Human rights

Mary Gaudron

If, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I am knocking on the gates right now. I had intended to speak about Jessie Street the internationalist. I had intended to do some research on the topic. But unfortunately, life got out of control once more.

What I do know about Jessie Street the internationalist is that which Madame President Burgmann recalled at the beginning of this lunch. She was an adviser to Bert Evatt - I should call him the Honourable Herbert V Evatt - at the San Francisco Conference in 1945, which established the United Nations.

That conference wrote the UN Charter, but it also did something else. It wrote what is arguably the most important document ever reduced to writing, whether on paper, papyrus, velum or tablets of stone; namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"It is truly bizarre is that, although Australians, notably Dr Evatt and Jessie Street, should play such a significant role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration, it took so long for Australia to put into effect any of the obligations by which it was at least normatively bound from 1948 and earlier."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not officially adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations until December 1948, but its drafting was completed in December 1945. Its 60th birthday was celebrated with some considerable fanfare in Europe last December. It would not surprise me, however, if the events passed unnoticed here in Australia.

The lack of surprise, if that was the case, makes it all the more amazing that Jessie Street should have been committed to an international solution to the problems we faced here and in many other countries, and that she should have been committed to the idea of an international declaration of human rights.

Although, at the time of the Declaration's drafting, Australia had many men and women in many theatres of war throughout the world, Australia in 1945 in general was somewhat less than truly international in its outlook. England was home. Australia's involvement in the war, announced in 1939, was announced on the basis that England had declared war and in consequence Australia was also at war.

Well, 30 years later - that is, in 1975 - the notion that Australia's laws could be shaped by international conventions was fairly revolutionary. As a general rule, at that stage, the federal parliament only ratified treaties that it believed it could implement within its enumerated heads of legislative power. If it did otherwise implement them, it ratified them with something that became known as 'the federal state clause'.

I recollect that in 1972, in the equal pay case, I argued on instructions from the two-man government - the wife of one of whom I see sitting over there - that Australia had not ratified the International Labour Organisation's convention on equal pay because the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission had not granted equal pay to women.

I argued, with some force, about which now I think I should have perhaps had some embarrassment, that it was the fault of the Arbitration Commission that Australia could not honour its international obligations and that the secondary consideration, of course, was that women didn't have equal pay.

Equal pay, the ILO convention on equal pay which featured so importantly in that case, is just one aspect of the earlier 1945 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23(2) simply provided that everyone has the right to 'equal pay for equal work'.

It is truly bizarre is that, although Australians, notably Dr Evatt and Jessie Street, should play such a significant role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration, it took so long for Australia to put into effect any of the obligations by which it was at least normatively bound from 1948 and earlier.

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