House of Representatives Speech- Universal Declaration of Human Rights

I want to take this opportunity to note the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December. I wholeheartedly support the motion moved by the Prime Minister on Tuesday and debated yesterday. Today, I wish to reiterate the significance of the 30 rights enshrined in the universal declaration by the UN General Assembly.

I want to take this opportunity to note the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December. I wholeheartedly support the motion moved by the Prime Minister on Tuesday and debated yesterday. Today, I wish to reiterate the significance of the 30 rights enshrined in the universal declaration by the UN General Assembly. The President of the UN General Assembly in 1948, the former High Court judge and federal parliamentary Labor leader, Dr H V Evatt, concisely summed up its importance, saying that the declaration was:

…the first occasion on which the organised community of nations had made a declaration of human rights and fundamental freedoms. That document was backed by the authority of the body of opinion of the United Nations as a whole and millions of people, men, women and children all over the world, would turn to it for help, guidance and inspiration.

One merely has to look at the text of the universal declaration to admire the powerful messages contained within its simple and elegant prose. The articles of the declaration have become the ideological bedrock in the development of human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights when they were introduced, after 18 years of negotiation, in December 1966.

As Dr Evatt envisaged on 10 December 60 years ago, the men, women and children of the world still look to the universal declaration for guidance today. While war and violence still grip many corners of our world, the universal declaration remains as the inalienable right of all. Sixty years on, it has been translated into more than 360 languages and is cited by the United Nations as its most translated document. A quick check on the UN’s website notes that it has been translated from Abkhaz—a language from Georgia, the Ukraine and Turkey—to Zulu.

We should also take this time to remember the labours of individuals such as Dr Evatt, the Canadian jurist John Peters Humphrey, Rene Cassin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the inaugural commission of human rights which drafted the declaration. The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Canadian Louise Arbour, had this to say about the declaration:

It is difficult to imagine today just what a fundamental shift the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented when it was adopted sixty years ago. In a post-war world scarred by the Holocaust, divided by colonialism and wracked by inequality, a charter setting out the first global and solemn commitment to the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings, regardless of colour, creed or origin, was a bold and daring undertaking.

It is worth remembering that just 10 years earlier, at the intergovernmental Evian Conference on refugees, held in July 1938 to formulate a response to refugees fleeing from the horrors of the Nazi oppression in Europe, the Australian representative, Lieutenant-Colonel TW White, infamously said, as a response from Australia:

It will no doubt be appreciated also that, as we have no real racial problems, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.

That in 1948, after the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, Australian representatives could play a crucial role in the formulation of the universal declaration is a fine example of the ‘fundamental shift’ that Louise Arbour described.

I look forward to further progress in the protection of human rights in this country, which I hope will come from the consultation process that is a commitment of the Rudd Labor government. That process will actively engage with the Australian people about the potential for a national charter of rights. I hope that it will lead to such a charter, building on the charters of rights and responsibilities that have already been introduced in the Australian Capital Territory and in Victoria. I hope that, if the consultation does produce the outcome that this parliament is invited to legislate in relation to a charter of rights and responsibilities, the kind of language we will see in the charter uses, as closely as possible, the fine words of the universal declaration.