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Closing Remarks and Vote of Thanks to Jose Ramos Horta following his 1998 Human Rights Oration hosted by The Alfred Dreyfus Anti Defamation Unit of B'nai B'rith and The Hakoah Club Bondi Sunday 13 December 1998

By
The Honourable Justice Marcus Einfeld AO QC

The Universal Declaration

Fifty years ago last week, after the Nazi terror had at last been defeated, a war-ravaged and war-weary world welcomed and ushered in a new international order. Through the creation of the United Nations and the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world community united in a vow to create a world free of war, persecution and injustice, and never again to allow such horrors to darken the lives of humankind.

The Universal Declaration itself was a brilliant and bold document, full of words, phrases and concepts that everyone wanted to hear. It spoke of recognising the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. It observed that disregard and contempt for human rights had resulted in barbarous acts which had outraged the conscience of mankind. It called for the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want, as the highest aspiration of the common people. It declared as essential that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.

Although these impressive expectations have regrettably proved somewhat less well-founded than had been hoped, there can be no doubt that since the inception of the United Nations, there has been a very significant advance in the enunciation and adoption of human rights as fundamental tenets of the social life and political government of civilised humankind. In this respect, the United Nations has sought to elevate human rights into matters of international agreement and concern, and has thus unquestionably given them a new and independent force, allowing their content to reflect more community and less individualistic concerns.

The outstanding address we have heard tonight u from my distinguished friend and much admired colleague and ally in the international human rights struggle, Jose Ramos Horta u has given us a quite magnetic overview of the state of the world today. He has brought home to us that human rights are not some narrow, theoretical or idealistic entitlements to be advocated only by "bleeding hearts" and "do gooders". They are not merely the avenue for asserting the claims of individuals against the state, or for opposing laws which operate unjustly against a few, or for protecting only peripheral minorities. Taken together, human rights principles form a code of behaviour for individuals, communities and states, designed to promote harmonious, just and peaceful conditions essential to the peace and welfare of modern life.

Human Rights in Australia - the current agenda

The driving force for the enthusiastic adoption of these undeniable values in Australian terms is the evolution of our nation into a society where laws, employment and human relations reflect decency and honour; where legitimate controversy is fought and resolved with a passion devoid of stereotypes, and of minority, group or racial defamation; where a fair sharing of our country's resources and benefits is open to every sector of the community; where our national riches and opportunities are developed and enhanced sensibly for our own welfare and for passing on to our children; and, above all, where decisions of all kinds stem from considerations of merit and true deserts, free from preconceptions, prejudices and prejudgments.

Australia has of course played a major and vocal role in the development of international human rights norms in these last 50 years. As a middle power with a respected human rights record, Australia was looked to and listened to by the international community on human rights issues. We should still be leading the way. However, as of late our commitment is looking decidedly hollow and the world is taking notice. Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one thing. It is quite another to ensure that our governments and people take continuous proper note of and honour these rights. In my perception, we are today in serious danger of forgetting this charge.

Recent cutbacks in government funding allegedly due to economic imperatives, sometimes rather ironically called economic rationalism, might produce a budget surplus but they have resulted in major reductions in our provision of childcare, in job creation, education and social welfare programs, and in efforts to care for children and to assist Aborigines and Islanders to improve their situation u so that again the poor are being hit to help the rich and the gap between the two is widening even further. There has even been a 43% cut to the budget of the Human Rights Commission justified by no commonsense or pragmatic assessment of its work but by an idiosyncratic ideology to downgrade the importance of its charter. If I may say so, we need a little less economic rationalism and a little more rational economics.

Coupled with our reluctance to take other countries to task for flagrant human rights violations, especially some in our region, it suggests that at present human rights are not part of the mainstream agenda in our country.

Human rights violations overseas

Indonesia

Our failings at home do not justify our silence on human rights abuses in other countries. The unwillingness of successive Australian governments to stare down and publicly criticise former President Soeharto's administration in Indonesia for its squashing of political opposition and its genocidal treatment of the East Timorese is shameful proof of our emphasis on wealth and commerce at the expense of people's lives. And our exports to Indonesia represent only 2% of our entire foreign trade!

As I said from this very platform in 1992, and later on national and international TV and other media, I will never understand the attitude of Australian Governments of all hues which has first approved and then tolerated Indonesia's occupation of East Timor by what has been, whatever it might have pretended to be on the surface, a ruthless military government. We have not vigorously opposed Indonesia's violent suppression of its own people protesting gross corruption and nepotism, and economic hardship resulting from the wholesale misuse of military and economic power. As our Orator has reminded us, our leaders did not seriously protest the killing of the six journalists in East Timor, including 3 Australians, which has still not been officially investigated. Even now, after the recent dramatic television expose of these murders, we are still pussyfooting around looking for ways for the matter to go away. Imagine our country meekly accepting that its official government investigator cannot even go to East Timor to carry out his work! Indonesia is a country with whom our leaders tell us we have a special relationship. So much for our success in gaining respect for our stances on morality and decency!

It is now just over 7 years since the armed forces of Indonesia, under orders, fired on a group of unarmed civilians attending a funeral at Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. The Dili massacre was described by a Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in a masterly understatement, as a 'planned military operation designed to deal with a public expression of political dissent in a way not in accordance with international human rights standards.'

An inquiry into the massacre held by the Indonesians was only able to find about 40 people who had been killed, and concluded that these murders were the result of a few young officers who feared for their own lives at the hands of unarmed civilians. The inquiry's assessment was that the whole thing was all one most unfortunate incident. Even a General of the Indonesian army interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald after the massacre admitted that over 200 people were shot dead. The General was reported as having said that he was sorry it was not more. There is in fact more than ample evidence that the true casualty figures were 271 killed, 280 wounded and 250 missing, every one of them an unarmed, peaceful and defenceless civilian, victims of the very armed forces who were supposed to protect them.

A few mostly young officers were tried and sentenced at most to short periods of detention. However, dozens of civilians were also tried and convicted of inciting a riot and similar offences. Unlike the soldiers who shot people dead in cold blood, the unarmed civilians were sentenced to long terms of hard labour, some to life imprisonment. This response to a brutal unprovoked massacre was described by our Government at the time as "credible". As the International Commission of Jurists reported, our response, let alone what the Indonesians did, was incredible.

Now, with a new President and Government in place, the chance is here for us to put our relationship with Indonesia where it should always have been u as a friendly neighbour interested not just in our own well-being, but in improving the condition of the Indonesian people including the poor, and in self determination for the people of East Timor.

Despite statements of support for the general move towards democracy in Indonesia, the Australian government seems reluctant to loosen its ties with the military elite. In diplomatic-speak, we say we recognise States, meaning people not governments. In real politik, we forget the people and kow tow to governments. This is a mistake.

That is why I am proud to announce tonight that an organisation of Judges and lawyers which I chair, known as Australian Legal Resources International, is preparing to offer the present and future Indonesian leadership a major program of institution-building for democracy and justice designed to assist them to establish international standards of integrity and decency in public life, in their legal system, and in their fundamental human rights. As our Orator has said, without these standards, no democracy can be built. We will be sure not to forget, still less not to forsake, the people of East Timor.

Burma

There are other peoples in our region who cry out for our help. The Burmese people still suffer under the yoke of one of the most repressive governments in the world, while the members of its elected government are either dead, in prison, under house arrest, or in exile.

Tibet

The Chinese Government refuses to hear the protests of the international community at the cultural genocide of the ancient people of Tibet and grant them any degree of autonomy.

Sri Lanka

The lovely peaceable island of Sri Lanka continues to suffer from civil strife in which the death, rape, torture, detention and disappearance of civilians, primarily Tamils, are common occurrences. A recognition of the Tamils as a people with its own distinct ethnicity, and a cessation of brutality and a range of other serious human rights violations by security forces, especially of armed and aerial attack on Tamil townships, are not too much to ask of the Sri Lankan Government.

Neither is it unreasonable to require that the Sri Lankan Government accept third party mediation. Neither would it be a threat to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka if journalists and other independent observers were permitted into every part of the country to examine the human rights situation in both Tamil and Sinhalese areas.

Poverty

Around the world, millions of children suffer violations of their fundamental rights every single day. One million children under 14 are members of armed militias. Twelve million children in India are enslaved in work u often in brick pits or carpet or textile factories where they breathe in poisonous air and are without clean water, adequate food, or safe shelter. Millions more children suffer similar afflictions in China, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We should long since have stopped the importation of goods produced by child labour.

There is widespread poverty even starvation especially amongst women in developing countries. 40 million people face starvation in Indonesia. Less than one thousandth of the wealth of Bill Gates, George Soros and the Sultan of Brunei would feed them all for life. Poverty and unemployment afflict tens of millions of women and youth in particular. Ethnic cleansing u a modern day euphemism for genocide by your own police, army, government or people u is still raging in far too many countries.

The Australian position

Why is Australia continually silent about these awful occurrences in all these countries? What have we to fear by speaking or reaching out to the governments of these countries to recognise that their own security, sovereignty and international reputation are more harmed by their present attitudes than by a peaceful reconciliation with their own people? As Mr Ramos Horta said, the Dili massacre itself converted the East Timorese question into a mainstream human rights and human survival issue.

I do not support needless offence to sensitive administrations but it cannot be inconsistent with good relations to express concern, take care and provide both aid and hope for a suffering populace, as we would expect of others if it were happening to us. Certainly we must respect the culture and beliefs of others; but so must they respect ours. And ours is or should be a firm adherence to defend and protect the inviolability of human dignity, wherever it is under assault or threat. The idea that these regimes will only trade or have relations with us if we are nice to them, while ignoring the impeccable standards of human conduct of which we proudly boast if we do not always deliver, is absurd and hypocritical.

Refugees

Some 25 million people in the world are officially classified as refugees, and a similar number is internally displaced. And to escape their solemn responsibilities, politicians including ours often label these people as economic refugees when there is no such term in international law, and the economic turmoil which the people suffer is a direct consequence of the effect of foreign military intervention and internal political oppression often fed by the industrialised countries.

Some in Australia even speak of people seeking asylum in our country as queue jumpers. By definition refugees do not form queues. They escape persecution and oppression not of their own making or timetabling. And no one understands it better than Jews. If Australia had a land border with a country of oppression, we would be giving shelter, food, water and health care to hundreds of thousands and there would be no talk of queues.

One other thing. You would think from the political propaganda that Australia had been swamped by the boat people. In fact we have received 3004 boat people whom we have then held in detention without charge or trial for up to 5 years and more. Alone of all people in this country, including murderers, rapists and drug runners, we have denied them bail or temporary release pending determination of status. Alone of all countries in the world, including Canada, the United States and Europe, we have indiscriminately detained all of them u the elderly, the children, the sick and the pregnant u at a cost by the way of around $45,000 per person per year, while the Archbishop of Perth was offering free accommodation for all of them in Catholic homes while the review process ground on.

And at the end of the 5 years, we have given refugee status to more than 1600 of them u meaning that we have held and paid for all these people for all those years without charge, trial or bail, and eventually found more than half of them innocent of even the technical offence of arriving in our country without authorisation. Our protection is our geography, not draconian laws.

Indigenous Australians

Aborigines continue under gross disadvantage, prejudice and discrimination. Whichever social indicator is looked at, whether it is health, education, employment or housing, Indigenous Australians are identified, whatever some very unAustralian people might say to the contrary for political reasons, as the most disadvantaged group in Australia. They live with an adult unemployment rate of 41%, projected to reach 53% by 2006. The figure in the white community is 8%. They endure adult, maternal and infant mortality rates and standards of health not only much worse than the health of non- Aboriginal Australians but far far worse than the state of health enjoyed by comparable indigenous populations in New Zealand and North America. Indigenous males continue to be imprisoned at rates up to 25 times higher than the non-indigenous population. In Western Australia it is 43 times higher. An indigenous youth in New South Wales is twice as likely to be sent to prison or receive a community service order than a white youth committing the same offence who is of the same age and has the same criminal history.

And some say that what we need is equality or equal rights for all. This is a glib, albeit seductively expressed, point of view. If two people commence life far apart in assets, whether personal or material, and they thereafter receive proportionately equal benefits, the gap between them actually increases. In other words, equal treatment of people on unequal levels at the outset of the equalisation process merely perpetuates the inequality.

Hence the superficially attractive appeal of "everyone should be treated equally" as from now is in fact a recipe for retaining differences, imbalances and discrepancies because of the commencing inequality. The truth is that in this fourth year of the Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples, and despite the increased volume of federal legislation and very significant financial allocations by governments across the country from the seventies onward, Australia's Indigenous people still face gross inequality deeply rooted in history and the prejudiced, intolerant or stubborn attitudes of the white community.

What we need for these persons, and others not well treated, is not equal treatment from now, but equality of access, an equal opportunity to a fair chance u what we Australians are pleased to call a "fair go". And everyone in the country should understand that we do not provide it now u and should teach those of their families and friends who are attracted by the views of those who seek to deny or forget that simple but sad fact.

Some suggest that cataloguing such matters represents a black armband view of history. If it is, I for one wear it as a mark of sorrow and apology, and as a commitment to reconciliation. Rather a black armband than a white blindfold to shut out the truth.

Children

Meanwhile, more than 40% of all our children live with families either on welfare benefits, or on incomes that make them the working poor. 100,000 youngsters do not even live with their families, they live on the streets or in shelters for the homeless. Nearly 30% of our 15 to 19 year olds looking for work are unable to find full time work u a number on which we have now been stuck for many years. In some parts of the country, the figure is 60%.

Conclusion

Jose Ramos Horta has honoured us with his presence and his distinguished address tonight. His clear message on this important jubilee is that neglect of human rights in one place breaches fundamental standards and responsibility everywhere else; that if one person's rights are trampled underfoot, the whole community of nations is diminished. Let us not dare to ignore his warning and dismiss his challenge.

Human rights are, as their most famous declaration says, universal. They apply to all of human kind. No one person is more of a human being than another. For the reasons I have given and many more, our situation in Australia is not for boasting about, as some leaders did this week, but for humility and a firm resolution to do much much better. It can never be right to be wrong. Our standards must be those we set for ourselves, not those pursued by others whom we regularly, and rightly, condemn.

Former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt said at his second inauguration:

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who presently have too little.

This is a lesson our generation must not forget. For it is the challenge facing us all in the last minutes of the 20th century. Our freedom and our standards will not be secured by police forces, armies or compulsion, nor will they be assured by constitutions, elections, politicians or parliaments. Only something much more fundamental will provide our children with the inheritance they deserve u a consensus amongst all of us, the people who make up and are this great country, on freedom, justice and human dignity.

As the people who above all others have hit historic depths of discrimination and horror, we Jews, sir, know how your people suffer. We understand their struggle. We feel for their endurance. In thanking you for being with us tonight and for the power of your message, I say only: We are with you in your battle. The tide of history always turns eventually towards the people. Unwavering determination and the eternal sanctity of the human condition ensure that together we will succeed.

The Honourable Justice Marcus Einfeld AO QC


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