. The expanded service o f

dignified conciliation of discrimination complaints is one of our challenges for the next ten years.

Nationally, the last 20 years or so has seen the development of a network of State and Territory legislative and administrative arrangements directed to the promotion o f equal opportunity. There arc still a few gaps in drat network, perhaps the most notable being the absence of any protection against discrimination on die grounds of sexual orientation in Tasmania and Western


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Uialienges in the areas of age discrimination, and our present treatment ci asylum-seekers arc some to be mentioned here.

There are broader challenges to confront in remaining true to tire ideals and qualities o f our tradition of equality, respect and tolerance. We must recommit ourselves to die promotion of human rights and responsibilities m id their manifestations

The law and mechanisms are practically all in place. But justice must still be done, and be seen to be done.

We must strive for a society where respect for racial equality is so deep-seated that occasional irresponsible outbursts, whether in parliament or elsewhere, go nowhere, because no-one is listening.

Racism is the single most potentially divisive human rights issue confronting Australians today - a threat to social cohesion and to the ties that have bound us until now.

In the past year virulent expressions of racism towards Asian people have merged with an appalling level of denigration o f Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal deaths in custody continue unabated. Indigenous children comprise only 2.6 per cent of the Australian juvenile population but arc 36 per cent o f the juveniles held in detention across Australian in detention.

Given this is a ten year anniversary, let me for one moment paint a picture for you o f where we will be in ten years time if we maintain our present attimde towards Aboriginal people: o f any group of 10 Aboriginal children today, in ten years time at least four o f the ten w ill have spent time in prison; the siblings of at least two will have died at an early age; the parents of all are likely to die at a much younger age than you or I may die; [it is sobering for me to reflect that

if I had been bom Aboriginal, I would have been dead for 20 years] only lour of them w ill be in work - and that w ill be sporadic and low-paid; almost none w ill have finished high school and die chances o f one o f them proceeding to university are remote.

Early next year the Inquiry into the Forced Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families w ill deliver its report to die Australian Parliament. Again, we w ill be judged not on our words, but by our actions and our commitment to justice and the process o f healing and reconciliation.

If our country is to be measured by its actions, if the restoration of community faith is to be continued, then ultimately the quality of life of all Australians within the next ten years w ill be moulded by the actions not only of our leaders, but all of us, individual Australians, in those areas where we have influence.


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