Stuart McMillan, President, Uniting Church in Australia, reflects on our human rights priorities
At Australia’s recent appearance at the United Nations for our second Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights, over 100 states lined up to comment and ask questions on our human rights record. There was praise, mainly for our commitment to a process that would finally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, and on the establishment of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. But there was also a barrage of questions that came from legitimate concerns about how we as a nation are failing to do the right thing. The Australian delegation should have been left in no doubt that, on a few major issues, we fall embarrassingly short of international standards, let alone the standards expected of an open, prosperous, civil and democratic country.
My first prayer for this Human Rights Day is for a renewed focus on what justice means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Members of the world’s oldest continuing culture are still suffering racially discriminatory policies that perpetuate more than two centuries of colonisation and dispossession. Punitive policies like welfare quarantining do nothing to address indigenous over-representation in our criminal justice system, high suicide rates, and entrenched socioeconomic disadvantage.
The Australian Government must start a genuine dialogue with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about the best ways to recognise their cultural knowledge and rich history, make amends for the emotional, physical and economic scars they still carry, affirm the importance of land rights and start a serious conversation about treaty.
Australian policies towards people who are seeking asylum continue to be an issue of bewildering concern to many in the international community, let alone to those of us who would make strangers welcome here at home. Countries lined up at the United Nations to ask why such a generally good ‘global citizen’ as Australia would continue to legislate such clear breaches of international humanitarian law. Some in Government like to say that these policies are a model that should be followed elsewhere. But if other countries behaved like Australia has with boat turn-backs, offshore processing and mandatory and indefinite imprisonment of innocent people, including children, the international refugee protection regime would collapse.
At a time of year when Christians remember the plight of one particular Middle Eastern family seeking refuge over 2000 years ago, I am ashamed that many people who sought refuge in our country are being held by our Government in immigration detention. So my second prayer is for the release of children and their families from offshore and onshore detention centres, and for an end to the inhumane practice of detaining people indefinitely in harsh and dangerous conditions.
My third prayer for Human Rights Day is that we would pay more attention to the rights of people who are threatened by climate change. Climate change is not often talked about as a human rights issue but the threat it poses to people’s right to life, adequate food, water, health and security is very real. People are already losing their livelihoods. The risks to culture, language and nationality are substantial. Climate change will have the most effect on those who can least afford it and those who bear no responsibility for its causes, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Australia, as the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the developed world, has a responsibility to set strong and immediate goals for our own decarbonisation. While the financial support the Government announced recently for the adaptation strategies of our neighbours is welcome, it will mean little without significant efforts to reduce our own carbon footprint. The targets we have taken to the UN climate negotiations in Paris are weak and the future of our renewable energy sector is uncertain. Australia is well placed to demonstrate global leadership in responding to climate change, and this includes the human rights challenges. I pray that the Australian Government shows this leadership as a mark of our maturity as a nation.