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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12472


Dr KELLY (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support) (11:34 AM) —It is a great pleasure to rise today to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a great step forward in the human condition. But the history of the UDHR tells us that, as the member for Fadden has highlighted, progress is not inevitable. There are many times when we need to be vigilant as to the maintenance and upholding of those fundamental rights. The UDHR itself was the product of a long history of the human condition, seeking to describe and instil the essence of the human condition in terms of the natural and inherent rights of each individual person.

It goes back as far as the Hammurabi codes of Babylon, and we have seen the writings of many philosophers through the years trying to find and distil what those natural rights of man are—great writers such as Hugo Grotius, Thomas Aquinas, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. It was the enlightenment period of the 18th century that really provided the framework and the foundation for Thomas Jefferson’s great piece of work—the one we celebrate so much in the history of democracy on this planet, the United States declaration of independence. That document formally set down as a state instrument the first signalling of the natural rights of the human condition. It was also a reflection of expressions that had been attempted before that—of course, in the Magna Carta in our own British common-law tradition—but we really started to see instruments formulated after the declaration of independence. There was the declaration of the rights of man after the French Revolution. Down through the years we have seen the evolution of the United States Bill of Rights as a result of what Thomas Jefferson produced, the foundation that he laid, for the enshrining of rights in his country.

But there was a hiatus in the development of human rights in terms of international legal instruments, and it was really leapfrogged during the second half of the 19th century by the laws relating to the regulation of armed conflict. We had the Geneva conventions and The Hague conventions during that period. But human rights started to get back on the international agenda following the formation of the League of Nations after the First World War. It is very interesting to note that in the mandate system that was created by the league the very first enunciation in an international body of human rights issues was the calling for the regulation of the condition of the occupants of those mandated territories in relation to fair and humane conditions of labour for men, women and children. That led to the creation in 1920 of the International Labour Organisation. This was really the first step in the development of our modern regime of human rights and it began, interestingly, in looking at the regulation of labour and the conditions of workers.

I think the real impetus, though, obviously came with the Second World War and the lead-up to it, and in particular the horrendous experiences from 1933 in the way that Nazi Germany treated its Jewish minority. That appalling episode in human history highlighted the fact that in a civilised, industrialised country progress was not inevitable. There was an incredible backsliding not only in the conditions of morality and the perceptions of the value of the individual but in bringing to bear the weight of the industrialised system of a modern developed country to execute those warped and detestable ideologies. Of course we know the outcome—six million Jews exterminated, and in the course of the Second World War many millions of people in occupied territories fell victim to the regime of the Nazis and their collaborators in various countries.

This experience led the United States in particular to feel that the international regime needed to set in front of itself a mission to redefine the human condition. It was President Roosevelt who outlined the four freedoms in his speech before the United States congress in 1941. He outlined those as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Of course, President Roosevelt was ably aided in his time in the presidency and in the years following the Second World War, as the United States was ably served, by his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the great figures in the development of the UDHR.

An interesting phenomenon of this process, the groundswell that built up following the Second World War, was the involvement of non-government organisations, and we have seen that flourish more recently too, in relation to the development of conventions like the antipersonnel landmines convention and the convention against cluster munitions. Over 1,300 American non-government organisations got involved in a serious advertising campaign to generate the requirement for the development of a document setting down fundamental human rights. That achieved its expression in the UN Charter itself, which gave human rights a new international legal status. In many of the provisions of the charter—in fact five times, including in the preamble—you will see references to human rights in the founding purposes of the United Nations.

Of course, that charter and its preparation owed a great deal to the Australian delegation and to the great work of Dr Bert Evatt in the work that was done at the United Nations. It shows what an impact a country like Australia can have when it engages constructively with an organisation like the United Nations.

There were many provisions of the UN Charter that called on human rights protection. The charter included, in the first article, the requirement that member states work:

To achieve international co-operation … in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion …

Article 55 stated that the UN will promote ‘universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms’. Article 56 stated that members ‘pledge themselves to take joint and separate action’ to achieve that respect. So there was a platform for building. In article 68 of the charter, it was mandated that the UN Economic and Social Council set up a commission for the promotion of human rights, and that got the ball rolling for the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A number of organisations worked early on to promote the content of the declaration, and these included organisations such as the Commission to Study the Organisation of Peace, the American Jewish Committee, the American Federation of Labor, the American Association for the United Nations, the Federal Council of Churches, the American Bar Association and the Women’s Trade Union League. International non-government organisations also submitted many, many proposals in the early years of the shaping of the document, and it did take a number of years.

As I mentioned, the nuclear commission that worked on developing the declaration was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. The UN Economic and Social Council established the official UN Commission on Human Rights in June 1946. Eighteen members were selected, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, to begin work on the document. A lot of the heavy lifting in drafting was done by a fellow by the name of John P Humphrey, who was the director of the UN Division of Human Rights. But, of course, all through this process was the great work of the Australian delegation and Doc Evatt.

It was an arduous journey that lasted three years, and thousands of hours of intensive study, heated debate and delicate negotiation were involved. The first meetings of the Commission on Human Rights occurred over a two-week period between January and February 1947, following the work that had gone on prior to that, and a smaller group for drafting was formed. That group is interesting in itself, in that it involved a representative from China, Mr Chang, and a representative from Lebanon, Mr Malik, as well as representatives from Australia, Chile, France, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian SSR, the United Kingdom, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. This group was charged with drafting the declaration. Early on, there was a discussion as to whether this should be a legally binding document or just a declaration. Eleanor Roosevelt astutely recommended that the document be drafted in both contexts, but eventually work focused on producing the document as a declaration rather than a binding convention.

The General Assembly’s third committee ended up dealing with the draft. They held a total of 81 meetings, considering 168 formal resolutions on the declaration. On 6 December the third committee adopted the declaration and sent it to the full General Assembly for final consideration. The General Assembly had a final, extremely vigorous debate that lasted until late in the evening of 10 December 1948. The president called for a vote, and 48 nations voted for the declaration. Eight countries abstained. These included the Soviet bloc countries, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Two countries were absent.

As Mrs Roosevelt declared at the time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has proven to be a living document. It has given birth to a great many further human rights instruments that followed on from it. It was interesting to note that the Australian delegation stated on the passing of the declaration:

The Declaration will have great moral force as a standard, and helps to explain the general references to human rights contained in the United Nations Charter. At the same time, the Australian delegation has stated that a covenant and measures of carrying out and enforcing rights should be completed as soon as possible … Australia has from the beginning been one of the leaders in this field. We urged at the Paris Peace Conference that the peace treaties with enemy states should contain effective guarantees of human rights. We have also played our part from the beginning as a member of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which made the first draft of the convention. Australia was one of the first countries to urge that economic and social rights should be included in the Declaration.

Doc Evatt himself said:

It was the first occasion on which the organised community of nations had made a declaration of human rights and fundamental freedoms. That document was backed by the authority of the body of opinion of the United Nations as a whole and millions of people, men, women, and children all over the world, would turn to it for help, guidance and inspiration.

Eleanor Roosevelt called it ‘the Magna Carta of all mankind’, and she was not wrong. Recently, Mary Gaudron, former Justice of the High Court, stated that it was:

Arguably most important document ever reduced to writing, whether on paper, papyrus, vellum or tablets of stone.

She has proven to be correct as well, as we have seen the flourishing of enforceable instruments that have shaped the way countries behave themselves.

I mentioned the need for eternal vigilance. The member preceding me and the member before that also referred to the need for eternal vigilance. We have had examples in our own country of that need. During the Howard years, we saw the issue of the treatment of refugees rise high on the agenda of moral dilemmas for the body politic and for the community at large. I think and hope that we have moved on from that time. I would hate to see refugees used as a political tool as they were during those years. I commend the many members on the other side who tried to stand up for their principles and who now, I think, reflect very closely on that period. In particular, I would like to pay tribute to the member for Kooyong for his commendably principled stand. What a great loss to this House it will be when the member for Kooyong moves on to another field of endeavour.

Refugees were not the only big issue during the Howard years; Work Choices was another. Here we saw again an erosion of fundamental human rights. It is interesting to note that article 23 of the universal declaration states:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Those words have been enshrined in many other documents as well. It does highlight that we need to maintain eternal vigilance to maintain these fundamental rights.

When we talk about the treatment and handling of refugees, I would like to highlight that this country has a chequered record in relation to the defence of refugees’ rights. At the Evian conference in 1938 the world was called together to consider the plight of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. The world closed its doors at that time and mistreated the issue of refugees. This included the delegation from Australia, which infamously stated:

… as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one …

That conference sent the signal to the Nazi regime that it could deal as it pleased with its Jewish community, which of course led on to the horror that subsequently unfolded. In our treatment of refugees, we must bear in mind the impact of the message we send and the example we set to other nations. It is important for us not to try to exploit the situation of refugees—often refugees from countries where we have deployed our troops to resolve the fundamental problems that gave rise to their plight. I call upon all members of this House to refrain from using refugees as a political tool. I commend this document and I commend this celebration of it.