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healing wounds of history

Healing the wounds of our human rights history


It’s December 1948 and Dr Herbert Vere Evatt, the Australian serving as president of the United Nations General Assembly, heralds the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) — a milestone document listing 30 fundamental freedoms that warrant universal protection.

He notes that the United Nations has been subject to “a lot of criticism” since its birth in 1945, but goes on to boast of the “social, the humanitarian, the cultural” protections the UDHR will offer the world’s citizens. 

“Millions of people — men and women and children all over the world, many miles from Paris and New York — will turn for help and guidance and inspiration to this document,” says ‘Doc’ Evatt, who was also attorney-general in the Labor government of the time

That Australia played such a pivotal role in the early years of the United Nations is both surprising and interesting, says Jon Piccini, lecturer in history at ACU’s National School of Arts. After all, it was – and still is – a mere “middle power”, a geographically isolated country with a small population. 

Arguably more interesting is that despite Dr Evatt’s larger-than-life presence in the UN in the 1940s, and Australia’s position as one of only eight nations to draft the UDHR, it has never fully embraced the document’s principles domestically. 

“When Evatt comes back from the UN, he tells Australians that human rights is all about the ‘fair go’, and we need to embrace it and treat it as a synonym for Australian egalitarianism,” says Dr Piccini, author of Human Rights in Twentieth Century Australia

But while Dr Evatt was a strong believer in civil and political rights and their link to this egalitarian sentiment, he did not believe the United Nations should meddle in matters of “domestic jurisdiction”. 

“So he strongly invokes this great Australian tradition of ‘mateship’, and the idea that we all have equal opportunity to participate in society and to have a good life — while on the other hand, his actions at the UN guaranteed the White Australia Policy would not be threatened by such a document,” Piccini adds. 

“Evatt didn’t think we needed to worry about our supposedly ‘age-old ideas’ — it didn’t pass his mind that the UDHR would undermine our immigration policies. And that raises the question: Who was seen as ‘human’ at that time? Who was considered to be under the jurisdiction of human rights? And how did that apply to non-whites?” 

The politics of human rights 

During World War II, Australia lowered its immigration fence to accept some 6,000 wartime refugees from Asia, on what the then immigration minister Arthur Calwell termed “compassionate grounds”. 

“We took in all these Asian refugees and said, ‘The war’s on, we’re not going to make you go back and fall into the hands of the Japanese’,” Piccini says. 

“‘You can stay in Australia and we’ll give you a five-year exemption from the White Australia Policy, but when the war’s over, you have to go back’.”

Most Asian refugees returned home after the war. Perhaps the highest profile case of those who didn’t was that of Annie O’Keefe, an Indonesian refugee who married an Australian man and had several children but was to be deported after her five-year visa had lapsed. 

O’Keefe took her story to the media, highlighting Australia’s harsh immigration laws to the rest of the world. Hers was the first successful legal challenge to the White Australia Policy. 

Calwell responded to the controversy in 1949, announcing the Wartime Refugees Removal Act, which would give the government explicit authority to deport all non-white foreigners. 

“We can have a white Australia, we can have a black Australia, but a mongrel Australia is impossible,” Calwell told Parliament, in language that was to be echoed by other parliamentarians some 50 years later. 

“I shall not take the first steps to establish the precedents which will allow the floodgates to be opening. I respect Asiatics, but they have their own standards.” 

While O’Keefe’s case wasn’t seen through the prism of the UDHR, subsequent deportation cases were, and progressives began using the language of human rights “as a tool to shine a light on darkened corners of the national imagination”.

This new human rights awareness also enabled the government’s critics to highlight divisions between Doc Evatt, who was championing human rights, and his Labor colleague Arthur Calwell, who relied on the blunt instrument of national power to oppress them.  

“When the UDHR was eventually weaponised against Evatt and the government, I think he was quite perturbed by that,” Piccini says. “He thought people were misunderstanding the document, that they were reading too much into it.”

Dr Evatt made this clear in 1949, telling Parliament: “...there is no relationship between the Declaration of Human Rights … and the exercise by a country of its national right … to determine the composition of its own people.”

Fifty years later, a similar sentiment reverberated in wake of the Tampa affair, when the then prime-minister John Howard declared: “We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

“The similarity of that rhetoric is very interesting because it shows that while the White Australia Policy is theoretically long gone, abolished in 1973, the rhetoric continues to populate Australian debate,” Piccini says. 

“It also shows that even after all these years, the language of human rights seems unable to affect the policy of national governments.”

Learning from history

These clear historical parallels demonstrate why a study of our human rights past is useful to understanding our current-day dilemmas.   

“History can render the past as strange, because our current world is so different, but it can also render the present as strangely familiar,” says Piccini, who believes human rights continue to be understood very restrictively in Australia because of these muddled beginnings. 
 

“Knowing and discussing our patchy human rights history presents some real chances to draw these long historical parallels, to understand that human rights were an alien concept to Australians in the 1940s, and by knowing that, perhaps we learn something, and perhaps we gain a better understanding of our current situation.”

In recent years, Australia has been the target of intense criticism over a litany of human rights abuses, perhaps most notably concerning the treatment of asylum seekers and Indigenous people.   

The nation’s critics include the United Nations itself, and other groups like Human Rights Watch, who note that Australia “has a strong record of protecting civil and political rights … but serious human rights issues remain”. 

The problems persist amongst those more expansive social and cultural rights that Australia has always struggled with, which often concern race and citizenship, Piccini says. 

To move forward, he believes the nation needs to stop seeing some human rights as more important than others. 

“If Australia continues to violate the rights of Indigenous Australians, or the rights of asylum seekers, or the economic rights of citizens, it should expect to be the target of more criticism,” he says. 

One of Piccini’s main goals with his book was to “untangle” the issues that “plague Australia’s long engagement with the idea of human rights”. While he began with the intention to critique the concept of human rights and its domination of international discourse, he now believes it does hold some value. 

“My view was that human rights replaced these other ideas we had at the time, like socialism and women’s liberation and gay liberation, and once those languages died away, we were just left with the language of human rights,” Piccini says. 

“But while researching this book, I began to see that human rights don’t need to be a retreat from a more expansive agenda of radical change, and they can actually be part of that. 

“We just need to be aware of our history of human rights and be able to have a proper discussion about them — but in Australia at the current time, we just don’t seem to be able to have that discussion.”

Jon Piccini is a lecturer in history at ACU’s Brisbane Campus. He publishes on social movements of the 1960s and human rights. His book, Human Rights in Twentieth Century Australia, was published by Cambridge University Press.

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2020 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G