Human Rights Act would have protected Catholics in Ireland


I am grateful, not only for what Sister Cecily (Helen Connolly) taught me at Brigidine Convent, Maroubra, in Sydney, but for her ongoing support when I entered the turbulent and chancy world of federal politics. I often reflected on her insistence on such things as making myself useful to the vulnerable, admitting error and trying harder. These were more valuable prescriptions than a preoccupation with profile enhancing makeovers or fashion shoots, so often prescribed today for participants in the shark pool of politics.

If she were still alive, I expect she would encourage me in my current campaign for a Human Rights Act for Australia.

Australia is now the only western democracy that has no law to protect the human rights of citizens and others in our country.

It comes as a shock for Australians to realise that the civil and political rights we have long taken for granted: the right to liberty, to a fair trial, the right not to be detained without charge, the right to vote, the right to free speech, freedom of movement, freedom to pursue the religion and culture of choice; none of these rights in Australia is protected by law.

Of course most, not all but most of us have been able in the past to exercise such rights. The common law and decisions of parliament have supported those rights.

Things have changed.

Recent government practices and polices, and new laws aimed at combating terrorism have overtaken and undermined our traditional protections. Instead of effective protection we have been left with a huge gaping hole.

Australian governments have signed and ratified the most significant UN Rights conventions: the convention on Civil and Political rights, the convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Refugee convention, the convention on the Rights of the Child and other important instruments designed to protect the vulnerable.

Despite international commitments, actions of government contravene these conventions, again and again.

Think of the 82 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, right now appealing for our aid; rejected, arbitrarily transported to a camp on Nauru, denied compassion, legal assistance, rendered homeless, all in breach of the Refugee convention. Think of the women asylum seekers over the last few years.

Think of the desperate asylum seeker Al Kateb. He arrived in Australia a few years ago seeking refuge but without the right documents. Government policy prevented his release into the community, even when he became very ill. After some years of detention, his case went to the High Court. The High Court found that despite these conventions, Australian law gave Al Kateb no protection. The High Court concluded that legally the government could keep him in detention forever. Finally a more compassionate Scandinavian country took him off our hands.

This was a crucial episode in persuading me and other readers of New Matilda magazine, that the law had to be changed.

Our existing international obligations had to be put into a statute so that the intended protections could actually be provided.
As we went about this campaign many other shocking cases emerged.

With the assistance of experts we drafted a bill for a human rights act for Australia. The bill puts into law all the obligations Australia has already signed up to under the UN conventions.

Since October 2005 our campaign committee has travelled around Australia holding public meetings, and had dozens of meetings with community groups. Numbers of MPs across all parties are sympathetic to our approach.

If you look closely at the laws in Ireland 200 years ago, you will see that they denied to Irish Catholics all the civil and political, economic, social and cultural rights we aim to protect under our proposed bill. Under the penal laws, to choose to remain Catholic meant loss of property, loss of the right to vote, to hold public office, to enter or practice the professions. Catholic farmers were forced to divide their land into uneconomic plots for their sons, thus ensuring economic failure and ultimate loss of the land. The practice of the Catholic faith was forbidden along with any contact with priests. Catholic education was outlawed. Even sending children overseas to be educated was illegal and was punished by penalties ensuring economic ruin. The Irish language was never to be spoken.

Our proposed Human Rights act would have protected the Catholic Irish against these terrible injustices.

Susan Ryan is a former NSW Labor Senator, and Federal Minister for Education. This article is from the address she gave to the Brigidine Bicentenary Seminar in Sydney on 27 March 2007. The full text is available here.  Information on the Human Rights Act Campaign is available at



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Existing comments

Thank you, Susan Ryan, for putting your energy, intelligence and compassion into such a needy and worthwile cause. How can ordinary citizens help ?

Peace - Noela.
noela blackmore | 29 March 2007

I fully support you in this endeavour Susan and congratulate you on the initiative.I am also interested in the area of environmental refugees. I belong to the Pacific Calling campaign, which is working to raise awareness of the plight of low lying coral atolls and the effects of climate change and rising sea levels on our Pacific neighbours.

When raising the issue with politicians of acceptance of environmental refugees when this becomes necessary I keep being told that they are not covered by the UN policy on refugees.

What do you think we can do about this area of human rights? Thank you and a blessing on your efforts. Agnes
Agnes Farrugia sgs | 29 March 2007

I have read the proposed act with interest -
particularly this section:
I. Civil and Political Rights

Right to life
Everyone has the right to life. Therefore, no-one may be deprived of life arbitrarily.

I would like to ask Susan Ryan (as one of the founding members of the Women's Electoral Lobby in the ACT), where she now stands in relation in regard to one of the major issues which motivated WEL: - the 'right' of women to have an abortion?

Veronica Kiley | 02 April 2007

The compassionate Scandanavian country you reference now has thousands upon thousands of would be terrorists on its soil.

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in stupidity when the need for illusion runs deep.
paul zambra | 11 May 2007


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