Getting into gear for the next 60 years

The Evatt Lecture
Robert McClelland

Introduction

First, may I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on - and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present. I also wish to acknowledge Dr Christopher Sheil, President of the Evatt Foundation, Ms Rosalind Carrodus, Mr Graeme Innes AM, Human Rights Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, Dr Sev Ozdowski, the former Human Rights Commissioner, Members of the Executive Committee.

Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me to present the Evatt Annual Lecture for 2008. The Evatt Foundation is highly regarded for its reflection, analysis and public dialogue on social justice, equality and human rights. This is something it has been doing - and doing well - for almost 30 years. Tonight is a particularly special occasion for me. The Foundation's namesake was not only an outstanding Australian, he was also a hero of the labour movement - a former Attorney-General, as well as a former Member for Barton. Dr Herbert Vere Evatt - or 'Doc Evatt' as he was well known - might have at times been unpredictable. But he was also a distinguished statesman, with a genuine concern for the underprivileged and disadvantaged.

As well as being a man of strong conviction and immovable ideals, the Doc is remembered for his larger than life ambition - for himself and for our country. He became Commonwealth Attorney-General around the age of 47, having already sat on the High Court from the plucky age of 36. In fact, he resigned from the High Court in order to contest a marginal seat. He succeeded in defeating the incumbent. That drive - combined with his intellectual determination to pursue a progressive agenda - explains why, almost 60 years ago to the day, Doc Evatt found himself President of the United Nations' General Assembly as it took its first significant steps to recognise, protect and promote human rights around the world. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is my great pleasure to not only reflect on the 60 years of the Declaration, but to also look forward. We must take this opportunity to cast an eye to the future.

60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

For 49 of the last 60 years, Australia has had a justifiably proud history in the area of human rights. This commenced with Doc Evatt's role in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Doc Evatt's vision was to use the UN to promote collective security, global social justice, national development and the rule of law - as well as to defend the interests of small powers and middle powers, like Australia. For Doc Evatt, support for the Declaration - and indeed, for human rights - was much more than a symbolic act. His was a life lived with an abiding attachment to human rights across the board. For example, he included women in the Australian delegation to the foundation meeting of the United Nations - at a time when politics, particularly international politics, was seen as the sole preserve of men. And later in his life - away from the United Nations - he was steadfast in his opposition to a constitutional referendum here in Australia that would give the Commonwealth powers to ban communism and membership of the Communist Party; a referendum that was rejected by the Australian people.

Perhaps less well known is Fred Whitlam's involvement in the Universal Declaration. Fred Whitlam - Gough's father - was also a pioneer of international human rights law in Australia. As a member of the Australian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1946, Whitlam argued Australia's case for a permanent human rights court - an idea whose time was yet to come. He also contributed to the drafting of the Universal Declaration.

Australia was an original signatory to that Declaration 60 years ago - we were one among only 47 other nations - and, bar 11 of the last 60 years, we have been a leading proponent of its consistent, comprehensive implementation. The Declaration, born out of the devastation of two world wars, remains a living, breathing document that affirms our shared human dignity and is the foundation for the standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms accepted by the United Nations Member States. The signing of the Declaration in Paris in 1948 stemmed, in large part, from the recognition that abuse of rights was a factor in the rise of violent totalitarian regimes.

 

The ideals and objectives of the Declaration are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago. Today we do not face the same challenges from totalitarian regimes but we do face many other challenges, including the challenge of violent extremism. Research has shown that one of the most effective strategies to counter the process of violent radicalisation is to promote religious tolerance and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. The aspirations of the Declaration are particularly relevant as we face these challenges.

National human rights consultation

The Doc once said that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 'has a moral power ... of enormous weight and influence - one that represents the standard to which (we) can look and with which (we) can compare what (we) in fact enjoy.'1 His comments set some of the context for what I want to say this evening - to acknowledge that Australia is one of the great open and democratic societies of the world and that Australians do enjoy fundamental human rights. Be that as it may, it is important to recognise that the enduring protection of human rights is not a foregone conclusion. In a progressive society like ours it is healthy to ask: 'Are we doing this well and can we do it better?' In my mind, as we focus on getting into gear for the next 60 years, the best placed group of people to provide us with that advice is the Australian people.

And so, tomorrow, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I will launch a national consultation on the protection and promotion of human rights and responsibilities in this country. Our consultation will do far more than honour an election commitment. It will provide all Australians with a chance to have their say; to have their say about the kind of rights and responsibilities that ought to be protected, and how we can better protect and promote those rights and responsibilities now and into the future. The consultation will take the form of a broad based nationwide consultation conducted by a committee of four eminent Australians. I will announce their names tomorrow. The consultation is not just about whether we should or should not have charter of rights. In fact, judging by some of the contributions to the debate so far, I expect there will be robust discussion on a broad range of possibilities. Some will be in favour of change. Some will be in favour of the status quo. Some will suggest other enhancements. Whatever views are out there, I think it is paramount that the consultation hears from as many Australians as possible, with attitudes and views right across the country and right across the spectrum.

Engagement with the United Nations

As the Prime Minister said a week ago today, in his speech to the House of Representatives to mark the anniversary we celebrate tonight: "for Australians our belief is in a fair go for all, and this belief does not stop at the continental shelf. It transcends our shores; it extends to the world at large. We believe in a fair go for everyone, everywhere, and that belief in a fair go means that as a nation we seek to make a difference and support human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world and at home."2 The Prime Minister spoke of our fundamental values. They are the reason why Australia, as a society, functions well. We have a long tradition of upholding the rule of law, and of respecting our public institutions. Our society functions well because millions of Australian citizens are encouraged to, and are willing to, make an unhindered contribution of their talents, skills and passions to our nation's development. They do this in different ways. As a nation, we have pride in our diversity.

Our view is that that we can build on this further. We see engagement with the United Nations as critical to this. We acknowledge that the United Nations is not perfect. However, we see absolutely no value in sniping at international institutions from the spectator stands. For the best part of a decade the former government did this while other nations took the lead. It is our obligation to engage with these institutions in a spirit of co-operation. Since coming to office, the Rudd Government has worked solidly to restore Australia's reputation as a good international citizen. We are working to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council - the heart of international responses to issues of peace and security. But our commitment to renewed engagement with the United Nations does not, of course, start and end there. In August this year, we issued a standing invitation to the United Nations to visit Australia to investigate and report on the protection of human rights. We have joined 62 other nations who have done likewise. This crystallises the message we want to send to the world - that Australia is back in business on human rights, and that we are committed to genuine engagement with the United Nations. Our position is simple. We are not afraid of being judged by international standards. Indeed, more than that - we want to set them.

Improving the rights of people with disabilities

We are not afraid to lead when it comes to international human rights instruments. On coming to office, we worked hard to ensure that Australia was amongst the first Western countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. And because of our early ratification, we were invited to nominate for the United Nations Committee monitoring implementation of the Convention. Australia's nominee, Professor Ron McCallum AO, was successful in securing a place on the inaugural monitoring committee. I am confident he will make a substantial contribution to advancing the rights of people with a disability internationally. Last week, on the International Day of Persons with a Disability, I tabled a National Interest Analysis proposing that Australia accede to the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This Optional Protocol gives the Committee the power to receive complaints from individuals who believe that their country has breached the Convention. The international remedy can be pursued once all domestic remedies have been exhausted. Accession to the Protocol will expose our laws to scrutiny by the United Nations. Again, this is scrutiny that we welcome. We cannot expect our neighbours to meet higher standards if we are not prepared to accept them ourselves. The lead we are taking on the international stage is complemented by steps we are taking at home. Last week I tabled draft Disability Standards for Access to Premises that will go a long way in helping provide better access to new and upgraded public buildings. These are long overdue, and we have been working hard to deliver them for 12 months.

I also introduced long overdue amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 arising from recommendations made by the Productivity Commission over four years ago. These amendments will enhance human rights protections for people with disabilities by improving the operation of Australia's federal anti-discrimination system. One example is that for the first time the Act will be clear that discrimination on the basis of a person's genetic predisposition to disability is unlawful. These improvements also include removing the "dominant reason" test from the Age Discrimination Act 2004, to restore equity for older Australians.

Improving the rights of women

In working to create a culture of opportunity for all people, the Rudd Government is also focused on enhancing women's rights and promoting their equality. In the last fortnight, we ensured that Australia finally acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This is a long overdue step. Australian women who exhaust domestic remedies for violations of their rights will now be able to complain to the relevant United Nations Committee. As I mentioned earlier, this is scrutiny that the Government welcomes. Fittingly, the Optional Protocol will enter into force for Australia before International Women's Day on 8 March 2009. And at home, we have brought together a National Council of experts to develop a National Plan of Action to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. Consultation, engagement and contributions from the states and territories have informed the development of the National Plan. And the National Council has come a long way in a short time in developing the Plan. I am looking forward to seeing the Plan that the Council will shortly be presenting to the Minister for the Status of Women, Tanya Plibersek, for consideration, and to working with her in this area.

Torture

On the topic of torture, we believe that whether it is state sponsored or perpetrated by others, torture contravenes the values we subscribe to as a humane and civilised society. The Rudd Government is therefore committed to taking the steps necessary to become a party to the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. At the moment, we are working to ensure that our domestic legislation, policies and practices comply with the treaty obligations. It is possible that some minor legislative change might be required.

We cannot afford to be complacent. Torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment has no place in Australia. Indeed it has no place in any society. To more clearly implement our international obligations at home, we are giving serious consideration to enacting a comprehensive torture offence at the Commonwealth level. Given the nature of torture, we are considering an offence of extraterritorial application, consistent with the treatment of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes under domestic law. Within Australia and internationally, we are working to help eliminate the use of torture, wherever it occurs and whoever commits it.

Domestic human rights issues

One of the pressing issues for us to sort out on coming to government was to end discrimination against same-sex couples and their families from Commonwealth laws. This was a long overdue and something that was ignored by the Coalition for twelve long years. We took decisive action. And I am glad to say that our laws passed through the Parliament late last month, and received Royal Assent last week. They are an essential step towards a fairer and more just society for all Australians. Our reforms will ensure that in each amended law same-sex couples and, importantly, their children, are recognised. And that for all practical purposes they have the same entitlements as opposite-sex de facto couples.

Another important piece of legislation that was recently introduced, the Fair Work Bill 2008, will put an end to the Coalition's draconian WorkChoices once and for all. In its place we will have a simpler, fairer, more balanced industrial relations system that recognises fundamental workplace and human rights. We are also reforming Australia's immigration detention system, to implement a more humane approach. Our view is that you can have strong border protection without locking up children.

However, without a doubt, the biggest and most pressing human rights challenge we face is the past failures in the treatment of Indigenous Australians. There is much to do but this is something the Rudd Government is tackling head on. The Prime Minister's national apology in February this year was the first step. We are now committed to ambitious targets, and real action, to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. On the global stage, we support the principles underlying the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We are consulting with Indigenous organisations and other key stakeholders on an appropriate public statement to reflect this.

Conclusion

These are only some of the steps we are taking in order to get into gear for the next 60 years. As we speak tonight, Human Rights Defenders from 14 countries in the Asia-Pacific region will join with Australian human rights organisations to play soccer. Like us, they are celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Through the fellowship of sport, they are showing that our best chance of making a difference is to work as a team. These issues transcend borders. Domestic and international human rights protections are intertwined. The Rudd Government understands this. It is why we are committed to the promotion and protection of human rights at home and around the world. It is why we recognise that Australia must reinvigorate its relationship with the United Nations.

Doc Evatt epitomised the kind of enthusiasm and ambition that we ought to have if we are to promote Australia's status as a trusted global citizen. Although it is 60 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, I believe the Doc's example continues to set the standards against which human rights should be viewed. It does, more than ever, give us a context to set our agenda for the next 60 years. Doc Evatt showed that each of us can make a difference. We must challenge ourselves to re-enliven and develop those standards. We have an opportunity to restore our reputation as an international leader in human rights. The forthcoming National Human Rights Consultation will be an important step on the way. At tomorrow's announcement of the Consultation, I will include details about how Australians can have their say and I encourage everyone to motivate others to take an interest and to make their views known. We depend upon each of you to contribute your insight and experience - and to share your views.

Thank you once again for your invitation to speak this evening.


The Hon. Robert McClelland MP is the Attorney-General in the Australian Government. This is the text of his Inaugural Annual Evatt Lecture, presented to the Evatt Foundation at the University of Sydney on Tuesday 9 December 2008.


Notes

1. Sighted on 12.11.08 at http://www.humanrights.org.au/quotes.htm. According to the Evatt Foundation the quotation is likely to have been sourced from Dr H V Evatt "Peace - How Can It Be Achieved" - Address to the Nation Associates 7th April 1949 - (Evatt Collection: UN Miscellaneous); "The United Nations and Human Welfare" address by H V Evatt to the Australian National Committee for the United Nations Brisbane 8 November 1949 (Evatt Collection; UN Miscellaneous) or from his statement to the House of Representatives, found at CPD vol 202 21 June 1949 pp 1212-1226.

2. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Speech to House of Representatives on 2 December 2008.

Also on the Evatt site