24 March 2005


The recent announcement that some long term detainees may be released into the Australian community – although with conditions attached – has been welcomed as a small, positive step by church leaders and other advocates for refugees, despite falling well short of expectations and of the basic demands of compassion, humanity and justice.

More importantly however, perhaps it represents the beginning of the rolling back of the stone that has sealed off the evil stench emanating from the rottenness of Australia’s policy toward those who have sought asylum in this country.

The policy changes allow some long serving detainees who are stateless or have no country willing to accept them, to be released on the condition that they agree to end any legal action against the government's decisions and leave the country whenever the Australian government decides it is practical for them to do so. Thus although these people will live in the community with an access to a range of essential services they are condemned to live in continued uncertainty, with the constant fear of deportation. They will also have no family reunion rights nor the right to re-enter Australia if they leave, so will have to give up any hope of protection in Australia if they want to see their family members.

The proposed changes do nothing for the more than fifty men, women and children seemingly forgotten but still held on Nauru.

Nevertheless this small sign of a renewed hope of the resurrection of fairness and decency in Australian society this Easter might encourage more Australians to write to their parliamentary representatives urging further reforms. Failure to do so may lead our politicians to think that they have defused a potentially politically damaging issue by this minimal response. Contact details for all parliamentarians can be found at Parliament of Australia website.


The Congregational Leadership Team (CLT) of the Christian Brothers has recently announced the appointment of Br Donal Leader to the position of Congregational Promoter for Advocacy and Justice to become effective in 2006.

In making the appointment the CLT expressed the belief that the particular charism and tradition of the Congregation suggested that a central focus of the Brothers' outreach in the area of Justice should be the welfare of Children at Risk which would include:-
• Children in underdeveloped countries at risk from malnutrition, lack of education, child labour, slavery, child abuse, child soldiering, and other forms of exploitation
• Children adversely affected by their Refugee Status
• Children who, because of their poverty, fail to benefit from the educational and the social services provided for them

In making the appointment, the CLT also wished to highlight the importance of advocacy, something that has perhaps not been given prominence in the ministry of the Christian Brothers in the past. This is a recognition of the fact that it is not sufficient to directly address the plight of children at risk, it is also necessary to lobby for systemic change so that the root causes giving rise to the pain and misery of children can be addressed.

Part of the brief of the Promoter therefore will be to assist the Congregation in gaining access to recognized international institutions, particularly to the relevant agencies of the United Nations, to ensure that those who work for children and the poor around the world can speak to the international community and claim justice on behalf of the voiceless. He will therefore follow the lead of a number of other Religious Orders in seeking NGO status for the Congregation.

During 2005 Donal will undertake preparation for his new role and as part of that will be making contact with ministry sites of the Congregation to gain first hand information about what is happening in regard to justice.


A criticism sometimes expressed is that modern youth is selfish, materialistic and little concerned about social issues (although it could be asked if their parents' generation is any different). Whatever the validity of that general claim, there are certainly significant numbers of young people for whom that is not true.

For example over fifty students from Edmund Rice Schools in Victoria gathered recently at St Bernards College in Essendon for a social justice seminar on the theme of refugees. Speakers provided an overview of the functioning of Australia’s legal system in dealing with refugees and asylum seekers and presented personal stories which placed a human face on those caught up in that system.

Students pledged to become informed about issues of social justice, to raise awareness of these issues in their school communities and to become active participants in the debates and decision making processes in regard to a range of social justice issues.

At the same time many students from a variety of schools regularly give generously of their time to act as volunteer tutors for the children of refugee families who attend the Edmund Rice Refugee Service centres in St Albans and Sunshine. Other young people continue to be active as volunteers with organizations such as Edmund Rice Camps Victoria which has been providing holiday camps for children and families who would not otherwise have that opportunity.

Yet another example of young people making a difference was demonstrated at the recent launch of Eastweb an initiative of a group of young people concerned at the discrimination and marginalisation experienced by indigenous, asylum seeker and refugee communities in Australia. Eastweb aims to work with these communities to combat disadvantage and create long-term change in areas of health care, employment, education and the preservation and maintenance of cultural heritage by encouraging the involvement of those able to share their resources of wealth, time and skills.


The United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has met in Geneva this month. As part of its deliberations its committee of experts has examined Australia’s record of compliance with the UN convention to which Australia signed up in the 1970’s. The Committee received comments and submissions from the Australian government and various non-government organizations.

Whilst expressing satisfaction with the progress in some key areas and welcoming a number of other positive developments the committee expressed concern on a range of issues.

These included proposed legislative changes which were seen to potentially undermine the integrity, independence and efficiency of the operation of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in Australia, the abolition of ATSIC and the associated reduction in opportunity for indigenous people to exercise decision making in respect to their own affairs, the continued disadvantage experienced by indigenous Australians in relation to health, education, employment and native title claims, the effect of counter-terrorism legislation on Arab and Muslim Australians, the biased, negative portrayal of asylum seekers in the media and government policy in regard to asylum seekers particularly mandatory detention and the operation of the temporary protection visa system.

Further information including the text of the concluding observations of the CERD can be found at the Rights Australia website.

11 March 2005


Democracy demands a degree of honesty and compassion in politicians and the courage of the media to report the truth, refugee barrister Julian Burnside argued at the annual Uniya Lenten Seminar held in Melbourne recently.

Mr Burnside offered the view that Australia was in the process of becoming a very different society given the disregard for honesty that now seemed to be widely accepted. He asked the audience to imagine what it would be like if the Government was honest about its conduct and the Opposition and media had a bit more spine.

"Imagine if he [Prime Minister Howard] had said at the 2004 election: 'My government locks up innocent people. We treat them cruelly, because we don’t want to encourage their type. We have power to gaol innocent people for life. I will not help the Bakhtiyari children at Christmas time because I don’t have to. I will only show compassion for popular victims.'

"Imagine how different things might be if we had an honest Opposition. Too timid to take a stand, the Labor party has spent the last 8 years nodding passively at every failure of human rights, every bit of dishonesty, every erosion of basic rights."

"Imagine also how different things might be if the press in this country had shown some spine over the past few years. Many – perhaps most – journalists in Australia today shy away from unpopular truths", he said and contrasted the extensive media coverage of Cornelia Rau's case, an Australian resident with mental illness held in immigration detention for nearly a year, to the ignoring of many stories of torture and ill-treatment of non-Australian residents in detention centres. He argued that in presenting an unbalanced view of Australia’s conduct, the media had engaged in its own form of dishonesty.

Ultimately, he argued, Australians will come to realize that they have lost something significant and that "honesty matters".


When Natasha Pizzi and Phoebe Maluyo two 16-year-olds from Marian College in Sunshine found that the company making their school uniforms had not signed a code of practice to protect workers' rights, they persuaded their school to change suppliers.

Their story was reported recently in the Melbourne “Age” in a news item relating to the launch of the “No Sweat School” DVD produced by FairWear and available at the FairWear website.

Marian College is one of several schools that have joined a campaign to help stop exploitation of homeworkers - women, generally, who sew at home for some of Australia's biggest clothing companies. There are an estimated 300,000 homeworkers in Australia, with many earning as little as $2 an hour. They often work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Annie Delaney, a co-ordinator at FairWear, a group dedicated to protecting workers' rights.

FairWear is also encouraging shoppers when purchasing clothes to look for the “No sweatshop” label to ensure that it is produced by a company that treats its workers fairly rather than just to consider the style and price tag.


What are your human rights? Can you name them?

In 1948 the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights listing thirty "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" which constitute the "foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world"

Those rights include:-
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights (Article 1)
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. (Article 5)
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law (Article 7)
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. (Article 9)
Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. (Article 11)
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. (Article 14)

In recent years concern has arisen at the disregard of these fundamental rights in Australia. In response to those concerns the Catholic Commission for Justice Development and Peace in Melbourne has compiled a Human Rights Register which records individual reports and accounts of developments and violations in regard to human rights and analyses them in the light of the human rights conventions that Australia has ratified. It focuses on individual instances within Australia and contains reports from community legal centres, non-government organisations and the national media.

The 2004 edition of the register was recently launched in Melbourne and is available for inspection at the Catholic Commission for Justice, Development & Peace website.


Pressure on the Australian government to reach a fair agreement over the disputed oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea increased on the eve of talks between the two governments that re-commenced earlier this month.

A delegation of community leaders from Victoria led by Bishop Hilton Deakin of Melbourne presented a letter to a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade representative in Canberra urging Australia respect East Timor's legal entitlements under international law. A copy of the letter signed by a range of prominent figures also appeared in the daily press. "The majority of Australians want our government to offer a fair deal that reflects East Timor's rightful entitlement under current international law," Bishop Deakin said. "The way in which our governments have behaved in the past in ignoring jurisdictions by withdrawing from them, redefining boundaries and redefining principles about boundaries, is nothing short of a very sophisticated way of depriving the people of what nature gave them"

In a letter to the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, 17 members of both chambers of the US Congress also urged Australia "to move quickly and seriously to establish a fair, permanent maritime boundary with Timor-Leste, (also known as East Timor)". "An equitable sharing of oil and gas revenues would enable Timor-Leste to provide better health care and other essential services to its citizens. Such equitable sharing of revenue is not a question of charity; rather it is a matter of self-determination, sovereignty and Timor-Leste's future," the members of Congress wrote.

The Social Action Committee of the Conference of Leaders of Religious Congregations in Victoria has also written to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister arguing that on moral grounds the current stance of the Australian government cannot be justified, pointing out that "On the one hand Australia enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world and last year could afford to offer billions of dollars in tax cuts, mainly for the more well-off in our society, whilst one of our nearest neighbours in East Timor is currently one of the poorest nations in the world where most of the population lack the basic necessities of life."

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