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Presentation of the 1998 Human Rights Medal, Sydney, Thursday 10 December 1998: address.

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It is a privilege for me to be here with you today, on this 50th Anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to present the 1998 Human Rights Medal on behalf of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. I would, at the outset, wish to make clear my own unqualified support for the Commission, its President, its Commissioners, its staff and their work.

We Australians are fortunate and privileged in that our very system of government embodies basic notions of equality, freedoms and rights under the law. But no one could seriously maintain that the fundamental rights enunciated in the Universal Declaration are yet fully enjoyed by all Australians. That point is adequately made simply by referring, in the context of the unemployment and poverty which exists in our affluent Australia, to the declarations, in the first sentences of Articles 23 and 25, of the right of everyone to protection against unemployment and of the right of everyone to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family. This 50th Anniversary is an occasion when we should realistically assess and acknowledge how much more needs to be done. And it is also an occasion when we should renew our commitment, as individuals and as a society, to the quest for the practical enjoyment of full human rights by all Australians.

But golden anniversaries should be a time for celebration. And celebration surely is the theme of this anniversary luncheon. I understand that, at each of the tables, there is a copy of this document listing the names and achievements of 50 great Australian men and women - one for each golden year. Each in his or her own way has made a significant contribution to the human rights movement in this country. Some of those names are well known ... my friend and former chair of the Human Rights Commission, Dame Roma Mitchell; surgeon, humanitarian and internationalist, “Weary” Dunlop;’ Faith Bandler, to whom it was my privilege to present the Australian Human Rights Medal last year. Some of the names are not so well known, at least not to the general public. They are, however, shining examples to all who know of their work and their achievements in the cause of human rights.

There are 50 names here. But, of course, we could collectively add another 50 times 50 names, and we would still be merely describing the tip of the iceberg in each of a


variety of fields of endeavour: in the women’s movement, in the promotion of multicultural Australia, in reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, in overseas aid, refugee assistance and international peace; in religious ecumenism; in health and education; in the fight against poverty here in affluent Australia; and in promoting the well-being of Australians and non-Australians everywhere. There are names of people who are still with us, and some of whom are sharing this occasion. Others have died: Jessie Street, who accompanied Doctor Evatt to the United Nations founding conference in 1945; Bishop Burgmann, who dreamed of a time when the enduring truths of human faith and spirituality would be expressed in a manner, if I may borrow his words, “thoroughly baptised into the Australian scene, blown through by Australian winds, bathed in Australian sunshine, and even coated now and then with Australian dust”.

Some of those mentioned have only recently died, and we still mourn their loss: Fred Hollows, the Human Rights medallist of 1990; Shirley Smith - “Mum Shirl” - whose special place among Aboriginal Australians in this city and beyond was evident to all of us who attended her funeral last May; “Nugget” Coombs whose breadth of vision, interests and activities was such that, as I observed at his memorial service, there is not one of us whose life has not been in some way touched and shaped by him, and almost invariably for the better.

Ladies and gentlemen, constraints of time preclude me from mentioning more than a few individual names. We each have our own special memories of those listed here and of those whom we each would add. What characterises them all is a dedication to the cause of human rights which transcends mere words and is evidenced by their lives and in their deeds. As the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission quite rightly points out, universal declarations of any kind lack meaning without a commitment by individuals, no less than by governments and organisations, to give them life and application.

In that regard, it is well to remember that when, on this day in 1948, the General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, it also urged every individual and every organ of society to strive by teaching and education to promote respect for those rights and

freedoms and by progressive means, nationally and internationally, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance. There can be no doubt that each of those 50 people singled out for mention and all those others whom we remember have striven by word and deed to teach, to promote, to secure respect and observance of human rights. So that even as we look around the world on this 50th Anniversary and recognise how far we have to go before the Declaration is a universal reality, we are entitled to celebrate what has been achieved over the past half century. And to acknowledge how much is owed to the commitment, the compassion and the concerted efforts of individuals everywhere. Their achievements, and the achievements of bodies and organisations such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, provide the starting point for the work that lies ahead.