The Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG

Justice of the High Court of Australia

I do.  You do.  Readers of this Journal do.  Members of every minority (and there are a lot of them) do.  Millions of people overseas do.  That makes an awful lot of people who care about human rights. 

Even those who pretend that they do not care change their spots immediately their own human rights, or those of people close to them, are threatened.  If it were not so sad, it would be amusing to see how quickly some people, with a hard-line attitude about the "war on drugs", alter their perceptions when suddenly they find that a person who has been contributing to the billion dollar industry in illegal drugs, is a son or a daughter or a spouse or other close friend.  Then, at last, they may come to see the issue as one of human rights. 

I offer these remarks in the warm afterglow of the successful Sydney Olympic Games.  I did not actually attend the events.  But like millions of Australians, I watched the competitors, pressing themselves to, and beyond, the edge of human ability.  I sat on the edge of my seat in front of the television as Cathy Freeman made her run.  I did not expect to be moved by it at all.  The one thing I always agreed about with Justice Meagher, in the New South Wales Court of Appeal, was a disdain for sport   But as I watched, I came to realise a universal truth.  Sport can unite people in peaceful competition, plumb the depths of human abilities, test the nobility and courage of the human spirit and emphasise things that we can all understand, simply because we are humans. 

Similar themes lie at the heart of human rights.  Searching for values that we hold in common.  Realising that there are some universal rights, despite all the differences that race, religion, gender, history, sexuality and other differentials give rise to. 

In the Olympic ceremonies, there was something for everybody.  Certainly something for everybody in Australia.  The symbols of our country and its best aspirations were reinforced.  At the opening, women alone carried the torch in the final lap.  All of them were champions.  An indigenous Australian champion lit the Olympic flame.  The names of our competitors (including some medal winners) illustrated the great variety of the ethnic communities of contemporary Australia.  The Olympics were followed closely by the Paralympic Games, with their celebration of the fact that "disability" is not necessary an appropriate word where various forms of human impairment are concerned.

In the closing ceremony of the Olympics there were the comedians taking the mickey out of pretension, the sentimental tunesmiths and musical stirrers, including Yothu Yindi singing "Treaty".  And at the end of the parade, in imitation of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the "divas" and other drag queens.  None of these symbols would have been thinkable in the Australia of the Melbourne Olympics of 1956.  They show how far our country has come in 44 years.

Symbols come comparatively cheaply.  Substance, not sentiment, is what ultimately matters.  Yet symbols can help to shape popular thinking.  They can also help focus Australia's attention, at a moment of prime concentration, on the unfinished agenda for human rights.  The human rights of women.  Of indigenous peoples.  Of ethnic minorities.  Of the young and old.  Of people with impairments.  Of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-gendered people.  And we should see all of these issues in a global context.  We should continue to strive for gold in the race for human rights.

Certainly, after a century of our federal Constitution, we can look at ourselves and, without too much self-satisfaction, accept that our laws and institutions are in a better shape than those of many countries.  Better than Fiji (whose sad recent story is told in this part).  Much better than Burma (whose oppressive and cynical regime is also described).

Yet comparing our laws and institutions with countries beset by military coups and autocratic destabilisation, is scarcely a reason for prolonged self-praise.

The other essays here address some of the many issues of concern to human rights in Australia.  They have a flavour of the Northern Territory because this part has been put together by the NT Editorial Committee.  Many concern the human rights of Aboriginal Australians, necessarily at the top of the agenda.  Others relate to refugees, prisoners, the mentally ill and those facing courts whose first language is not English.  One reviews the role of national human rights institutions and how they need right-respecting civil societies to be truly effective.

Every reader will find opinions to agree with, and to disagree with.  There are some obvious omissions.  Doubtless everyone's priorities would be different.  But as we approach the centenary of our national Constitution, we can take some encouragement from the diversity of viewpoints expressed.  From the fact that our society facilitates diverse opinions.  And that our Constitution defends our right to express them.

In the second century of federation, Australians must preserve and extend these features of freedom.  We must do better in our national commitment to uphold the human rights of all.  The Alternative Law Journal is a useful antidote to legal complacency.  This edition is no exception.