Whose lives do we grieve? Human rights in Australia

I have been committed to social justice and human rights for a long time, but one particularly distressing event turned this commitment into a driving passion.

One day, some years ago now, in an election year, I awoke to hear that a Norwegian boat which had rescued a few hundred people needing care and safety had been denied entry into Australia. Not long after that I saw images of those rescued people being herded onto a military vessel, and taken to a place named after the season of peace and goodwill from which they would be taken to a failed state in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific.

I had seen disturbing and unsettling images of the fences around persecuted people before, but not until then did it start to make me angry. These faces behind the fences were not the persecuted in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan where brutal regimes and dictators ruled, but the persecuted ones from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, here in Australia, locked up behind our fences. And not just any fences, razor wire fences. And there were children behind the razor wire.

We were told that there were fences around ‘these people’ because they had broken the law. They had come to our country by boat – uninvited. We heard that they were probably terrorists. We were told that we should be afraid because there were hordes more of these people coming and they would be dangerous. We knew that they were dangerous and mad because we saw them throw their children into the sea.

I heard people around me calling for the persecuted ones to be kept behind the razor wire because they didn’t deserve to be here and they would take away all the things we valued in life, all the things that were ours – our homes, our jobs and our security. I looked at the people around me as they looked behind the razor wire and into the face of the children. But it wasn’t children they saw – they saw the enemy who would one day rape their daughters and kill their sons. They looked behind the razor wire into the faces of ‘illegals’, worse than criminals and deserving of treatment harsher than criminals.

Too many of us did not see asylum seekers in detention centres as people whose human rights were being abused by public policy and its implementation. We did not see it until we saw Cornelia Rau.

After this horrendous and eye-opening demonstration of policies gone bad, the Howard Government and then the Rudd and Gillard Governments all made some significant changes for a more humane system that also better reflected the spirit of international human rights law. But in 2010, in another election year, we found ourselves in danger of going back to where we were – with some politicians deciding that for the sake of electoral gain it is entirely acceptable to score cheap political points by demonising a group of vulnerable and already traumatised people.

In a brilliant essay which reflects on the post-September 11 world entitled ‘Violence, Mourning and Politics’ (in Precarious Life: The Powers of mourning and violence, 2004), the philosopher Judith Butler reflects on grief and loss and explores what basis for community we might find in our “vulnerability to loss and the task of mourning that follows”.

In the violent context of today’s world, she asks who is that we mourn for? who is it that we don’t mourn? She writes, “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives?… what makes for a grievable life?”.

I think it’s fair to say that many Australians do not grieve the lives that are decimated in our detention centres, not because of any intended malice but because we have so internalised the idea that some people in the world are less worthy than others that we can’t decipher the politics or deconstruct our own responses. The losses suffered by asylum seekers do not figure in whatever we understand as a community to be our shared human vulnerability to loss. We do not believe it’s necessary to take account of their experiences of loss. In fact, we seem quite comfortable allowing them to be punished for the losses they have already experienced.

Butler’s questions are a challenge for us when thinking about the kind of society we might want to be and I believe that, at its heart, human rights discourse is the best universal answer we have been able to come up with to her questions: who counts as human? whose lives count as lives?

I believe that the example of children in detention centres, on its own, is enough to convince that we cannot always be trusted to act justly merely by virtue of our own sense of being a decent, fair and civilised society. It is not a fair, decent and civilised society that allows a popularly elected democratic government to lock up children for years in complete disregard for their wellbeing.

There are other examples too, numerous ones that demonstrate the sometimes less than stellar values we exhibit as a society and the inadequacies of our laws. There have been laws made that have had discriminatory and detrimental effects (deliberate or unintended) on distinct segments of the population, for example, Indigenous Australians, people who are homeless and low-income workers. Other policies, particularly in the wake of ‘September 11’, were implemented with anywhere from inadequate attention to complete disregard for civil and political rights resulting in the impairment of the right to a fair trial and to freedom of speech and association. While we may have believed that such human rights were safe in Australia, it has become clear that they are not adequately protected.

We need to do everything we can to help ourselves. We need systems and structures and language that support the growth of communities which are vibrant, inclusive and safe places, places where people experience dignity and respect and are enabled to flourish as individuals.

Human rights discourse is the universal language we have developed (out of one of the worst chapters of human history – the Holocaust) to talk about our shared values and to describe the conditions necessary for the ensuring that we keep our eyes on the idea of the ‘common good’. It is expressed in law because the law is one of the best tools we have for describing a society’s values and keeping us accountable to each other.

When considering human rights then, you have no choice but to also reflect on questions of values, morality, and shared and individual responsibilities and accountabilities. When people’s human rights are abused, their dignity is abused and the common good is threatened. When we allow public policy to allocate levels of dignity according to a person’s perceived worthiness, then we have answered Butler’s questions in this way: not every life is equal; there are some who are not worthy of our grief. Within a Christian framework that answer is: not every person is created in the image of God; God’s love is conditional.

The current Government missed a rare opportunity after a recommendation by the recent National Human Rights Consultation (in line with majority public support expressed through that Consultation) to move towards a Human Rights Act in this country.

Australia is the only developed democratic nation without some form of national legislative or constitutional human rights protection. Some of the most vocal opponents to human rights legislation – white, middle aged, well-education, rich men – criticise it on the grounds that it will give power to minorities and legitimacy to their voices and they are right. It will. This is the point of human rights law. It demands of the government and the public service and the institutions and organisations that implement government policy, pay heed to the effects of legislation on those most vulnerable, those whose voices are rarely heard and whose needs are usually ignored.

The Uniting Church has, since its inception, voiced its commitment to human rights. In its Statement to the Nation at its inauguration in 1977 the Church promised that it would “oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms”. It promised to work for an end to poverty, racism and injustice and to stand up for such rights as religious liberty, civil and political freedom, education and adequate healthcare for all.

Some Christian groups and individuals receive significant media reporting of their concern for how stronger human rights and anti-discrimination legislation might erode religious freedoms in such areas as employment and freedom of conscience. I understand these concerns, but the institutions of the church are strong and well-supported in Australia – we have the capacity to stand up for ourselves when we need to. It is vulnerable and marginalised people, those whom the Church is called to serve, whose lives will be improved by more robust human rights protections.

It is the responsibility of all of us to seek the common good: to help build a just, peaceful, inclusive and prosperous society, where all people are valued, where the first peoples of this land are respected as the precious soul of the nation, where civil liberties are taken seriously and where the diversity of religions, languages and cultures is regarded as a great gift; where everyone has a home, decent work, access to a good education and good healthcare and the opportunity to live meaningful lives free from fear, prejudice and violence.

In this endeavour, human rights is just one important tool at our disposal. But it is a necessary tool.

Human rights is an expression of shared hope and shared values, a language which enables people to talk across the usual divides of culture and religion and ideology about what it means to be human, about the values inherent to our very humanity and how we might be accountable to each other for upholding our humanity and the common good. It is not perfect and it’s far from sufficient but it does matter and it can make a difference. The time to do something about it is here. A culture of fear and division has held the soul of this country for long enough. We must recover our capacity to count everyone’s life as valuable and worthy. Life will be better this way, for all of us.

This opinion piece was first published on the Religion and Ethics site of ABC Online, 10 December 2010 http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/12/10/3090430.htm?topic1=home&topic2=

1 thought on “Whose lives do we grieve? Human rights in Australia

  1. It is nothing short of disgusting. Great writing.

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