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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12464


Ms PARKE (11:01 AM) —Over the last few years we have had occasion to mark the 60th anniversary of some of the key events in recent human history. The day 27 January 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which I have visited, displays the testimony of Bart Stern, one of the few inmates who was found alive at the death camp when the Soviet army arrived. He recalled:

I was hiding out in the heap of dead bodies because in the last week when the crematoria didn’t function at all, the bodies were just building up higher and higher.

The day of 6 August 2005 marks the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It killed more than 100,000 people. Its terrible impact continues today. Tuesday, 9 December 2008 will mark the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the genocide convention. These anniversaries recall bleak, dark days and also days that showed out of that darkness the emergence again of light, the possibility again of peace. Nations across the globe came together with a new commitment to a standard for humanity, a standard of civilisation.

The United Nations itself was born out of the destruction and the horror of World War II. The UN Security Council chamber has as its central feature a large mural painting by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh. As described by the UN, the mural:

… depicts a phoenix rising from its ashes, as a symbol of the world being rebuilt after the Second World War. Above the dark sinister colours at the bottom different images in bright colours symbolizing the hope for a better future are depicted. Equality is symbolized by a group of people weighing out grain for all to share.

In my electorate office in Fremantle I have on the wall a print of a Picasso painting that I originally had in my office when I worked for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and that I have carried around the world with me. The painting is entitled Sun and Dove over Ruins and it depicts a dove flying up towards the sun, away from the smouldering ruins of a town. It symbolises perfectly the hope of peace after destruction.

Next Wednesday, 10 December, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the compilation of humanity’s foundation texts, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights belongs at the very front and at the very top. The first 31 words of the preamble are as follows:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world …

In 30 simple yet powerful articles, the declaration goes on to list in detail the substance of our human rights. These are the fundamental entitlements and freedoms of every human being. From article 3, which enshrines the right to life, liberty and security of persons, flow the civil and political rights contained in articles 4 through to 21. From article 22, which rightly presupposes that individuals naturally belong to societies, flow the economic, social and cultural rights contained in articles 23 through to 27. These strands or themes in the declaration in turn find their expression in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with its two optional protocols, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these documents comprise the International Bill of Human Rights, the foundations of international human rights law.

The system and administration of international law and the observation and enforcement of human rights are far from perfect. Perhaps the greatest obstacle remains the set of difficulties inherent in a world whose organising principle is the sovereignty of the nation-state. So far in human history we have not reached the point of being able to ensure that the human rights contained in the universal declaration are enjoyed by all people. It may be that we never reach that day, and, if that is the case, it is all the more important that we work harder and harder for those incremental improvements that might stop a child from dying of malnutrition in Bangladesh, a village being wiped out in Sudan or the Congo, a prisoner being subjected to torture at Abu Ghraib or denied habeas corpus at Guantanamo Bay, or an asylum seeker being detained behind razor wire to the point of madness and self-harm in the South Australian desert.

I have already had occasion in this place to quote from one of my favourite poets, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, twice this year, but I think I must do it again today, as he has once again perfectly articulated my thoughts, with an eloquence of which I am not capable. Heaney reflected this year on how the universal declaration remains a profound force for historical good. He said:

Since it was framed, the Declaration has succeeded in creating an international moral consensus. It is always there as a means of highlighting abuse if not always as a remedy: it exists instead in the moral imagination as an equivalent of the gold standard in the monetary system. The articulation of its tenets has made them into world currency of a negotiable sort. Even if its Articles are ignored or flouted—in many cases by governments who have signed up to them—it provides a worldwide amplification system for “the still, small voice”.

The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an occasion to remember and celebrate what has been achieved, and to consider what more can be done to advance the cause of human rights, both domestically and internationally. As an important component of the Rudd government’s re-engagement with the United Nations, we have issued a standing invitation to UN human rights experts and special rapporteurs to visit Australia and consider the protection of human rights in this country. We join 61 other nations in taking that step—in acknowledging that Australia, like any country, respects international human rights and the supervision of human rights protection by multilateral agencies.

The Rudd government understands that the cause of human rights requires ongoing vigilance, action and international participation. In July we ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and were among the first Western countries to do so. Australia’s nominee, Professor Ron McCallum AO, was successfully nominated to the UN committee monitoring the implementation of the convention.

The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, of which I am proud to be a member, has recommended that Australia adopt the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The government is also intending to ratify the optional protocol to the convention against torture and to sign the new treaty banning cluster munitions.

The government is committed to tackling, in our region, the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to spur development by improving social and economic conditions in the world’s poorest countries.

In moving to incorporate human rights principles into Australian domestic law, this government has introduced two pieces of legislation that combine to remove the discrimination that exists towards same-sex couples and their children in around 100 current laws. I commend the Attorney-General for this work and for the progress that has been made through the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General on the path to harmonisation and consistency when it comes to Commonwealth and state antidiscrimination measures.

I am heartened that this new government is taking a lawful, humane and non-political approach to asylum seekers and border protection. I would like to cite article 14(1) of the declaration, which states:

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

The entry into the Australian vernacular of the term ‘illegals’ to describe asylum seekers says everything about the previous administration’s willingness to throw human rights overboard in the name of cynical politics.

The Rudd government is also committed to national consultation on the question of an Australian charter of human rights. I welcome the commitment and look forward to that process. It is something that the Australian public should be given the opportunity to discuss.

On Monday, 24 November, the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade held a seminar celebrating the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration, with very special guest speakers Professor Hilary Charlesworth and Emeritus Professor Ivan Shearer, who both have distinguished academic and international credentials in human rights law. I was pleased to hear Professor Shearer speak of his recognition of the need for a charter of rights following the decision in the 2004 Al-Kateb case, in which the High Court held that a stateless person who had committed no offence against any law of Australia and who had requested deportation following the failure of his request for refugee status could be held in detention indefinitely, and, if necessary, for life, if no foreign country were willing to receive him. The court found that the Australian Constitution contained no protections against this clear violation of the fundamental human right to liberty and against arbitrary detention.

By legislating for a charter of rights, Australia will finally incorporate into domestic law its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Furthermore, as I said in this place in the adjournment debate on 1 December, it is vitally important that Australia incorporate into domestic law its obligations under the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is aimed at the universal abolition of the death penalty. Article 1.2 requires that ‘each state party shall take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction’. I believe the time has come to honour that obligation in the form of Commonwealth legislation. Lives depend upon it.

My experience working in the United Nations has shown me that the rights and standards articulated at the international level are concerned with the essential dignity of the individual and the community. They can only be implemented at the local level, whether it is in vaccinating a child or building a toilet in implementation of the Millennium Development Goals; or planting a tree, in implementation of our commitments under Kyoto to combat global warming; or defending the human rights of workers to bargain collectively with their employers.

This thought was expressed eloquently by Eleanor Roosevelt, who played a key role in drafting the universal declaration and referred to it as ‘the international Magna Carta of all mankind’. Mrs Roosevelt chaired the Human Rights Commission in its first years. She asked:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

I want to conclude by returning to where I began. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said with regard to the campaign to recognise the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

This campaign reminds us that in a world still reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, the Declaration was the first global statement of what we now take for granted—the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings.

I would only add, with the greatest respect to my former boss, that there are still too many people in the world who cannot take such dignity and equality for granted. As Aung San Suu Kyi has said:

Please use your liberty to promote ours.