Human Rights Day
In 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the landmark document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Compelled to create such a document with the horrors of the first and second world wars still fresh in their mind, the document set out the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. The worlds most translated document, the Universal Declaration has been translated into over 500 different languages in its ambition to improve the basic standards of living for all people across the globe.
10 December 2018 marks the 70 year anniversary of the ratification of the declaration. In the decades that have followed the declaration, the dignity of millions has been uplifted and progress towards a more just world continues to slowly emerge.
The longevity of the document is a testament to the powerful convictions and principles of equality, justice and human dignity expressed within. But the continuing efficacy of the declaration is not a fait accompli, it requires constant work, evaluation and desire for progress. Australia was a founding member of the UN and was one of the eight nations involved in drafting the Universal Declaration. Despite this proud legacy, recent years have seen Australian policies fail to reflect our tradition of protecting civil and political rights.
The United Nations has repeatedly called on Australia to end its practice of offshore processing of asylum seekers. These calls remain unheeded, with more than 1000 people still imprisoned in the abysmal conditions of the psychologically traumatising processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Under Australian care, people fleeing persecution and seeking a better life in Australia are driven to violence, self-harm and suicide. Children are falling into an unconscious state described as resignation syndrome, where they become unresponsive and fail to speak, eat or drink. This condition is life threatening, but despite repeated recommendations from doctors treating these children, the government has consistently refused to bring them to mainland Australia where they can be properly treated for their condition.
Indigenous Australians are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than the rest of the Australian population, often for minor charges such as unpaid fines. Despite repeated urging from Indigenous Australians and activists for constitutional reforms that would acknowledge the tragic and bloody history of European settlement and give a First Nations voice in parliament, progress towards recognition is consistently stymied and stalled.
Australia has a proud tradition of political and social freedom, a legacy that enabled it to form an international reputation as a place of freedom and construct a national narrative as the ‘land of a fair go’. If Australia wishes for this vision of itself to remain, it must once again live up to its international obligations and universal commitments it helped develop 70 years ago.