The Golden Key Lecture


Chris Sidoti

Visiting Professor

University of Western Sydney


National Spokesperson

Human Rights Council of Australia


28 October 2002



The last time I spoke to a group of university students was a little over two weeks ago at the University of Mataram in Lombok, Indonesia. On that occasion over 100 students turned up for three hours on a Saturday morning to participate in a special seminar with me. Needless to say I was very impressed and very honoured. I have spoken at a number of Indonesian universities over the last two years. On each occasion I have been most impressed with the young Indonesian students. They are far less sophisticated and far less knowledgeable of the world than you Australian students but they are intelligent, enthusiastic, eager to learn. The ones I have met have critical, inquiring minds. They long for new ideas and for intellectual challenges – but not for merely intellectual purposes. They have a sense that their own futures and the future of their country are in their hands. Their obvious thirst for knowledge has a very practical basis in their own lives and experiences and in their own hopes and aspirations.


At the University of Mataram we spent most of the morning debating the nature of human rights and the relevance of human rights in international and national affairs. To say that the students were suspicious, even cynical, about human rights would be an under-statement. Many were very open about their view that human rights were no more than new weapons of Western imperialism and domination, that Western powers, especially the United States but also Australia, were imposing human rights agendas on developing countries as a means of destabilising their governments, retarding the development of their peoples and maintaining the existing power imbalance in the world. In one sense I was on the defensive. They saw me as the spokesperson and apologist for Western imperial designs. But in another sense I was able to agree with much of what they said, with many of their criticisms.


The Mataram students were correct in pointing to Western hypocrisy in dealing with human rights. Far too often Western countries and their peoples see human rights as problems only in developing countries, not in their own countries. And so successive United States administrations, including that of the most recent Nobel laureate, Jimmy Carter, refuse to participate in many important international human rights treaties and processes. And the Australian Government becomes aggressively hostile and bitterly dismissive whenever its performance attracts international criticism. So the Indonesian students have good grounds for seeing human rights as something Western states impose on poor countries while ignoring themselves.


The hypocrisy of countries like Australia and the United States, however, does not invalidate human rights or make them irrelevant. It simply and starkly indicates that human rights law makes demands on us all, that no country’s performance is perfect or even acceptable. That is precisely why the international human rights legal system has been developed over the past 50 years, because we all need to do better. Let me go back to the beginnings of that process, to the early 1940s.




In the aftermath of World War II the world’s nations and peoples sought to build a new civilisation of international law, human rights and human solidarity from the tragedy of the War and the Holocaust. First, they established the United Nations as a new global organisation through which disputes could be resolved, peace ensured and human rights protected and promoted. The Charter of the United Nations, adopted in 1945, made these objectives explicit. It did not establish a global or world government. The United Nations is far from that. Instead the Charter established a forum, open to all nations, in which they could jointly pursue common objectives of international peace and security. It gave limited powers of action and enforcement to only one organ of the United Nations, the Security Council, and even then hedged those powers with many restrictions and made their exercise subject to the veto power given to each of the five Great Powers of the post War world.


The United Nations Charter proscribed wars of aggression. It effectively made war lawful in only two circumstances. First, war is lawful when it is authorised by the Security Council as a necessary response to a breach of or a threat to international peace and security. And second, war is lawful when it is undertaken in immediate self defence, that is, where it is an immediate response to an act of aggression against the state or to some direct threat and then only pending action by the Security Council. The Charter envisaged an end to war, reflecting the early post World War II optimism that, after that terrible experience, no nation would again resort to war. The threat of combined international action under the auspices of the Security Council was thought to be so significant and so powerful that no nation would expose itself to it by launching a war.


Of course the experience of the past fifty years has proved otherwise. Indeed, it has been said that there have been more wars during this period than at any time in human history and that more people have died as a result of war and conflict. But the UN Charter is clear in attempting to build a new approach to conflict resolution. Especially since the end of the Cold War nations, even superpowers, have been conscious of the need to bring themselves and their actions within the scope of Charter provisions. So, for example, the United States has sought Security Council approval for almost all its military activities over the past decade - in the Gulf, Somalia, the Balkans and so on. And it justified its war in Afghanistan as an act of self defence in response to direct attacks on its territory and citizens. The legitimacy of this, however, is questionable since the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 were not committed by the Government of Afghanistan but, it has been alleged, by a non-state group, a terrorist organisation. I am happy to discuss this further later if you wish.


The war in Afghanistan last year and now the circumstances of the threatened war against Iraq challenge the new international legal regime established after World War II. They may involve the only superpower, now often referred to as the hyper-power, publicly and persistently repudiating the authority of the United Nations and its Security Council and the law of war established by its Charter. Iraq has not been linked to the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, even though the President of the United States gave it membership of the Axis of Evil in his State of the Union address in January this year. So there is no basis on which the United States can argue, even unconvincingly, that Iraq has undertaken a direct attack or is threatening a direct attack on the United States such as would entitle the United States to take action in self defence. Rather, the United States case against Iraq is based on Iraq’s defiance of Security Council resolutions and its alleged program for the production of weapons of mass destruction. Yet the United States President, at first, showed no intention or interest in seeking Security Council authorisation for any military action against Iraq. Under intense pressure at home and from abroad, he finally referred the issue to the United Nations when he addressed the General Assembly on 12 September this year and then sought a new resolution from the Security Council. But this action has been accompanied by threats approaching blackmail. “If you don’t approve, then we’ll do it anyway without you”.


I was concerned when the Australian Government seemed to be taking the same line as the United States administration, endorsing the proposed new war against Iraq, offering Australian military involvement and ignoring the legal requirement for Security Council authorisation. There is no legal basis for Australian involvement without Security Council authority. There is and can be no suggestion of any need for Australia to act against Iraq in self defence. It can be involved lawfully only if it is acting under a Security Council mandate. The position of the Australian Government has changed as the United States position has changed and it too now awaits Security Council determination. Australia may have been saved criticism that it is in breach of international law, not because it stopped short of illegal military intervention out of concern for the law but because the United States administration thought better of unilateral action.


These fundamental changes to the laws and practices of war have been the first area of significant United Nations activity. The second has been activity to protect and promote human rights.




The United Nations Charter provides that the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination is one of the core objectives of the organisation. Article 1 of the Charter sets this as one of the purposes of the United Nations. However, the Charter does not define what human rights and fundamental freedoms are. That task came a little later, in 1948. In that year the UN Commission on Human Rights completed its work on a draft resolution on human rights and on 10 December 1948 the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a common standard of achievement for all nations ad all peoples”. This was truly an historic task. It was historically difficult. It required agreement by the governments of all the nations in the world at the time, 54 of them. The Declaration represented an unbelievable consensus, across all the political, economic, religious, cultural and social divisions that beset humanity, on what it means to be human, on what human beings require to live fully human lives.


Over the next fifty years the work of building the international human rights legal system progressed, with frustrations, break-throughs, failures and achievements. Treaty after treaty was negotiated, approved by the United Nations and entered into force – treaties on economic, social and cultural rights, civil and political rights, racial discrimination, discrimination against women, torture and children; treaties that provide for international consideration of complaints of human rights violations; treaties that seek to eradicate capital punishment, commercial sexual exploitation of children and the use of child soldiers in combat. Australia played significant roles in the negotiation of all these treaties, cooperating with other states with like minds when it comes to better protecting human rights.


The system now established rests on a very well developed body of law. Indeed the law is the best part of it. It contains comprehensive statements of rights and freedoms and sets out clear state responsibilities. It is not restricted to the rights of individuals, as some argue, but extends to the rights of peoples, such as in relation to self determination and development, and the rights of groups, for example, ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural minorities. It now also gives specific recognition to the rights of indigenous peoples.


The basic deficiency in the international system relates to enforcement. There is no world government and no world police force that will enforce the law. There is no world court with jurisdiction to make binding, enforceable decisions in human rights cases. As I have already indicated the only United Nations organ with enforcement power is the Security Council but its work does not extend to all human rights cases – it would be impractical if it sought to do so – and its decisions to take enforcement action are rare and inconsistent. The establishment of the International Criminal Court this year marks the most significant development yet in the enforcement of human rights. The ICC will be a permanent standing court with jurisdiction in cases of the most serious human rights violations – genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – where national courts fail to deal with them adequately. When it begins operating in The Hague early next year, it will mark a quantum leap in the international human rights system, a leap that is long overdue and long needed. But even then it will not be enough. The ICC will not have jurisdiction in relation to all states, only in relation to those states that ratify its statute. And its jurisdiction is restricted to the most serious violations, not all violations. Until the Court has a universal jurisdiction extending to all states and all violations, the enforcement system will remain deficient.


In the absence of proper mechanisms for enforcement, the international human rights system is based upon cooperation, dialogue, persuasion and moral and political pressure. The major human rights treaties establish monitoring committees to which states must report periodically and before which they must defend their performance. The committees look at general compliance and sometimes they can also consider individual cases of alleged violation. The committees do not make binding legal decisions and have no enforcement powers. Their processes are collaborative and persuasive.


These limitations in the international system are rarely appreciated. Those who complain that the system does not work well generally are not aware that its very structure is deficient. Those, like my student friends at the University of Mataram, who say the system overrides state sovereignty and imposes Western standards do not understand just how weak the system is. Its weakness may be one of its strengths, at this stage, however. It enables the regime to develop further without drawing opposition on the basis of it is over-bearing. It encourages states to become involved because they can obtain assistance and they become entitled to international cooperation in building human rights respecting societies. It does not permit the type of superpower domination that many states fear. An international human rights system based on cooperation and persuasion might be unable to enforce its will but it may be more effective in promoting human rights precisely because states participate willingly and freely, out of conviction rather than fear.



Let me turn now to discuss how Australia has related to this system of human rights law, examining both international and domestic dimensions of the relationship. For fifty years Australia sought to establish its leadership in promoting human rights work domestically and internationally but in more recent years it has simply lost the plot.


Australia played an important part in building the international human rights system from the beginning. In 1948 it was one of the eight nations chosen to take responsibility for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, the USSR, the United States and the United Kingdom) and Lebanon and Chile. Its Minister for External Affairs at the time, Dr H V Evatt, was President of the General Assembly when the Declaration was adopted. Australia was recognised as being in the forefront of nations committed to the development of the new international legal regime that could protect the human rights of all people. It played significant roles in the negotiation of all the human rights treaties, cooperating with other states with like minds when it came to better protecting human rights. It played especially important roles in relation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Statute of the International Criminal Court. In both cases the negotiation of these new treaties was in jeopardy, close to failure, when Australia led major initiatives to reach agreement and complete the task of drafting and approving the texts.


Beyond drafting new human rights treaties Australia and Australians have been prominent in international human rights forums. Australia has been an elected member of the UN Commission on Human Rights on many occasions, most recently again in May this year. In that Commission Australian delegations have played leadership roles on important issues like women's rights, the rights of children and indigenous rights. Australia has had principal responsibility for the annual debate on national human rights institutions. Several eminent Australians have been elected expert members of human rights treaty committees:


q       the Hon Elizabeth Evatt and now Professor Ivan Shearer on the Human Rights Committee

q       Professor Philip Alston on the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, of which he was chair and earlier rapporteur

q       the Hon Elizabeth Evatt on the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, of which she too was chair.


Australia’s role in UN forums was so positive that in March 2000 the Secretary General of the United Nations described it as “a model member” of the UN. Since then, however, Australia has stopped being "a model member" and joined the ranks of the staunchest critics of the very mechanisms we have been so instrumental in establishing, the ranks of those who would tear down what has been so carefully and arduously constructed. The intemperate rhetoric of some ministers, including the most senior, and Australia’s recent voting record have aligned Australia with hard line states with appalling human rights records, like China, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Burma. Australia does not belong in that company. Indeed sometimes these states behave better than we do. Let me give you one example.


Burma has been criticised for many years for its practice of forced labour. The military government there has said it is doing all it can to eliminate the practice but international observers are doubtful and still critical. In October 2001 Burma welcomed a delegation from the International labour Organisation to inspect its performance. The delegation was headed by the former Australian High Court judge and Governor General, Sir Ninian Stephen. Sir Ninian met senior government officials and was able to travel freely to many parts of the country to meet with local people and to conduct his own investigations. His report of his visit was very critical of Burma. The government responded quite positively to the report, entered into further discussions with the ILO and soon agreed to the establishment of a permanent ILO office in Rangoon.


Now the contrast. Australia has received considerable international attention for its practice of compulsory detention of asylum seekers. In May 2002 a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Justice P N Bhagwati, a former Chief Justice of India, visited the Woomera detention on behalf of the High Commissioner. The Australian Government was hostile to the visit, delaying it when it was first requested and then restricting its scope as much as possible. When Justice Bhagwati delivered his report late in June 2002, he was subjected to severe personal criticism, his comments dismissed as emotive and misconceived and his integrity impugned. There was no interest in serious dialogue or in careful examination of Justice Bhagwati’s comments. The Australian Government’s response to Justice Bhagwati’s visit was far more dismissive and extreme than the Burmese Government’s response to Sir Ninian Stephen.


The problem, it seems, is that, while no government likes criticism, the present Australian Government is more sensitive than any of its predecessors and most of its contemporaries. Like a petulant child when reprimanded it has responded to criticism by attempting to destroy the whole game. It is neither mature enough to listen to the views of others nor big enough to admit when it is wrong.


Each of the six key human rights treaties has a committee of independent experts to monitor compliance with the treaty’s obligations. Over the last two years Australia’s performance of its commitments has been criticised repeatedly by every one of these six committees:


q       by the Human Rights Committee established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in relation to mandatory sentencing of offenders and mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals

q       by the Committee established for the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, in relation to indigenous disadvantage

q       by the Committee established under the Convention Against Torture and other forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, for its treatment of asylum seekers and conditions in prisons, especially for indigenous people

q       by the Committee established under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, in relation to native title, mandatory sentencing and criminal justice generally, past policies of removing children and reconciliation

q       by the Committee established under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, for perceived downgrading of women's rights

q       by the Committee established under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in relation to the mandatory sentencing of children.


In addition other mechanisms within the international human rights legal system have criticised Australia, most recently the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention established by the UN Commission on Human Rights and Justice P N Bhagwati, the special representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.


Government ministers have railed against these criticisms. They have not only rejected the messages but also attacked the integrity of the messengers. They have complained that the committees, working groups and representatives are biased against Australia, that they are subjective and emotive, that they do not know the facts, that they rely too much on non-government organisations and that they pay too little heed to the views of a democratically elected government. People in Asia point out in amazement that these are the defensive arguments of their own repressive governments when their countries' performances are criticised.


In response to these criticisms, however, the Australian Government has left the ranks of states supporting the international human rights legal system and joined those of the system’s worst opponents. In September 2000 the Australian Government decided not to ratify the new supplementary treaty to the women's discrimination convention to allow individual complaints to the treaty committee. This decision deprives Australian women of a new opportunity to advance the protection of their rights. In June 2002 the Government came close to deciding not to ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court, a treaty that Australia had played a pivotal role in securing. In June 2002, it voted against a new treaty on inspection of places of detention. This action is most concerning. The Government did not decide simply not to ratify a treaty itself. It went further, seeking to prevent the treaty even being debated by the UN General Assembly, seeking to prevent any country from accepting international inspection. The only company it could find for this view was the company of China, Cuba, Egypt, Japan, Libya, Nigeria and the Sudan, all but Japan notorious human rights violators.


Australia has gone from being a “model member” of the United Nations to being among the most recalcitrant states, in the space of a mere two years.




I am a human rights lawyer who has long been committed to the development and strengthening of the international legal system. And so Australia’s retreat from that system concerns me deeply. However, as an Australian I despair far more about how Australia has retreated from the quest to build a more just society to the point where it now embraces laws and policies that violate the fundamental human rights of our fellow Australians and others who are within Australia’s jurisdiction.


The single most serious human rights situation in Australia is the continued disadvantage of indigenous peoples as a legacy of two centuries of dispossession, marginalisation and impoverishment. Over these two centuries they lost their lands, their children and often their lives and their culture was undermined. We may not want to admit it but they were truly threatened with genocide. As a result today Australia’s 410,000 indigenous people have almost no political and economic power.


For forty years from the early 1960s, serious efforts were made to redress the crimes of the past and cast a new relationship between indigenous and other Australians. Regrettably all that good work is now at risk. The national government has first fanned and then validated populist prejudice and ignorance. It rejected key recommendations of the National Inquiry into the Forced Separation of Indigenous Children, especially the recommendation for a simple “sorry” for what had happened. It amended the federal native title legislation to remove key entitlements to consultation. It became a regular opponent of indigenous people in legal actions to seek protection for their rights. It cast a cloud of suspicion over indigenous organisations and leaders – suspicion that has proved hard to overcome even when independent inquiries have found no fault on the part of those put under the cloud. It rejected the document of reconciliation. The decade long reconciliation process ended in increased frustration and alienation for indigenous people. The state of the relationship between indigenous and other Australians is probably the worst it has been in over thirty years.


Australia has been relatively generous in accepting immigrants, both those simply seeking a better life here for themselves and their children and those fleeing persecution, war and famine. Today all Australians other than indigenous people are either migrants or the descendents of migrants. However, migration programs to Australia over the last century have been strictly controlled and quite selective. Australian governments have accepted migrants only on the basis that it alone chooses whom to accept.  Quite large numbers of refugees from off-shore camps have been accepted on the basis of careful selection and control. Those who have sought to come directly to Australia have been treated harshly. The policy of multiculturalism adopted in the mid 1970s has recognised the richness of Australia’s cultural diversity and enabled immigrants to maintain their traditions, customs and cultural identities while ascribing to common national values and aspirations.


As in other areas of human rights, however, progress in this area has been undermined since the mid 1990s. The new government elected in 1996 did not repudiate the policy of multiculturalism formally but the word became taboo and it embarked on policy shifts that implicitly endorsed a reversion to past policies of assimilation. There has been an increase in nationalist rhetoric and in exclusion of those who do not adopt the views, attitudes and behaviours of the dominant group. Muslims and people from west Asia generally have been singled out for particular attention from political figures and media commentators on the basis of their difference.


The treatment of asylum seekers who have arrived by boat without authority is of particular concern., Since 1989 these people have been subjected to indefinite mandatory detention until they are either granted asylum or deported. Australian law imposes this regime on virtually all unauthorised arrivals. There is no judicial or other independent review of detention and no power for a court or any other authority to order release, at least before the final determination is made. They are detained in spartan conditions in camps, called immigration reception and processing centres, in remote areas of Australia, camps with few facilities, no formal and little informal education for children, inadequate health and medical services, minimal recreational and sporting equipment and poor quality bedrooms, bathrooms and toilets.


In September 2001 the Australia Government acted to prevent any more asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat, through policies to turn around boats at the edge of the territorial waters or to remove their passengers and take them to even more remote camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Legislation to implement these harder policies was passed by the Australian parliament on 26 September 2001. No new asylum seekers have reached the Australian mainland since then. As a result the asylum seeker situation within Australia has changed fundamentally. Numbers in the camps are declining rapidly. Increasingly those who remain are awaiting deportation but they do not know when they will be deported or to what country. Most face indefinite detention as Australia is unable to find a country prepared to accept them. Whatever arguments the Government might have presented in the past for these policies can no longer be sustained when there are no boats coming and little possibility of repatriation for the remaining detainees.


Acceptance as permanent settlers does not end the exclusion experienced by new-comers. The commitment to a multi-cultural Australia, adopted and affirmed since the 1970s, is itself under attack. The situation of recently arrived immigrant communities is of particular concern. The older, larger immigrants communities, for example, from Britain, Ireland, Italy and Greece, have established themselves very successfully in Australia and now exercise considerable political and economic influence. Newer and smaller communities, however, encounter continuing difficulties. Many of them include significant numbers of refugees. They are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and areas of Africa affected by significant conflict.


Smaller, more recently arrived immigrant communities struggle to secure a place within Australian society. Members of these groups are generally poor to very poor and have low educational attainment and poor employment experiences. For them inclusion remains problematic. The experiences of earlier immigrant communities indicate that over one or two generations members of the newer communities too will come to assume prominent positions within Australian society. However, these communities need assistance in the short term to establish their place.


Women in the newer communities encounter particular difficulties. They usually know less English than men and have fewer opportunities to learn English than men. Women from traditional communities or families tend to live in isolation from the broader community, either not working or working in low skilled, low paid jobs with fellow workers who predominantly are also recent immigrants.


Many of the newer communities are predominantly Muslim. Their members face difficulty in being accepted in the context of general international stereotyping and even vilification of Muslims. They have been subjected to verbal and physical attacks in public both as individuals and as a religious community. There is little public understanding of Islam and of the wide range of theological and ideological views of Muslims. All are lumped together and the extremist views of a few are attributed to the moderate majority.



The stereotyping of Muslims in Australia were exacerbated by the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 and the international campaign against terrorism since then. On 12 September the Australian Government announced that it would support whatever action the United States decided to take to respond to the attacks and it offered Australian military personnel to assist that. The Government’s responses involved further reductions in the enjoyment of human rights in Australia, again reversing the trends of fifty years in expanding the scope of human rights protection. And now of course that situation has deteriorated further with the terrorist bombings in Bali and the terrible loss of life, including many Australians.


The terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001 have reversed the trend of fifty years in Australia towards greater respect for civil rights and personal liberties. Earlier this year the Government introduced new legislation to increase the surveillance and other powers of police and intelligence agencies. The proposed legislation provided for lengthy detention without charge or trial, the power to proscribe organisations and to criminalise membership of a proscribed organisation, increased powers of electronic surveillance and similar measures. The proposed legislation was criticised strongly by legal professional associations and human rights groups as unnecessarily and widely restricting human rights and placing a person at risk of criminal prosecution simply because of where he or she goes and to whom he or she speaks. An all-party parliamentary committee inquiring into the proposed legislation recommended sweeping changes to it. The government accepted some of the recommendations and amended legislation was passed. Now in the wake of the Bali bombings the original plans are being revived and further legislation has been foreshadowed. It is likely to continue the serious erosion of human rights.




Australia has been a rich country with a relatively well educated population, good public services, well developed democratic institutions, low levels of corruption and a tradition of acceptance and egalitarianism. It still is. It has had and still has much going for it. The frustration about being an Australian is that we should be able to build a paradise on earth in this country and yet we are failing so dismally to do so. We still have that opportunity, at least for a while.


We need to take action now to revive the reconciliation process, change policies to enable the release of all asylum seekers who do not need to be detained and those who cannot be deported, re-affirm the commitment to multi-culturalism in real and practical ways and so on. There is need also for better legal protection of human rights, public education and persuasion about human rights, human rights education for politicians and public servants and benchmarks, baselines and targets to assess human rights performance.


There is need as well for Australia to return to its customary role as a human rights advocate among nations, especially among the nations of this region. One of the saddest consequences of the Bali bombing has been the adoption of draconian national security laws in Indonesia that permit detention without charge and trail for up to 12 months and impose the death penalty on those convicted of a very widely and vaguely defined act of terrorism. Australian anti-terrorism laws are bad but these are laws that would never be accepted in this country. Yet Australia and the United States have pressed these laws upon the Indonesian Government which has imposed them upon the Indonesian people still suffering, still struggling, after emerging barely four years ago from thirty five years of military dictatorship. The new Indonesian laws are modelled on the colonial internal security laws of Malaysia and Singapore that have been condemned for decades for their human rights violations. Far from being a leader of human rights in this region Australia seems now to be the principal advocate for political changes that will enable the mass violation of the fundamental rights of the poorest people.


Australia’s geographical location between Asia and the Pacific, its quite unique history, its developing multicultural society and its relative wealth enable it to play a limited but important regional role in support of human rights. It has not always been willing to do so, however, especially when such a role would be contrary to its perceived national interests or to the policy of the United States. The challenge now is to become again a prominent defender of and advocate for human rights. Having suffered so severely ourselves from the evil of terrorism we are now entitled to lead by example, not to lecture from the distance. Our example should be one of a society that is committed to human rights, that will not allow itself to be swayed from that path or to be blown off that path by the acts of terrorists. We should show that it is possible to protect our citizens and the citizens of other states without violating their rights. Never before has the task of promoting human rights in this region been more important.


Globally Australia needs to re-establish its role as a leader in building an effective international human rights legal system. Its credibility in this has been severely dented. It can resume its role only through hard work and commitment. Australia continues to have much to offer but it must be credible if it is to be effective. This will require more committed participation in the international system.


q             Australia must work to ensure the speedy and successful commencement of the International Criminal Court, without succumbing to efforts by the United States to create a legal black hole for US soldiers and other agents.

q             It should move to ratify as quickly as possible the newer human rights treaties it has so far failed to ratify, including the optional protocol to the women’s discrimination convention, dealing with complaints to the expert committee, the two optional protocols to the children’s convention, dealing with commercial sexual exploitation and child soldiers, and the migrant workers treaty.

q             It must engage more meaningfully with the human rights treaty monitoring committees and with UN human rights mechanisms, including through more visits to Australia and more positive and constructive dialogue.

q             It must be prepared to submit to proper international scrutiny if it is to expect other, far less compliant states to submit.

q             It must revive its flagging support for the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and reverse its hostility towards the proposed optional protocol to the torture convention on inspection of places of detention.




Australia must not only lead. We must also learn. We can lead on the basis of our long democratic tradition and our longstanding commitment to human rights. We must learn about the role of people, especially students, in this work. We must learn from our own past, when community groups were far more vocal, active and effective in human rights work than they are today. And we must learn from our neighbours where young people, particularly students, play such significant leadership roles in promoting human rights and freedoms. Australia has greater need for an active student population now than it has had for many years. And there are opportunities to match this need.


Australian students certainly do it tough these days, far tougher than students found it in my day. Fees have been re-introduced. There are fewer scholarships for study. The HECS scheme either requires large up-front payments or leaves students in heavy debt on graduation. Students have to work more and earn more to be able to live. And competition makes it all that much harder. Yet many students still find the time and the energy and have the commitment to be active on many important community issues. Environmental groups in particular would struggle to survive without substantial participation by students and other young people. Many are already active in human rights groups and causes. It seems extreme bad taste and great injustice to ask for more. Yet I must.


Your commitment to and involvement in human rights work is not merely important. It is critical to the future of this country. Unless the tide of the last few years is turned soon, the new dismissive hostile attitudes towards human rights will become embedded in our culture and destined to be with us for decades.


The areas for action are well known to you.

q       There are many community organisations that take up particular human rights causes or that involve themselves more generally in human rights work. Join or increase your activity in them.

q       There is need to pressure the media to be more positive about human rights and human rights issues. Hit the airwaves. Seek opportunities to place your views before the community, especially through talkback radio and tabloid newspapers.

q       There is need to move human rights knowledge and understanding beyond academic institutions and privileged discussions and into the broader community. Look for ways to raise and discuss human rights issues in your families and among your friends. Join others in local community education initiatives.

q       Divisions within the community must be addressed and broken down. Find ways to meet and develop friendships across the divides of ethnicity, religion and class. Build alliances and cooperation so that those most marginalized are able to become part of our broader community and to make their contribution to it in their own ways.


The opportunities are there, as much as they ever were, for Australia to be a leader on human rights internationally and domestically. It’s not the opportunity that is lacking, only the will, the commitment, the wisdom and the belief. The question now is whether we are committed and determined enough to re-discover the way ahead.