By Andrea Olivares Jones
In June this year, the Castan Centre was again proud to host our Annual Human Rights Conference – ‘Human Rights ‘19’, welcoming human rights leaders, professionals and advocates for the only Australian conference of its kind. This year, we covered diverse and critical human rights issues including the death penalty, guardianship laws and the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, the impact of legislating on rights through public opinion, disability and human rights in Australia, privacy rights in the age of technology, Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, opening a human rights dialogue in Australia, and Australia’s human rights exceptionalism.
Zainab Mahboob, Head of the Justice Project Pakistan and our Maurice Blackburn visiting scholar was the first speaker of the conference. She discussed her experience working as a lawyer and anti-death penalty advocate in Pakistan. The criminal justice system in Pakistan, Zainab argued, is “plagued with defects that render it incompatible with a democratic system which accords basic human rights protection”. Further, in practice, the application of the death penalty disproportionately impacts upon the poor, those with mental illness and other marginalised groups, she said. She concluded by emphasising that there is simply no evidence that the death penalty reduces crime at all, and there is no justification for the Pakistani Government to continue to abuse the human rights of it’s people in this manner.
She was followed by Ms. Saffa, artist and activist from Saudia Arabia, who spoke about the systemic abuse of human rights carried out by the Saudi Government. Ms. Saffa began by discussing the oppressive guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia, stating that “the guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia mean that my life is in the hands of another- a man”. Guardianship laws, she emphasised, strip women and girls in the country of their fundamental rights and freedoms. This, she noted, was the inspiration for her ‘I Am My Own Guardian’ portrait, which went viral as a symbol of female resistance. She went on to discuss how the Saudi Arabian government is directly involved with broader human rights abuses, including the wrongful execution of political dissidents such as Jamal Koshoggi, and illegal war being waged in Yemen. “The situation is not getting better,” she said, and urged western democracies oppose the oppressive Saudi regime.
Our first panel for the day brought together LGBTIQ+ and Indigenous rights activists Professor Sarah Maddison, Shannan Dodson and Lee Carnie to discuss the impact of legislating on human rights by public vote. The panel discussed the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite, and the “dangerous precedent it set”. They emphasised that deferring to public opinion for decisions that affect the fundamental rights of minorities leaves these groups largely disenfranchised, and impacts upon their mental and emotional wellbeing. The panel went on to discuss the possibility of a referendum for constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples in Australia, and urged that we move beyond the “us” versus “them” mentality, and instead pressure government to build a welcoming and diverse community for us all.
The panel was followed by Rosemary Kayess, disability rights activist and scholar from UNSW. Rosemary discussed disability rights in Australia, and urged the government to adhere to its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and adopt a modern approach to disability rights. This, she argued, entails moving beyond the idea of those with a disability as “objects” that receive care, and instead embracing an understanding of disability as one part of the human condition, and persons with a disability as educated agents, capable of making decisions that impact upon their own futures.
Next up was Dr Kate Galloway, nationally recognised academic with expertise in sustainability and gender equality, and human rights in the age of technology. Dr. Galloway discussed the important issue of data privacy in the age of technology. “Privacy” she said “is the breathing space between people and the government” – and it is quickly being eroded. She warned the increased government powers to collect, store and share our personal data pose a critical threat to our privacy rights. Professor Galloway urged resistance to government controls over personal data through the enactment of a bill of rights, good ‘data hygiene’ and greater lobbying to ensure that government does not abuse their powers at the expense of the human rights of Australian citizens.
Our second panel brought together Shukufa Tahiri, human rights activist and former refugee, Katie Robertson, Director of Legal Advocacy, Human Rights Law Centre, and David Mejia-Canales, Senior Policy Adviser, Federation of Community Legal Centres, to discuss Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. The panel began by discussing the prevailing negative public perceptions of refugees, and the impact this has on legislation and policy. All speakers on the panel emphasised that the language around people seeking refuge from persecution in Australia needs to change. Dismantling this now deeply ingrained rhetoric is extremely difficult, they conceded, but noted that a critical first step is involving refugees themselves in the political discourse around seeking asylum. The panel also emphasised that the Australian Government needs to step up and follow through “good intentions” with strong, fair and tangible refugee policy in future.
Our penultimate presentation was by our esteemed guest, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM, President, Australian Human Rights Commission. Professor Croucher spoke to the audience about the AHRC’s ‘Free and Equal: An Australian Conversation on Human Rights’ project. She lamented that we as a community seem to have lost sight of why human rights protections exist in our country, and emphasised that our current human rights protections, which are “framed in the negative” and dependent upon a wrong to occur before providing a solution are simply inadequate. The launch of the national conversation, she emphasised, is a critical first step to changing human rights in Australia – for the better. “We have an opportunity now, at this moment in our history, to embrace the positive framing of rights and freedoms” she said – let’s seize it.
The final presentation of the day was by our very own Castan Centre Director, Professor Sarah Joseph, who took to the stage to discuss Australia’s approach to human rights. Sarah’s presentation showcased the many instances of hostility, and in some cases complacency towards human rights that now characterise Australia’s legal and political exceptionalism as a liberal democracy on this matter. In particular, the lack of a “human rights backstop”, that is to say, strong checks and balances to protect human rights from abuse distinguishes Australia from other States who appear to disregard human rights. She urged that it is important therefore to seize the opportunity presented by the Human Rights Commission to join the dialogue on human rights, so that we, collectively can transform Australia from a human rights antagonist, to a human rights leader.
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