Although signatory to a raft of international human rights treaties and home to extensive discrimination legislation, Australia's contemporary legal and political frameworks seem limited in their ability to protect and ensure basic rights for all. This ambivalence is well exemplified by the adoption of a 'Human Rights Framework' in 2010 despite the National Human Rights Consultation report's higher order recommendation for the introduction of a Human Rights Act for Australia. The recent report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee on the government's Exposure Draft Human Rights and Antidiscrimination Bill of 2012 further reminds us of the patchwork nature of our system of human rights protection and of the need to find mechanisms, other than legal remedies, to address possible infringements of rights of the Australian community.
Court decisions and policy reform more often than not lag behind, rather than reflect, everyday experience of people in the exercise of their rights. These formal systems have been reticent to explore new and innovative ways of pursuing social justice through a human rights-based approach, which would place those claiming their rights at the centre of the decision-making. In not placing rights claimants at the centre, what masquerades as a political commitment to human rights might otherwise be seen as weak and ineffectual, concealing a gap between espoused values and practice and a privileging of the established status quo over social change. The reality remains that claiming rights and addressing possible violations will, for most citizens, take place outside this formal legal arena.
Although it is in the everyday experiences of those struggling to achieve social justice that most such violations can be found, rarely is this space examined for solutions. Many of the restrictions and controls placed on people with disabilities, the 'treatment' of those refugees and asylum-seekers held in detention, the recurring and intransigent socio-economic deprivation of our Indigenous population are unseen and unpublished. These, as well as the everyday challenges to dignity remain, for the majority of the public, hidden from view. The word does not get out and there is a reluctance of those whose rights are daily infringed to complain fearing that any complaints, as in the past, will have no effect. And of course many of these experiences will not reach a level requiring legal redress. In the absence of new mechanisms these everyday assaults on the rights of many Australians will never be addressed.
So, what can make a difference? Advocacy represents one possible solution whereby the experiences of the vulnerable or marginalised can be made visible and then articulated in ways that aim to accomplish sustainable social justice outcomes. Community advocacy engages creatively with individual and group human rights issues by challenging the power relations and structure which constitute and maintain social, economic and political disadvantage. The diverse, segmented and under-resourced nature of this third sector in Australia means there is little opportunity to share practical lessons from their experiences and, in parallel, less than adequate theorising about their role in the human rights and social justice arena.
Capturing, sharing and theorising the struggles and achievements of community based (or third sector) social justice advocacy is the focus of a new project initiated by a group of academics at RMIT University, Melbourne. The project, working title The Social Justice Dialogue, will provide a forum for collaboration and dialogue between advocates, citizens and academics. It aims through events and sharing of knowledge to relate the everyday experience of defending, protecting and fulfilling rights out in the community, and to share how a 'rights in action' model might be accomplished.
This dialogue project between academics, community based advocates and citizens will help focus attention on the relationships between people exercising their rights and those who owe a duty to them to have their rights protected. Set against the standards of both international and Australian human rights, the project will seek to highlight the nature and extent of the exclusion from social and economic opportunities suffered by many who, in varying ways, are disadvantaged or discriminated against.
It is in this civil society domain, this space between the community, government, policy and the judiciary, that human rights might be used as a vehicle for social justice reform by giving voice to people whose causes would otherwise often remain unheard and unseen. The Social Justice Dialogue aims to create a space in which advocates working in this sector, their allies and academics engage creatively with individual and collective human rights issues through regular seminars and initiatives decided by the group membership itself.
To mark the start of this initiative, an edited book planned. The book offers studies by leading advocates alongside complementary academic commentary drawn from across the diversity of human rights interests in contemporary Australia. This collaboration between advocates, academics and citizens begins the process of establishing an organic and bottom-up approach to human rights and social justice. The Social Justice Dialogue, in whatever small measure, will address the inadequacies of top down models in which political and legal solutions have left infringements to everyday human rights unseen and unanswered.
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