Australian Journal of Human Rights
This book had its origins in a conference, held in Sydney in June 1995, designed to increase awareness of the UN human rights system, especially amongst indigenous Australians. Judging by the papers contained in this volume, the conference must have been intellectually stimulating, while at the same time more generally accessible and practical than the average academic conference. Mick Dodson's introduction to the relevance of international standards for the contemporary concerns of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for example, is firmly rooted in practical realities. For Mick Dodson, the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner appointed under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Legislation Amendment Act (No 2) of 1992, human rights is about the runny eyes, the angry, frustrated faces, the lost knowledge, the desecrated land and the hopelessness of Australia's indigenous peoples: the bottom line is survival (p. 18).
The volume includes papers by an impressive array of authorities in the human rights field, including Philip Alston, Hilary Charlesworth, Elizabeth Evatt, Michael O'Flahety, and Garth Nettheim, and there is a greater degree of stylistic unity than that usually obtained by a multi-authored piece. After the introductory section the book is structured in four sections, dealing respectively with the UN Charter-based human rights system, the UN treaty-based system and individual complaints, the UN treaty-based system and periodic reporting, and indigenous peoples and some relevant human rights standards.
While the authors are often critical of the UN human rights system and the human rights performance of the Australian Government, the tone of the volume is constructive and often even positive. Hilary Charlesworth does not point to the enormous strain evident in the UN treaty-based human rights system without discussing possibilities for reform, and Elizabeth Evatt reminds us that communications to the Human Rights Committee have resulted in prisoners being released, laws changed, and compensation granted. A model communication to the Human Rights Committee forms one of the appendices and Philip Alston explores how the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child might be used in a practical way.
This volume is a welcome addition to the Australian literature on human rights and the UN. While a useful source of up-to-date information, it would also be a valuable introduction to the subject for those with little knowledge of human rights or of international law more generally; Sarah Pritchard's introduction to international law assumes no previous knowledge. But the specific audience to which the book is addressed consists of all those, particularly NGOs, seeking in a practical way to advance the interests of Australia's indigenous peoples. Its message is simply that there is a system in place that can help bring about change, so go out and use it. In the words of Mick Dodson: ´It's not perfect. It's far from perfect. But I'd suggest that indigenous Australians could do a lot worse than have a few billion people of the international community on our side'(p 29).
[*] B Mus, BA (Hons) Phd (Qld). Lecturer, Political Science, UNSW.