2017 is the year for human rights

By Alex Virgo

‘We have human rights because we are human, but people don’t seem to understand that.’

It has been over a week since I attended the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights inaugural conference, but these words spoken by renowned barrister and passionate human rights advocate, Julian Burnside, have really stuck with me.

National human rights conference

In July 2015, La Trobe University became the principal supporter of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, fostering a partnership that, among other things, aims to strengthen the education of human rights issues across the student body and broader community.

When this happened, I was only one year into my law degree and was encouraged and extremely proud that my university was so committee to social justice issues.

Fast forward to February this year and the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights held their inaugural National Human Rights Conference at the La Trobe University city campus. And, of course, I could not pass up the opportunity to go along.

The conference was held over two days, with a range of sessions covering refugee, disability, indigenous and women’s rights, as well as sessions on business and human rights and the current human rights challenges in Victoria. The speakers delivered material that was completely eye opening and at times depressing, but was also inspiring and quite motivating.

Human rights abuses in our own backyard

When we think of Australia’s human rights issues, we are most likely to think of the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and the way we treat people seeking asylum in this country. And, of course, this is a clear human rights breach that needs to be solved as soon as possible.

However, as Dan Nicholson and Tim Marsh from Victoria Legal Aid pointed out, breaches of human rights are happening right here in Victoria. Each day many Victorians face forced, involuntary medical procedures such as electroconvulsive therapy, and are struggling to gain access to any legal advice or support. Further, the treatment of juveniles in detention in this country is a far cry from model compliance with human rights obligations.

Additionally, Professor Irene Watson spoke to the delegates about the long history of abuse and ongoing genocide against our first nations people. With government policies such as the humanitarian intervention in the Northern Territory, it appears that the notion of colonialism has never actually left.

Australian businesses also have human rights obligations, as employment rights infer human rights. Kate Eastman SC and Professor Justine Nolan spoke extensively about the obligations of corporations have to ensure that their workers are treated humanely and their products are not produced in less than favourable conditions.

Other speakers spoke more broadly about human rights breaches both here in Australia and throughout the world, and honestly it was quite overwhelming to consider the awful way so many people have been and continue to be treated.

We can’t give up

The other day, a friend of mine asked me why I wanted to know about the atrocities happening in the world when I wasn’t able to really do anything to make a difference. At first this question stopped me in my tracks, but then I realised that education is always essential. While I may not be able to make any changes while I am still a student, I believe that learning about human rights issues is essential, and so is spreading that knowledge.

At the conference I spoke with a number of the other delegates, many of whom had travelled from interstate to attend the sessions. The common thing everyone seemed to talk about was the importance of speaking up about current human rights abuses here in Australia and throughout the rest of the world.

The most important thing that I took away from the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights inaugural conference was that everyone has a role to play in ensuring that human rights obligations are met, even if it is by raising awareness of the issues.

Again, the words of Julian Burnside ring true, ‘We are going through dark times of human rights protection, but don’t give up’.

La Trobe