Calma under fire: why did he attend the Durban II Conference?

April 25, 2009 by J-Wire Staff
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Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tom Calma is under fire for attending the DurbanII review talks in Geneva. J-Wire publishes its Q and A with the Commissioner in March.

Commissioner Tom Calma

Commissioner Tom Calma

The Commissioner sat pat when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched into his anti-Israel, anti-Semitic ranting, despite the walkout of European community members.

Former president of the Australian Labour Party, Warre Mundine, a high profile member of the Indigenous community as is Calma, has told ABC that Calma owes “a very strong apology to the Jewish members of the Australian public.” He added that he was looking forward to July when Calma’s term as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission comes to an end. Mundine said that Calma was “attempting to give credence to his views by sending the message ‘look who I’m standing on stage with.'” He said that Calma gave oxygen to “the most anti-Semitic views you could think of.”

J-Wire showed concern at Calma’s attendance in March and publishes below a Q & A with Commissioner Calma…asked and answered one month ago.

J-Wire:  Why is your organisation pre-empting the decision of the Federal Government?

Calma: The Australian Human Rights Commission is an independent Commission that has a specific mandate under the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) to combat racial discrimination and prejudices that lead to racial discrimination; promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among racial and ethnic groups; and propagate the purposes and principles of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,(CERD)

J-Wire: Do you accept that there are flaws in the text for this Conference  causing both the U.S. and Australian Governments to remain undecided  re their attendance?

Calma:  Issues that are relevant to the manifestations of racism in Australia are important aspects of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action, for example, Indigenous issues, refugees, and multiculturalism. These issues continue to be relevant in Australia. For example, the suspension of the RDA is an issue that the CERD Committee has taken up with Australia and with which Australia needs to engage. The Durban Conference is an opportunity to do this. Also an area of interest for the Commission is the role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in monitoring racism, domestically and regionally. This will also be considered at the Conference.

Many States have been active in negotiating an outcome document for the Review Conference. This is normal practice for International documents,(it took more than 10 years to draft the declaration for Indigenous peoples). The Russian delegate in the intersessional working group has recently drafted a draft outcome document that takes out all references to particular states in order to facilitate the participation of all states in the conference.

J-Wire: “The Age” reports that the Conference “would examine issues  critical to the role of national human rights institution, such as  policing and diversity and the rights of indigenous peoples.”  Having said that, Commissioner Calma is reported to have said “Governments need to engage on a global level to ensure their policies  are in line with international standards.”

Is the Commissioner aware that Durban I was hi-jacked by those using it as a platform to invoke  racism causing the Unites States delegation to walk out? Is Australia not already bound to International standards…and do we not comply?  and…  If so, are you aware that this is the very reason for the tardiness  in coming to a final decision whether or not to attend for many  nations…that is, the fear of this recurring?

Calma: Australia is a signatory to the major human rights Conventions that require it to maintain the standards of non-discrimination. In particular, in relation to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Australia has an obligation not to discriminate on the basis of race. The Commission is concerned however that these standards are not always maintained domestically. For instance, Australia suspended the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act in implementing the interventions in the Northern Territory. This is one of the issues that the Commission will be raising at the Durban Review Conference.

J-Wire:  If the Australian Government decides not to attend, who are you  representing as you are not totally autonomous? How will this impact  on the Attorney-General’s department…will this cause a conflict  with the Department for Foreign Affairs? You tell me you are not an NGO, but an independent Government  Commission. Do the U.S., Canada, UK have bodies similar to yours? If  so, are you aware if they have made the decision to attend?

As indicated above, the Commission is an independent body that has a legislative mandate to combat racism. Attending the Durban Review Conference and raising issues that are relevant to Australia is clearly consistent with this mandate.

The Opposition Foreign Affairs Shadow Minister Julie Bishop says the Government should have forced Calma to leave the Conference.

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