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This article explores the removal or exclusion in the late 1940s of people in interracial marriages from two corners of the newly formed Commonwealth of Nations, Australia and Britain's southern African colonies. The stories of Ruth and Sereste Khama, exiled from colonial Botswana, and those of Chinese refugees threatened with deportation and separation from their white Australian wives, reveal how legal rearticulations in the immediate postwar era created new, if quixotic, points of opposition for ordinary people to make their voices heard. As the British Empire became the Commonwealth, codifying the freedoms of the imperial subject, and ideas of universal human rights “irrespective of race, color, or creed” slowly emerged, and claims of rights long denied seemed to take on a renewed meaning. The sanctity of marriage and family, which played central metaphorical and practical roles for both the British Empire and the United Nations, was a primary motor of contention in both cases, and was mobilized in both metaphorical and practical ways to press for change. Striking similarities between our chosen case studies reveal how ideals of imperial domesticity and loyalty, and the universalism of the new global “family of man,” were simultaneously invoked to undermine discourses of racial purity. Our analysis makes a significant contribution to studies of gender and empire, as well as the history of human rights, an ideal which in the late 1940s was being vernacularized alongside existing forms of claim-making and political organization in local contexts across the world.
The epilogue serves to summarise the findings of this book and utilise them to shed light on contemporary human rights issues in Australia. The idea of a “human rights cascade” is critically employed to make sense of the early 1990s, when there seemed a real possibility of positive engagement with human rights and international law to develop a new compact between Indigenous and settler Australians and remedy discriminations against LGBTIQ people. It is argued that this cascade in fact proved a trickle, as the openness of the Keating era gave way to the insularity of the Howard government. Particular attention is paid to ongoing policies of indefinite detention of asylum seekers – begun under Keating but expanded by Howard – and the many furtive attempts to find justice for Indigenous Australians, particularly around the Bringing Them Home report. In both of these cases, concerns around the rights of children have been weaponised by governments to weaken broader human rights protections, in such instances as the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention. Australia's continued failure to institutionalise a Bill of Rights is also viewed in light of the War on Terror's deep legislative impact.
The Cold War threw Australian’s postwar hopes into stark relief. Social and economic rights became associated with a menacing global ideology, while the imperative of a new type of war saw political and civil rights challenged like never before. This chapter analyses the career of Australian civil libertarians in this decade, particularly in light of the 1949 trial of Communist Party of Australia leader Lance Sharkey for sedition and a 1951 referendum on whether to ban the party wholesale. While such moves drew calls of government hypocrisy in light of the recently passed Universal Declaration from civil libertarians, supporters could equally point to communism’s human rights abuses abroad. These usages commingled with and were enabled by earlier claims of British citizenship rights as instruments of political power and contestation. Similar problems emerged for Indigenous rights campaigners in the 1950s, who saw the UDHR as a roadmap for Indigenous equality. Such hopes soon gave way to the difficult reality of translating the Declaration's precepts into a very alien context and frustration at the limitations of their global influence or enforceability.
The 1960s were a decade of disappointment and depression for human rights activists. Yet, while far from a dominant framework, diverse Australians found that their needs to reorient or intervene in domestic political realities aligned with particular readings of the UDHR’s universalism. Human rights served as a way of reconceptualising socialism in an advanced capitalist democracy like Australia, recasting the Communist Party of Australia as defenders and extenders of the rights it had long dismissed as bourgeois. The seemingly monolithic power of the Australia’s Returned Servicemen’s League was shaken by a group claiming to be human rights’ true advocates by supporting those whose consciences were being trampled by conscription. Amnesty International's uptake was quick in Australia, but the nascent group’s novel reading of human rights posed as many challenges as it did opportunities, leading to often-public internal disputes over the limits of human rights as domestic political tools. The questions these groups posed – did the enjoyment of rights result from a citizen’s compact with the state, granting rights and the compulsion to obey, or universal and inhering in the individual through a relationship with god or an inalienable secular conscience? – proved central in decades to come.
As well as introducing key themes and literature, this introductory chapter deals with the concept of rights in Australian pre’s key period of investigation and setting the scene for a discussion of why human rights emerged as a common rhetorical tool in the 1940s. Movements for the abolition of convictism, appropriate treatment of Indigenous people and universal manhood suffrage from the 1820s up until the 1850s grappled with the long, contested history of British subjecthood. These could serve both democratic and elitist ends, as well as exclude those whose position as a subject was unclear. Movements for women’s rights and against restrictions on Chinese immigration are shown to have encountered some of the inbuilt fetters on the notion of Britishness from the 1850s to the 1880s – specifically its gendered and racial exclusions. Yet, inventive uses were found of the “British Rights” concept by activists working within a firmly patriarchal, racist context where ideas of universality were unpopular.
More Australians were talking about a wider array of rights than ever before in the 1970s. A new generation of militant Indigenous activists and young women saw the need for new or reimagined conceptions beyond inherited gradualist, equalitarian visions of political change. Indigenous radicals, buoyed and subsequently disappointed by the remarkable referendum victory of May 1967, were soon petitioning the UN over structural and endemic economic and cultural rights infringements. Reflecting anti-colonial rhetoric at the United Nations, activists placed the need for the right to restitution for the wrongs of colonialism at the centre of their human rights agenda. Women’s liberationists, on the other hand, rejected calls for a new international order that merely replicated divisions between the private and public, the breadwinner and homemaker. Not only would this potentially weaken gains by Western feminists, but merely replicating the demands of underdeveloped states might dramatically limit the rights of women in developing nations. The so-called Right to Life movement sought to appropriate the concept of “human” at the same time, pushing its definition beyond birth to the time of conception. As rights became more a focus of public discussion, battle lines were also being drawn as to what rights were and who could claim them.
The 1940s are remembered as the birthplace of modern human rights, justifying wartime needs for regimentation and framing the utopian moment of the postwar years. The Catholic Church proved an early partisan of universal human rights in Australia, with the inauguration of the annual Catholic Social Justice Statement in 1940 dubbed a declaration of “fundamental human rights”. The statement and those that followed allowed the Church to eek out a place in the postwar world. At the same time, Australia's Labor Party sought a greater centralisation of state power to ensure that Australians could enjoy the "freedom from fear and want" the Atlantic Charter promised. The 1944 Powers Referendum saw the need for social and economic rights face off against personal liberties in a strenuous debate which informed Australia's approach to negotiating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Decade’s end saw Chinese and Malaysian seamen campaign alongside their white Australian wives for their “human rights”, only to find a less-than-receptive ear from a government and judiciary who, while supportive of the Universal Declaration in the abstract, wanted to protect domestic jurisdiction at all costs
This chapter critically understands the seemingly spontaneous emergence of rights consciousness in the 1980s, exploring first the politics of the so-called “human rights explosion”, focusing on government and activist responses to 1978’s 30th anniversary of the passage of the UDHR. Stalled bids for an Australian Bill of Rights under the Hawke government and the creation of a national Human Rights Commission (1981–6) occupy the remainder of this chapter. These developments are explored alongside synchronous campaigns for a treaty or Makarrata with Aboriginal Australians and recognition of Gay and Lesbian rights, as well as the continued intransigence of conservatives – in particular Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the decade’s “New Right”. Invented in the 1940s, ignored, experimented with or contested in later decades, superficially at last the 1980s saw government, the legal system and many social movements adopt human rights’ precepts at a startling pace. An explosion, even a revolution, was clearly underway: but there was seemingly as little clarity as ever on what human rights actually meant. Was this, in the end, a popular groundswell or a revolution from above?
This groundbreaking study understands the 'long history' of human rights in Australia from the moment of their supposed invention in the 1940s to official incorporation into the Australian government bureaucracy in the 1980s. To do so, a wide cast of individuals, institutions and publics from across the political spectrum are surveyed, who translated global ideas into local settings and made meaning of a foreign discourse to suit local concerns and predilections. These individuals created new organisations to spread the message of human rights or found older institutions amenable to their newfound concerns, adopting rights language with a mixture of enthusiasm and opportunism. Governments, on the other hand, engaged with or ignored human rights as its shifting meanings, international currency and domestic reception ebbed and flowed. Finally, individuals understood and (re)translated human rights ideas throughout this period: writing letters, books or poems and sympathising in new, global ways.
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