THE ACT has been a shining example, within the Australian context, when it comes to human rights and should be looking forward to a year where even more is achieved.
Debates around human rights have been around for millennia. The “Cyrus the Great Cylinder” is kept today in the British Museum in London. It is the first charter of rights in the world and is written on a baked-clay cylinder in the Akkadian language using cuneiform script. On this cylinder the Persian king proclaimed freedom from slavery, equality of races and the freedom to practice religious beliefs.
Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, recently put a motion before the Federal Labor caucus challenging the Prime Minister’s intention to vote against recognition of Palestine. The result reflected the ability of a thoughtful, academic approach to have significant sway over policy. There can be little doubt of the effort by the US and Israel in attempting to prevent Palestinian recognition and the pressure that must have been placed on our Prime Minister to toe the line.
In the final analysis, with 138 countries supporting Palestine, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to support recognition. This was in line with the motion that Leigh had proposed. Only nine countries opposed the vote while Australia took the compromise position of 40 other countries by abstaining.
What Australia did – and what local member Andrew Leigh was pushing for – is the recognition that is necessary for the human rights of Palestinians to be respected.
It is also critical that Palestinians recognise the human rights of Israelis – who since 1948 have had their own country.
December 10 was the UN Day of Human Rights. This year the motto is “My voice counts” and the emphasis is on inclusion and the right to participate in public life. It is interesting and ironic that many Canberrans were so reluctant to take up this right when self-government was introduced into the ACT, while across the world many peoples were shedding blood to win the same rights.
The UN states: “Everybody has the right to have their voice heard and to have a role in making the decisions that shape their communities. Each one of us should be able to choose those people who will represent us in all governance institutions, to stand for public office, and to vote on the fundamental questions that shape our individual and collective destinies”.
The ACT was the first government in Australia to adopt human rights legislation. The focus has, rightly, been on the local community and in particular on the least powerful in our society who are most vulnerable to the abuse of their human rights. There is more that can be done. However, proposals to extend human rights legislation need to be looked at with great care. The danger of moving too fast is that a backlash could undermine what has already been achieved.
But it is important in the next few years to look beyond what is happening in our local community and, where possible, use our influence to provide the opportunity for others to reach their potential, to exercise their rights.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.