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.)