After an eloquent, entertaining and brief account of how human rights came to be, Geoffrey Robertson QC gave no quarter to politicians, public servants and officials last Sunday: they do not like the idea of a Bill of Rights in case their power should be curbed, he said. And they do not like their power curbed by unelected judges.
Geoffrey Robertson was speaking at the final event of the Brisbane Ideas Festival. Described as “one of the world’s leading human rights lawyers, academics and authors, and one of Australia’s favourite sons,” he was given a warm welcome by many who remember him fondly as host to the TV series Hypotheticals.
Geoffrey Robertson has gone on to become an appeal judge at the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, led Amnesty International missions in South Africa, Vietnam and Malawi and acted as counsel to the Royal Commission investigating arms trafficking to the Medellin cartel through Antigua. He made his name over the “Oz” trial in 1971, defended Ian Grey, an Australian missionary in Mozambique, and dissidents jailed without trial by Lee Kuan Yew. Since 1970 he has lived in the UK.
In pursuit of persuading Australians they need a Bill of Rights, he reminded the audience that judges were independent and impartial - beholden to no one. A Bill of Rights was not so much about power, but about principles. Dr H.V. Evatt, then Australian Foreign Minister, helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as president of the UN General Assembly announced it in 1948. Ironically effective enforcement systems would wait until 2002 for the establishment of the International Criminal Court.
Geoffrey Robertson cited examples of how a Bill of Rights could be beneficial to “ordinary people”, that is, anyone who was not a lawyer. It could become beneficial just because it was there.
A Bill of Rights had been introduced into UK because common laws were found inadequate after the UK had signed up to the European Convention of Rights. Outcomes had demonstrated that it protected people’s rights without going to court; without involving the cost of a lawyer. And it was particularly good for the most vulnerable people in society. For instance, doctors or nurses can invoke the Bill of Rights to stand up for an aged person’s rights, say, in a nursing home. It protected their dignity and respect because if the Bill of Rights were cited, people were going to take a step back.
He described the past case of an elderly ship’s captain whose beard had been a matter of pride for years. It was shaved off in a nursing home because it was the rule. With a Bill of Rights in place that would not have happened. A couple, married for 60 years, had been separated into men’s and women’s quarters in a nursing home. With a Bill in place, their dignity would have been protected. Cases of this kind were resolved without going to court; without incurring legal fees.
In some contexts, he said a Bill of Rights was useful to politicians. When the UK Parliament did not want to get involved in legislation it was happy to leave it to the courts, as in the area of death with dignity.
A Bill of Rights was not just for prisoners and refugees and “all the people we love to hate”: it was for everybody. “The reality is that the beneficiaries are all of us.”
Dismissing suggestions that rights charters were just a machine to make lawyers more money as sometimes claimed, he said most human rights lawyers were paid low salaries. They worked in legal aid centres, Aboriginal centres and trade unions. It was the lawyers at the top end of town who made the money.
In addition to England having a Bill of Rights, he said so did New Zealand, Germany, South Africa, and “Obama is creating one”. In one Canadian province, human rights were taught as part of the school curriculum, together with instruction in how to use them: by writing to the local paper editor, contact your MP, calling a radio talk-back show. Both Victoria and the ACT have a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. Yet Australia as a nation does not.
Information was as important as the right to free speech, and even more important if circumstances prevented the press from taking up a case. Australia was still far down on the international list in regards to press freedom. “We don’t have freedom of speech. We still have journalists threatened with jail if they do not reveal their sources.”
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