Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-3-5952 5780

+61-4-1349 7828

Dec 2008 # 2

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Back to Editorials 2008

Human Rights or Our Shame?

Sixty three years ago the global community drew its collective breath and sighed in relief at the end of World War II. Millions had died and many more millions were displaced, suffering under conditions that the so called “civilised” world found repulsive. In a collective head spin the leaders of the “free world” came together to assemble what we now know as the United Nations. Ironically, an Australian politician, Herbert (Doc) Evatt, was the foundation President of the UN.

Some would argue that Doc Evatt was one of the leading proponents of what became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, sixty years ago, Australia was a foundation signatory to. It seems from the historical record that 'Doc' was indeed a champion of those who suffered injustice and discrimination. At the launch of the foundation named in his honour, Indigenous activist, scholar and advocate, Faith Bandler said of him, “Dr Evatt fought for the oppressed, he fought for our political rights and civil liberties, our freedom of thought and action. We would not find it possible to be as outspoken today as we are if Dr Evatt had not fought for us as a judge, as a politician and as an Australian.”

Speaking as an Indigenous person, she used the collective “we” in recognition of the fact that in 1979 our Indigenous brothers and sisters were able to vote and take part in mainstream Australian life. But not all of them. Many, as she and others knew, were still living in appalling conditions which remain virtually unchanged till today. However, she also recognised that the legacy of Doc Evatt and herself would not be complete until all her people were recognised as equal participants in the 'common wealth' of Australia.

Yet, sixty years after Doc Evatt and others said “never again!” we find that here, in our very own back yard, Indigenous communities are living in fear under conditions that our government would openly condemn in nations far from our shores.

Where is the respect for the “inherent dignity” and “inalienable rights” of our Indigenous peoples when they are forced by our government to accept a military 'intervention' on their homelands? Where is the collective outcry from the Australian community and the call to “rebellion against tyranny and oppression” when this occurs just over our back fence? Where is the collective outrage against the use of race as a basis to impose another degrading social and economic experiment on a people whose skin is a different colour from the majority?

I noted a little earlier that I found it ironic that Doc Evatt was a leading Labor man. He devoted himself to what might, these days, be termed a 'socialist' agenda. While he might not have claimed that himself, he did seem to represent all that is, or should I say, was, good about the Australian Labor party.

Now, sixty years on, regardless of the legacy left to them, the current crop of Labor leaders seem intent on nothing more than a continuance of the Howard government's disgusting “intervention” policy. As I have said before, 'if there was outrage and the need for intervention in the outback, why not the same in the upper class suburbs of the big cities where just as much child abuse and degrading behaviour takes place?' I guess I forgot for a moment that there are always one set of laws for “them” and another set for “us”.

I caught the final episode of “The Howard Years” on the ABC the other night. There was Mal 'the enforcer' Brough, shedding crocodile tears as he recalled the 'facts' of Indigenous child abuse and neglect. The fact that these “Facts” were concocted lies deployed in the dying days of the Howard government in an attempt to bolster their flagging credentials, was obviously lost on Mal. As he shed a tear, perhaps more for the fact he was no longer one of the 'ruling class', Mal studiously avoided any reference to the neglect and disrespect his government had shown to the First Australians while they were in office.

As we pause a moment to consider the power of the words in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the sentiments that lay behind them, we should also reflect on the fact that our government is ignoring the plea by those who penned it that “never again” would military force be used to reduce a people to nothingness. While our government seeks to turf Indigenous people off their land and out of the towns that will eventually be bulldozed for the minerals that lie underneath them, we should be fulminating and taking to the streets in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters.

“Why”, we should be asking our politicians, “are you introducing programs to overcome the preventable diseases which shorten the life span of Aboriginals?” “Why”, we should be demanding to know, “are you telling us to spend, spend, spend when you do nothing to lift this people out of poverty?” “Why”, we should be shouting outside their offices, “do you claim to need more pay when you “quarantine” the meagre benefits of those who need them most?”

We should be shamed as a nation that our leaders proclaim outrage at what Robert Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe, and it is an outrage, while they allow similar conditions to prevail here, on our turf. We should feel shame that while we proclaim our “success” on sporting fields, we continue to ignore the poverty that exists in places we would never visit. We should be shamed that as we give Christmas gifts to each other this year, hundreds of Aboriginal children will be denied that simple pleasure because our government chooses to withdraw their access to 'disposable income'.

A 2005 report by the United Nations “Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” condemns our governments and describes in detail the ways in which racism is institutionally reinforced and supported. The Howard government responded with an attack on the committee which lead the Brazilian delegate to reply “As a veteran diplomat, this statement, with its language describing programs and attacks on NGOs, reminds me of the sort of statement from communist bloc countries and Latin American dictatorships that Australia used to condemn.”

As the world celebrates the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where are our thoughts? Are they turning to the embedded and institutionalised racism that prevails in our country? Are they turning to the fact that we live in a country that is unique among nations in being condemned for its inherent racism?

Sixty years after Doc Evatt and others struggled to codify the basis by which human rights would be measured and upheld, we celebrate this day and hear, perhaps coincidentally, about another push for a federal “bill of rights”. But we should not forget that those who said “never again” were remembering something that is beyond our imagination. The fact is that today, for many of our indigenous brothers and sisters, their memories are still being formed.

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