Stop demonising the enemy: SCU international human rights conference told

Published 7 July 2003

The only way to find lasting peace was to stop demonising the enemy, one of the keynote speakers from Northern Ireland told an international human rights conference put on by Southern Cross University (SCU) last week in Byron Bay.

Professor Monica McWilliams, from the University of Ulster and head of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (party of Catholic and Protestant women), told of her recent seven-minute meeting with US President Bush as a member of the Irish parliament.

“I handed him a letter on behalf of the Women’s Coalition, which was explaining a bit about our own conflict and how we were trying to avoid doing demonising and dehumanising people,” Professor McWilliams told the conference.

“He stuck his face in my face and became quite antagonistic and aggressive, but I didn’t budge. He said ‘Don’t you know this man - it was Saddam Hussein - is a gangster and a murderer and a rapist?’

“I said ‘I deal with these men every day in Northern Ireland, but you know, bombing them from the sky will make people like that more dangerous, and it will be more difficult for people like you to protect the people who you say you want to protect. If we’ve learned anything here in Northern Ireland, it is about stop demonising and dehumanising and try and find the cause of the conflict.’”

Professor McWilliams was one of 10 keynote speakers (she spoke on conflict resolution in a divided society) and a total of 130 speakers from 15 countries, who addressed the ‘Activating Human Rights and Diversity Conference’, held over four days from July 1-4.

It was organised by University’s Centre for Law, Politics and Culture, and convened by a team led by Dr Baden Offord, a senior lecturer in SCU’s School of Arts.

One of the highlights of the conference was a ‘Special Forum: Women, Human Rights, Globalisation and Terrorism’ held last Tuesday night, addressed by nine high-profile and articulate women including Professor McWilliams. The MC was Di Morrissey.

Other speakers included Democrats Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja, who said when she spoke publicly against holding children in detention centres, support for the Democrats fell by 5pc; Greens Senator Kerry Nettle; Indigenous elder and University of Melbourne Fellow Lillian Holt; and South African journalist, author and activist Charlene Smith. Smith caused a national furore when she wrote in detail of her rape experience. She also addressed the conference on confronting the world’s highest rate of sexual violence and HIV in South Africa.

Other keynote speakers and leading international activists was leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (the Opposition), Dr Chee Soon Juan, who spoke on ‘Human Rights: Dirty Words in Singapore’. Dr Chee has suffered numerous persecutions in his political role, including being sacked from his job as a university lecturer, being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and fined and imprisoned on two occasions. He was awarded the 2003 Defender of Democracy Award by the Parliamentarians for Global Action.

Prize-winning author and Professor of Philosophy at King's College, London and the Australian Catholic University, Raimond Gaita, spoke on definitions of genocide (sparking a debate in the national media), while Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Dr Sev Ozdowski, spoke on discrimination based on age and disability in Australia, and children in detention.

A former refugee and “Philip Ruddock’s $63,000 man”, Maqshood Alshams spoke on being held in Villawood Detention Centre for 16 months and how he was the first refugee to be given a bill for his detention by the Federal Immigration Minister, when he began speaking out publicly. Maqshood, a former investigative journalist in Bangladesh, has been campaigning for a humane policy on asylum seekers since his release in 2000.

The conference was opened by the Honourable Justice John Dowd AO, Chancellor of SCU and a NSW Supreme Court judge who has long been involved in human rights issues, including as a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists.

Several events were held in conjunction with the conference including:

- a Local Voices Singing Global concert of about 10 local performers and singers, including the Hottentots, Acre and Manuhuri, held at the Beach Hotel on Thursday night, organised by SCU lecturer and long-time musician Janie Conway-Herron;

- a Youth on Justice program involving young people, who handed Federal Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Larry Anthony their resolutions on children’s rights at the close of the conference on Friday; and

- an Activating Human Rights Film Festival, which opened on Friday night and ran over the weekend in the Community Centre, including films by local filmmakers Cathy Henkel, David Bradbury and Dean Jefferys.