It is often the case that discussions about racism are heated and controversial; the recent Durban Review Conference and my participation in it was no exception. In reflecting on this Conference, I would like to convey some important context for my attendance as Race Discrimination Commissioner and highlight some of the key outcomes. It is telling that at the time when the Iranian President, Mohmoud Ahmadinejad, addressed the plenary session and the polarised debate surrounding the Conference reached its peak, I was participating in a panel discussion on the role of National Human Rights Institutions (‘NHRIs’) in implementing the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action at another venue. This panel discussion was extremely significant because the role of NHRIs, the Australian Human Rights Commission included, is to create a space where mutual understanding prevails. It enables issues such as the role of local government in combating racism and diversity in the workplace to be discussed and examines the different strategies that various nations have taken to address such issues.
While the debate around the Durban Conference forced some to take sides on a range of political issues, the role of NHRIs became even more important in ensuring that the Conference remained focused on the substantive issues around racism and the implementation of standards of equality at the global, national and local levels. These substantive racism issues, such as the rights of Indigenous peoples and migrants’ rights, are the bread and butter of my role at the Australian Human Rights Commission. These issues constitute the basis for our daily work under the Racial Discrimination Act. Exchanging data and analysis of programs attempted in other countries is not only necessary for me to carry out my functions as Race Discrimination Commissioner, but it is also the most effective way of ensuring that the Australian public gets access to the most sophisticated and successful anti-racism strategies.
National Human Rights Institutions, such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, have emerged in the last decade as major contributors to the development of international standards and treaties. They play, and indeed are meant to play, a critical role in helping to translate these standards into local practices, policies and laws.
In its statement to the Durban Review Conference, the International Coordination Committee (ICC) of National Institutions for the Promotion of and Protection of Human Rights outlined precisely the emerging role of NHRIs as being to: ‘provide a human rights framework for addressing contentious issues. They achieve this through dispute resolution services, advocacy, the development of networks – including networks with NGOs and civil society at large, community capacity building, human rights monitoring, and development of training and education’. It is with these issues in mind that I attended the conference and participated in its deliberations and activities.
A majority of NHRIs, the Australian Human Rights Commission among them, must adhere to the Paris Principles which require human rights institutions to be independent from states in fulfilling their role in promoting human rights and combating discrimination.
It is on the basis of this independence that the Australian Human Rights Commission as a national human rights institution had observer status at the conference.
The Commission was one of 39 NHRIs which attended the conference, including New Zealand and Germany whose governments, like Australia, boycotted the Conference.
One activity that was particularly useful was my collegiate role in developing a position on the role of NHRIs in implementing the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. This position, prepared as a paper, available at www.humanrights.gov.au, identifies the following priorities for NHRIs:
- promoting the development of national action plans against racism;
- exercising their mandates in relation to the rights of Indigenous peoples;
- monitoring racism at the national, regional and global levels by such means as annual and special reports on racism and cultural diversity; and
- reviewing the performance of public institutions and national strategies to combat racism.
In general, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, along with the Outcome Document of the Durban Review Conference, provides a comprehensive framework for Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission and civil society to work together to combat racism. These tools focus particularly on racism against Indigenous peoples, ethnic minority groups, migrants and refugees.
The Conference also provided me and my staff with the opportunity to learn about how countries like Ireland and South Africa have developed and implemented their national action plan against racism. The Conference cemented links for us with the UNESCO Innovative Cities Against Racism initiative and we have begun discussions about how we might move towards implementing the initiative in Australia as part of the Coalition of Cities Against Racism and Discrimination in the Asia Pacific region program.
The Conference has also been invaluable for me for research I have been undertaking since last year into modernisation of the Racial Discrimination Act in Australia. This research is examining the many ways in which the RDA needs to remain responsive to the changing makeup, needs and attitudes of Australian society. The Conference provided me with the chance to look at comparative jurisdictions and proactive, positive legislative models to combat discrimination, particularly in the employment area.
These are just some of the important issues discussed at the Durban Review Conference which are of pressing concern and direct relevance to Australia and the way we tackle racism.
Tom Calma is Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner