Forum on Human Rights

On Wednesday 23 June, as part of this my busiest week in a long time, I served as the Buddhist representative on the Forum on Human Rights, organized by the Attorney General’s department and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. As one of the religious representatives, and not a specialist in the field, my role was mainly to witness events and see in practice how the process of community consultation is carried out. It was terrific to see the different perspectives in action, and to have so many people with detailed, specialized knowledge to call upon.

Australia is still the only developed nation in the world with no national human rights charter. Having failed to introduce the (already fairly moderate) provisions of the Brennan report, the government has introduced a Human Rights Framework, which is of much narrower scope. There seems to be the intention to gradually expand the scope and provisions of the Framework. At least it’s something, but far short of the guarantee for provision of basic rights for all that was hoped for by the majority of Australians.

I learnt a thing or two: for example, the existing human rights provisions in Australia only cover citizens. Even those on PR have essentially no human rights guarantees, a weakness that was highlighted by the protests (going on while we were meeting) against the expulsion of the Muslim leader Mansour Leghaei. The government claims there are reasons for his expulsion, but since he is not a citizen – although he has lived in Australia for 16 years and raised a family here – he has no rights under FoI and so the Govt has not disclosed the reasons.

Further erosion of rights for Muslims is being pushed in the NSW parliament, with the introduction of a bill on June 22 to ban the burqua, by the notorious Rev Fred Nile (think Mary Whitehouse, only more so). Who will be in their sights next? I’m sure the religious right are concerned over the rise of Buddhism in Australia – will they argue that monastic robes have to be banned? After all, robes have served as the cover for weapons, even the assassination of a Sri Lankan Prime Minister.

An argument was raised repeatedly to the effect that, ‘How can Australia be effective in its self-appointed role – seen as arrogant by many – to improve human rights internationally, while still having no internal guarantees?’ With issues regarding indigenous peoples, detention centers, security laws, and religious minorities, there’s no shortage of areas where a clear and firm policy on human rights would help. The response was typically, ‘Well, umm, it’s not that simple, actually we’ve done a lot and no-one’s perfect…’. Which is all true, but hardly the point.

I managed to raise some areas of concern with Buddhists, particularly our opposition to exemption from anti-discrimination laws for religious organizations; and in addition questions that have been raised about the apparent imbalance in favor of Christian refugees from the Burmese Karen people. We’re not sure whether this arises from conscious or unconscious discrimination, or whether it simply reflects the fact that the Karen, a disadvantaged minority in Myanmar, are largely Christian.

Sitting in the meeting, I felt that there were some serious problems in the way the meeting was conducted. As an observer, I could see these things very clearly – and then it occurred to me that we had made many of the same mistake in the ASA conference just the day before! They included:

  • Use of acronyms and specialized language, which is exclusive not inclusive;
  • Speaking too fast, making it hard for those for whom English is the second language;
  • Lack of specific encouragement for non-specialists, making me – and others, I’m sure – reluctant to speak up in the presence of so many experts.

I’ll raise these with the ASA and see if we can do better in future. (More on the ASA conference in a few days.)

4 thoughts on “Forum on Human Rights

  1. This is going to be a bit controversial so I wish to apologise if my words offend. This is not my intention. I agree with the idea of banning the Burqua in Australia. And I have two main reasons.

    First, I believe the Burqua is a cultural and not a religious artifact. As i understand it, the Koran requires a woman to be modest in appearance (and behaviour?). Most Muslim cultures in fact do not require the wearing of the Burqua but something less complete (a perspective i would suggest Australia and other ‘liberal democracies’ adopt); The Burqua is a demand of what i would view as extreme Muslim cultures (and intolerant – see below). I believe all extreme cultural demands should be rejected by the community.

    Second, I recall a quote from Clarence Darrow which goes something like “I am intolerant of intolerance”. I quite like that use of a double negative which i feel is useful in public life (but not necessarily sufficient in a personal or spiritual life).

    I think arguments about security are pretty weak although there may be issues around identity and fraud that have not been addressed or may so far have been avoided.

    There is at least one fundamental flaw in my argument and that is being ‘intolerant of intolerance’ means i am exactly the same as the people who i accuse of being intolerant; the only difference being that I think my values are right while the ‘other’ thinks they are right. So I guess that makes me a hypocrite and clearly I am attached to my point of view.

    But this is all very theoretical and I think there are practical reasons for banning the Burqua: to encourage harmony, equality and integration within society. Harmony because I think we have been brought up to feel secure and comfortable when we can look into the face of a stranger to see if there is anything to warrant concern to our safety. We get many clues about a person from their facial expressions; A woman who is hidden away while in public could be considered and viewed as being denied equality and not permitted to integrate freely and at large but only on a limited and exclusive basis (i.e. at home). It may encourage the perception by men that women are not equal.

    I have no problem with robes, turbans, and other distinctive dress whether religious or cultural. My issues is with denying a woman her identity (face) and society the ability to see her face. I admit this is favouring the status quo which is an historical accident and maybe change is to be desired and tolerated and i will just have to learn to live with it and overcome my own biases.

    While I am neither a Muslim nor a female please challenge my ideas rather than my identity.

  2. You wrote: I managed to raise some areas of concern with Buddhists, particularly our opposition to exemption from anti-discrimination laws for religious organizations; and in addition questions that have been raised about the apparent imbalance in favor of Christian refugees from the Burmese Karen people. We’re not sure whether this arises from conscious or unconscious discrimination, or whether it simply reflects the fact that the Karen, a disadvantaged minority in Myanmar, are largely Christian.

    To set the record straight, the majority of Karen from and in Burma are animists and matrilineal. There are two language groups, Pwo and Sgaw.

    Many Karen in the plains of Burma and in the highlands of Thailand embraced Buddhism through contact with Burman, Mon, Shan, and Thai Buddhists.

    The first Christian convert was made in 1828 and what followed was Baptist missionary activity (along with 7th Day Adventist and some Church of England) on a scale unprecedented in SE Asia.

    By 1919, about 17 percent of Karen in Burma had become Christian although there has been a lot of mixing of Buddhism and Christianity into indigenous religious practices and believes, which sometimes included millennarian cults and elements of Karen nationalism envisioning a new order in which the Karen would be powerful.

    The data in Thailand indicate that of Pwo Karen, 37.2 percent are animist, 61.1 percent Buddhist, and 1.7 percent Christian; of Sgaw Karen, 42.9 percent are animist, 38.4 percent Buddhist, and 18.3 percent Christian.

    Figures for Burma are not available, but there are estimates that most Pwo and Pa-O Karen practice Buddhism and animism, that many Sgaw Karen are now Christians, mainly Baptist.

    There may indeed be favoritism being shown to Christian Karen in innterviews for refugee status and resettlement, but you may be sure that the Karen in general are not largely Christian.

    Read more: http://www.everyculture.com/East-Southeast-Asia/Karen-Religion-and-Expressive-Culture.html#ixzz0rsWy8dRv

    • Thanks so much for this data, i will definitely follow up on this. i am, I’ll admit, surprised at the low percentage of Christian karen you quote for thailand.

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