Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Report - Human Rights Forum

It was great to see a full house at yesterday's Human Rights Forum at Leichhardt Town Hall, and one which included some distinguished guests, including Whitlam Government Attorney General Kep Enderby. Given the recent passage of so-called Anti-Terrorism legislation, sedition laws, and the short and long term oppression of Muslims, Aboriginals and asylum seekers, perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised.

The justly well-regarded human rights activist and QC Julian Burnside detailed the reasons Australia needs a bill or charter of Human Rights by discussing the issue on a human rather than rhetorical level - exactly the opposite approach of the Howard Government, which deliberately kept journalists away from the Tampa to prevent them from snapping `humanising images' of the asylum seekers on board. He mentioned three incidents which persuaded him of the need to delineate the issues on which governments should and should not be able to legislate:

1) The Tampa incident itself, in which the government circumvented its own Migration Act and invoked its sovereign powers to get around fulfilling its elected duties (which is - under both its own and international laws - to provide asylum to anyone who seeks it)
2) A letter he received from an asylum seeker who was detained in Port Hedland which concluded `Please don't forget us. We're human.' It struck him that, again, something needed to be done to prevent a Western democratic government lawfully incarcerating the innocent.
3) And perhaps most scandalously, the case of Al-Kateb, a stateless Palestinian who sought asylum in Australia but, having been refused and finding detention so horrific, sought the only other option - repatriation in Palestine. Because he was stateless, Palestine refused to accept him, and there was nothing in Australian legislation to deal with someone in this situation (the Serbian born Australian resident, Robert Jovovic, currently finds himself in the same situation). However, instead of amending this loophole, the Australian government took the case to the High Court, argued that he should instead be kept in detention, FOR LIFE - and won, 4 to 3. Burnside argued that, again, a benchmark that prevents governments - any government, not just the present one - from legislation that allows it to jail innocent people for life seems essential, based on the above evidence.


Importantly, Burnside reminded us that no rights are absolute - he used the handy metaphor that `my right to swing my arms extends only as far as your nose' - which is to say that rights exist only as long as they do not infringe upon other rights. This is a crucial point, given that many who are wary of a Bill of Rights are concerned that it would open the floodgates, and allow anyone to do anything; protect Hansonites as well as asylum seekers.

I was very impressed by Rob Hulls, Victoria's Attorney General, a convincing speaker with a talent for putting things across in simple, forceful terms. Like Julian Burnside, he acknowledged the difficulty in shifting a concept such as Human Rights from the abstract to the concrete in the average suburban mind. Emphasising that Human Rights is an extension of the typically Australian concept of the `fair go' has been integral in this process.

The results in Victoria are extremely encouraging. Victoria is the first state (along with the ACT, the first territory) to introduce a Charter of Human Rights, which was arrived at after extensive community consultation. A consultation committee travelled throughout urban and regional Victoria, gaining the opinions of a diverse range of Victorians, from street kids to legal centres. A record 2,524 submissions were received, from groups from the Country Womens Association to Victims of Crime. In total, 84% supported the formation of a Charter of Rights.

The Charter 's model is similar to that used in New Zealand, in which cultural and civil rights are enshrined. Respondents voted not to enshrine economic, social and cultural rights, but Hulls pointed out that an amendment process has been built in to the formation of the charter, and it is better to move in small increments rather than big leaps. All Victorian legislation will now be made in accordance with the Human Rights Charter.

While Victorian bureaucrats were initially wary, they have now embraced the charter wholeheartedly, and agree with the view of their counterparts in New Zealand and England (which adopted a similar charter in 1998) that such a bill actually makes the drafting of legislation easier.

The meeting passed motions to both the NSW and Federal governments urging them to consider the idea of adopting a similar charter or bill. While the latter is a long shot, it is worth writing to the NSW Attorney General, Bob Debus, to suggest that the idea be reconsidered in line with the Victorian model if you're interested in this issue. Given the example Julian Burnside gave of the `terrorist' the US Government locked in Guantanamo Bay for two years who later proved to be a blind, 99 year old Afghani shepherd, who spent the majority of his time in custody shackled to his walking frame, we all should be.

2 Comments:

At 1:26 pm, Blogger leftvegdrunk said...

Sounds like an awesome meeting. Great to hear.

 
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