Joanne Knight

June 30, 2014

Sincere Belief not to Obey the Law: Burwell v Hobby Lobby

One of the many problems with the Hobby Lobby decision is that corporations can now circumvent the law by asserting a “sincere religious belief.” “It [RFRA] requires the Hahns and Greens to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.” It seems that all owners have to do is assert a “sincere religious belief” to be protected.
“[Dept of Health and Human Services] HHS contends that Congress could not have wanted [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] RFRA to apply to for-profit corporations because of the difficulty of ascertaining the “beliefs” of large, publicly traded corporations, but HHS has not pointed to any example of a publicly traded corporation asserting RFRA rights, and numerous practical restraints would likely prevent that from occurring.” How can a corporation have religious beliefs if no one can point to them? But the problem is not only one of evidence. The problem is the essential nature of a corporation which is an abstract legal entity with no beliefs, in spite of what SCOTUS says.
This gives corporations greater rights to exercise beliefs than humans who do not subscribe to a religion, but have a sincere belief in their right to contraception. It is assumed that the right to contraception is a value free belief.
Maybe corporations can now assert they have a religious belief not to follow environmental laws because they don’t believe in climate change, or employ gay people, Muslims, Jews, black people or that employees must join scientology or any other crazy-assed notion. This gives employers the right to impose their religious beliefs upon their employees. What about the religious freedom of employees? So the rights of owners are now better rights than the rights of employees. If an employee has a religious belief that conflicts with an employers, the employers beliefs will prevail.
What about if a corporation asserts a sincere belief that humans could not be polluting the environment because God would not allow it or even that pollution does not cause harm? They would be excused from following environmental laws. What about if a business owner has a sincere belief that he is God’s chosen vessel and has a right to impregnate his female staff?
This fundamentally changes the definition of a corporation. Surely owners are no longer separate from the business. The beliefs of the owners are conflated with the beliefs of the business, then the owners and the business must be the same thing. Owners are no longer protected from liability. The shareholders and boards of Wall St Banks should now be liable for the misconduct of the company. They should all be individually prosecuted when the bank is found guilty of fraud or other misconduct.


May 13, 2014

Deregulation Ruined the Economy in 2008, Not High Wages

Our small band of minimum wage activists joined the throng outside of Walmart in Mountain View, California, on Friday May 9 to try to catch the eye or ear of the President. We also wished to show our disapproval of this clear demonstration of the captivity of democracy to corporate forces. Many issues were represented that day: anti-drone, anti- Keystone XL pipeline, OUR Walmart and even anti-Obama. It was vibrant, exciting, and inspiring. A strong sense of solidarity pervaded. But we did not even catch a glimpse of Obama.

I am currently involved in a campaign to increase the minimum wage in Mountain View. The campaign has been opposed by unexamined economic thinking and neoconservative political ideology. Right-wing politicians at all levels seem blinkered in their economic views with a willful ignorance of the full complexity of the economic arguments.


February 2, 2014

State Of The Labor Movement In USA

Filed under: free market economy,labour rights — joanneknight @ 4:58 pm

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama tackled the question of inequality in the US today.

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

He announced a wage increase for Federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour by executive order.

Bob Herbert, distinguished senior fellow with Demos, responded that a lack of union organization has resulted in nearly 50 million people who are officially poor in the United States.

“One of the reasons American workers are in such a deep state of distress is because they have no clout in the workplace. They are not organized, and they are not represented, so they cannot fight for their own interests.”

Coming from Australia with its proud history of labor representation, the sense of labor being an integral part of the economic and political system reflected in a liveable minimum wage of $15 per hour and a reasonable welfare system, it was a big shock to be exposed to the disempowered position of labor in the US. Jeremy Scahill called the corporate takeover of the US a “silent coup”. The history of labor in the US is one of attempting to avoid its complete annihilation by capital.

Read more at Countercurrents.

April 11, 2012

Trayvon Martin: Death of the rule of law

Filed under: human rights — joanneknight @ 10:59 pm
Tags: , , ,

George Zimmerman has finally been charged with the shooting of Trayvon Martin, not by the police but by the State Attorney’s Office. By allowing Zimmerman to walk away and remain free for 44 days, the rule of law and due process have been fundamentally undermined. The Florida police have failed in their duty to the law, to the community and to Trayvon Martin’s family, hiding behind the Florida Stand Your Ground law.

Zimmerman made a fateful decision that night when he chose to disregard the police dispatcher’s statement to await the arrival of the police and not to follow his “suspect.” A 911 call records the voice of someone screaming for help outside of the caller’s home. Video released from the police station where Zimmerman was taken in handcuffs on the night of the shooting, shows Zimmerman with no marks on him, throwing into doubt his claims of self defense. Sanford Police claim that they could not charge Zimmerman under the 2005 Florida Stand Your Ground law. Florida police seem to have been convinced that Zimmerman managed to escape from a violent attack, where he was screaming desperately for help, without a mark.

The Stand Your Ground law, created in response to fierce lobbying by the National Rifle Association, has coupled immunity from being arrested, detained in custody, charged, or prosecuted with a presumption of reasonable fear when a person acts in self-defense when attacked in their own home. To claim self-defense and immunity for a violent act occurring outside their home, the accused individual needs to establish the reasonable use of force in response to an attack. The Florida statute prohibits law enforcement from arresting a person for using force unless there is probable cause that the injured or deceased party had not unlawfully or forcefully entered the accused person’s home.

Unfortunately for Trayvon Martin’s family and for justice in the United States, there is no way to review a grant of immunity once granted. Barry University Assistant Professor of Law Elizabeth Megale argues that when law enforcement decides a person is entitled to immunity, the statute does not provide a way for the prosecutor to review the case and withdraw that immunity, if warranted. Megale contends that there are no guidelines for police to apply in exercising this judgment to grant immunity.

The rule of law means that no one is above the law, but it appears that under certain circumstances that certain individuals who take the law into their own hands and meet out their own justice are in fact above the law. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said: There can be no free society without law administered through an independent judiciary. If one man can be allowed to determine for himself what is law, every man can. That means first chaos, then tyranny.’ (United States v. United Mine Workers (1947)) George Zimmerman decided what the law was in relation to Trayvon Martin that fateful night. Since the law was enacted, justified homicides in Florida have jumped threefold, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Due process is a fundamental right and the backbone of the rule of law. It means that everyone is entitled to a fair and impartial hearing to determine their legal rights. The accused enjoys a presumption of innocence. This presumption is not a right, but a privilege that is attached to the way various “burdens” are laid out in evidence law. The State bears the tough standard of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed. The State bears this burden to protect the accused from arbitrary prosecution. However, if the State refuses to discharge this burden by failing to arrest someone we are in danger of descending into anarchy.

The testing of evidence is closely entwined with due process. In criminal justice, fairness in procedure and the testing of evidence, connects with fairness in outcome. If the State fails to carry out its responsibility to gather sufficient evidence to establish probable cause, there is no opportunity to test the evidence in court.

The police have now handed the case over to the State Attorney’s office and abdicated all responsibility. It appears there are serious questions as to whether the police discharged their responsibility to the community in investigating Treyvon Martin’s death. In granting George Zimmerman immunity without questioning witnesses and investigating phone records, it seems unlikely that they could determine whether sufficient evidence to charge Zimmerman. The balance of powers doctrine, in which the branches of government, the executive, judiciary and legislature act as checks on one another, has been subverted in this case. The courts act as a check on the power of the police, as well as the government.

Some argue that the Florida Stand Your Ground law has no application in this case. Tim Lynch, Director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, contends that the law only applies to very narrow situations such as home break in or being attacked on the street. Lynch reasons that in pursuing Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman became the aggressor. Under these circumstances, if Martin became aggressive towards Zimmerman, it could in fact be seen as being in response to Zimmerman’s provocation. In addition, because Martin was not armed, a gunshot in response to a thrown punch could be deemed outside the laws of self-defense. Tim Lynch postulates that in the use of a gun against an unarmed man, the police could establish probable cause and arrest Zimmerman. It seems in failing to do so they have perverted the rule of law and the right to due process.

The police turned a blind eye to Zimmerman’s crime and finally washed their hands of making a decision to arrest him. It seems to display a contempt for the rule of law and willingness to, at best, wink at vigilante violence. The Stand Your Ground law seems to allow such attitudes to flourish.

June 27, 2010

Spirits Rise Up

The lunchtime crowd surged past intent on its own business. In the shadows, a small but determined group took its positions at the portal. Many were crossing over. It was a hard structure where humanity dragged its desperation to plead for the continuation of the pittance provided, before the grim-faced bureaucrats of the government department responsible for compassion, the Department of Family, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. A lone didgeridoo player took up his elaborately-painted instrument and played a dirge for the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. Smoke from cigarettes wafted through the air, like the lost souls who struggled with their prams up the resistant steps, which seemed determined to make their journey more difficult.

I attended the picket at FaCSIA organised by the Melbourne Anti-Intervention Collective on Friday 18 June 2010 to mark the 3rd anniversary of the beginning of the NT Emergency Intervention. It was a great event supported by unions and indigenous groups. A large banner was placed across the front entrance of the building and a community picket was announced. This is a traditional union method of protest to stop scabs taking union jobs. No one can cross the picket line. Security at the building helped greatly by redirecting people around to the back entrance and then lurked in the entrance hallway peering anxiously out the front windows. The building was effectively closed. Later the group marched around the building and then all entrances to the building were closed. It was a noisy and effective protest. A replica of the Basic Card was burned to cheers and condemnation as a violation of the human rights of indigenous peoples. The Basic Card requires Indigenous people to spend half their income on food, clothing and medicine. It is an insult to assume that indigenous people cannot choose what things they need to buy. It violates their right to self-determination and to be treated with dignity.

The chaos of the NT Intervention reflects the government’s ridiculous approach to welfare across the board in Australia. Welfare recipients and all marginalised groups are punished for being unable or unwilling to participate in neoliberal society. The only worthwhile contribution in our society is to accumulate wealth and if you cannot be part of this then you will be punished. The welfare sector is applying an approach of discipline and control on those who wish to live by a different set of values than the morals espoused by neoliberal economists. Neoliberal standards have now become second nature to most people (including welfare workers) and they agree that if people need to be coerced then that’s what should happen.

Recently the government applied a legal slight of hand to nullify the effect of the RDA in relation to the Intervention without honouring its spirit. By applying the income management provisions to everyone in Australia receiving a Centrelink benefit and removing specific references to the Northern Territory, the government has applied the principle of non-discrimination that a person should not be treated differently on the basis of race. However they have introduced measures to target ‘vulnerable welfare payment recipients’. Vulnerable welfare payment recipients are defined as such by the Secretary of the relevant Department with provisions for making new determinations and dealing with requests for reconsideration. Certain groups can be targeted through this section of the Act.

Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC, former Chief Justice of the Family Court, concludes that
‘What is quite clear is that the legislation gives unprecedented power to the Minister and the Secretary in respect of welfare recipients throughout Australia. However, what is also clear is that this is little more than a ruse to overcome the provisions of the RDA and that the real targets of the income management scheme are likely to be Aboriginal people including Aboriginal people living beyond the NT. It is little more than a clumsily disguised and cynical attempt to perpetuate racial discrimination against them.’
The Australian Human Rights Commission has condemned income management as racist, in a report released on November 13 2009. The report condemned the suspension of the RDA in the first place, saying income management could not be regarded as a “special measure” to advance the rights of Indigenous people. But income management was not such a measure, the report said. Any such measures would require prior informed consent before implementation. The Federal Government’s own NTER Review Board reported in October 2008 that income management should be scrapped.

James Anaya, UN human rights envoy, wrote in August 2009, any special measure must be devised and carried out with due regard of the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination and to be free from racial discrimination and indignity. In this connection, any special measure that infringes on the basic rights of indigenous peoples must be narrowly tailored, proportional, and necessary to achieve the legitimate objectives being pursued. In his view, the Northern Territory Emergency Response is not. In his opinion, as currently configured and carried out, the Emergency Response is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, treaties to which Australia is a party, as well as incompatible with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Australia has affirmed its support.

Why, after several reports have consistently criticised this measure, recommending it become voluntary, does the Federal Government persist with it and is extending it to all welfare recipients in the NT and across Australia. This approach is consistent with a neoliberal ideology which punishes the poor as unable to participate fully in the market and marginalizes any alternative system of values. Aboriginal values which emphasise the protection of culture and the sacredness of spiritual connection to land above economic gain and profit have no place in neoliberal society. The Rudd government persists in the ideology of the Howard government putting market values above all others. Unless you can sell your culture on the market and exploit your land for profit (no matter what cost to the environment and your sacred traditions) then you have no place here. You will be strong armed into becoming part of the market no matter what the cost to your society.

This is particularly evident in the NT Labor Government’s policy ‘Working Futures – Remote Service Delivery’. On May 20 2009, the NT Labor government released its Working Futures – Remote Service Delivery policy. It is effectively cuts delivery of essential health, education and housing services to some 580 remote communities, while developing 20 “regional economic hubs” or “Territory Growth Towns”. Thousands of Indigenous people will be forced to move to these larger communities to access government services. As The Age editorial of May 23 noted, “The implementation of Working Futures will effectively mean the death of the homelands movement.”

The homelands movement began in the 1970s, when Indigenous communities began to reestablish themselves on their traditional lands. Studies by universities and health authorities show that people in the homelands are in general much healthier than those living in towns, and their communities are stable and cohesive. Being able to keep their language, culture and knowledge of the land alive has given them pride and dignity, and a sense of being in control of their lives.

The far north of Australia has always been the playground of the mining industry. The Land Rights movement in Australia began because a mining company refused to listen to Aboriginal people living in Nullumbuy. The Gove Land Rights case is seminal in the history of the land rights movement in Australia. Australia’s history views Aboriginal people as pests to be killed or removed from the land, or as a source of cheap labour to be exploited at bare survival levels. Australia has its own history of what amount to slavery (or at least indentured labour) in the far North. Most people don’t know this history. I didn’t learn about it until I began studying land rights law in my law degree in my early 30s.

According to J.C. Altman at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, the core neoliberal ideology of assimilation is behind the NT Intervention. Intervention measures seek to discipline Indigenous labour, through grog bans, bans on pornography, requirements for people to work for the dole on community cleanups, and controlled tenancy arrangements that restrict modes of living. Some measures seek to dilute land rights or expand their potential for commercial development, through abolishing the permit system and the compulsory acquisition of township leases leading to the dispossession of traditional owners of their land. In June 2009, the Federal government compulsorily and permanently acquired the town camps of Alice Springs, sidelining the Tangentyere Council, an umbrella organisation representing 15 of the 18 town camps.

Other procedures depoliticise democratic Indigenous organisations and impose external control over townships. These measures include stripping Indigenous-controlled Community Development Employment Programmes (CDEP) of their assets and abolishing the programs, appointing government business managers with legal rights to attend the meeting of any democratically-elected organisation and with absolute powers in townships that probably exceed those of the settlement superintendent of earlier policy eras.

However even the supposed intention of encouraging all Aboriginal people to work in civilized jobs has not carried through. The NT Intervention promised Aboriginal people real jobs. Instead, according to the Melbourne Anti-Intervention Collective, thousands of CDEP positions have been lost. Under the new CDEP scheme, some Aboriginal people are being forced to work providing vital services such as rubbish collection, school bus runs, sewerage maintenance and aged care in exchange for quarantined Centrelink payments. There are cases of people working between 25-40 hours a week for the base rate of approximately $85 cash and $85 on the Basics Card. Centrelink is threatening to cut off payment entirely if people do not participate in CDEP.

One worker who drives the school bus has had her payments reduced if children are late or she misses a shift. She’s not entitled to be sick, for the bus to break down or simply to be running late. She is traveling on poorly- constructed outback roads, in an old bus which is not regularly serviced. At times she has driven the bus when it has been unregistered and it’s not clear who pays the fine if she gets caught.
NTER Review Board criticised the CDEP program for failing to provide basic training for Aboriginal communities, even literacy and numeracy, and has failed to improve non-CDEP employment opportunities. They have failed at mentoring, case management and workplace assessment and to coordinate activities between education and training providers and Job Network Providers.
The imposition of the NT Intervention followed a fundamental shift in Indigenous policy in 2004. With the abolition of ATSIC, the central concepts of Indigenous policy were changed from a paradigm loosely termed ‘self determination’ to a cluster of terms centred on ‘mutual obligation’, ‘shared responsibility’, ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘normalisation’, a language borrowed from international social policy developments in other neoliberal states. At the same time we have witnessed the abandonment of consultation with Indigenous people, diminishing use of available statistical and research evidence and increased marginalisation of the experts, especially if their views diverge from national leadership. The Rudd Government continues this policy, placing a cynical veneer of legal compliance over measures which fundamentally disenfranchise Indigenous people.

James Anya, UN Human Rights Evnoy, wrote that a number of Government partnerships with local initiatives appeared to be succeeding, but there were many accounts of Government programmes failing to take into account existing local programmes already in place, hampering their ultimate success. Any initiatives that duplicate or replace the programmes of Aboriginals and Torres Straight Islanders already in place, or that undermine local decision-making through indigenous peoples’ own institutions violate human rights norms. The United Nations Declaration guarantees the right of indigenous peoples to participate fully at all levels of decision-making in matters which may affect their rights, lives and destinies, as well as to maintain and develop their own decision-making institutions and programmes. Further, adequate options and alternatives for socio-economic development and violence prevention programmes should be developed in full consultation with affected indigenous communities and organisations. These policies fundamentally breach the human rights of Aboriginal people.

Any hopes of using internal legal avenues to address the excesses of government intervention were crushed in February 2009 in the High Court of Australia, when the court refused to award ‘just terms’ compensation to traditional owners from Maningrida, NT. The Federal Government had compulsorily acquired their land rights and converted them into a five year lease. Indigenous owners held a noisy protest outside the court that day and people expressed their frustration and anger at the decision. The High Court has an uneven history of sympathy to Indigenous issues. In Kruger v The Commonwealth [1997] HCA 27, in which the plaintiffs sought compensation from the government for being removed from their family as a young child, the High Court held that there was no right to freedom from genocide in Australia. The Mabo and Wik cases seem to have been extraordinary exceptions, the decisions of a historically unique bench.

With the appointment of a new Prime Minister, it would be nice to think that things will change but I won’t be holding my breath. If neoliberalism can escape a global economic meltdown essentially unscathed, well it’s hard to see what will change in the near future. Aboriginal people will keep fighting, except for the few notable exceptions, and some members of the non-Aboriginal community will be there to support them. All we can hope for is the emergence of a new paradigm to galvanise the masses and help them to see that slavery to the market is not the only truth of life.

September 28, 2009

Chemical Chicken

‘If you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.’ Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

The suing of KFC by an Australian family in New South Wales for causing serious injury to their 7 year old daughter opens the whole bucket of chicken for industrial agriculture once again. This is not a localized issue of whether something nasty got into the food because of poor hygiene standards of the local store but goes to the issue of how food is manufactured in our world today.

In October 2005, Monika Samaan, now 11, collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital after eating part of a Twister from Villawood KFC. Her salmonella poisoning developed into acquired spastic quadriplegia, acquired profound intellectual disability and liver dysfunction. She is now confined to a wheel chair.

We all know that eating junk food is bad for us but the fast food chains seem to like to add an extra bullet in the game of dining roulette. In 2003, the Food Safety Information Council estimated that a whopping 5 million Australians are affected by food-poisoning every year and a 2005 report found that approximately 120 people die from food-borne illnesses in Australia every year.

KFC only stopped using partially-hydrogenated oils, one of the worst sources of trans fats which massively increases the risk of heart disease, to fry their chicken when the Centre for Science in the Public Interest took them to court in 2006. Health authorities worldwide recommend that consumption of trans fats be reduced to trace amounts. Baskin and Robbins makes a large Fudge Brownie (‘vanilla soft serve blended with brownie chunks and hot fudge’) which packs two days’ worth of saturated fat (39 grams) and almost a day’s worth of recommended calorie intake (1,900 calories) into a snack.

If that doesn’t put you off, listen to this. In the United States in 1994, health investigators found that contamination of icecream pre-mix occurred because it was transported in tanker trailers that had previously been used to haul liquid eggs contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis. The contamination was not detected until the icecream had been distributed across the nation. Researchers estimated that 224,000 people in many different states contracted gastroenteritis as a result of eating the contaminated icecream. The practice of mass-distribution and transporting food long distances contains extensive risks as well.

The principles of the fast-food restaurants are coming to dominate more and more sectors of society and everyday life. Producing things in similar, standardized ways embodies four principal processes: ‘efficiency’, ‘calculability’ based on quantitative indicators, such as profit, ‘predictability’ as standard products are delivered in predictable ways, and ‘control’ through technology.

These principles seem to be applied so that even routines to ensure food safety and hygiene operate at their most economical and efficient rather than their most effective. KFC’s own internal hygiene review found the Villawood outlet, the subject of the legal action, regularly failed to comply with standards around food cooking, storage temperature and shelf life. In March, the NSW Food Authority dished out a $73,000 fine to two KFC restaurants in Sydney for poor hygiene and QSR Pty Ltd, which operates the outlets, was convicted of 11 charges of breaching food hygiene laws.

Such principles become especially problematic when applied to large-scale agricultural production from which KFC and other fast food chains source their never-ending demand for chicken and beef. The connection between flu viruses, now a source of global epidemics, and the practices of agribusiness have been strengthened by the findings of a report by Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (2009) produced in association with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

‘Industrial farm animal production is characterized by confining large numbers of animals of the same species in relatively small areas, generally in enclosed facilities that restrict movement. In many cases, the waste produced by the animals is eliminated through liquid systems and stored in open pit lagoons.’ This image of farms surrounded by lakes of excrement is almost enough to put you off your 2-Piece Feed.

One of the report’s damning findings is that the ‘intensive confinement production system’ or factory farming increases antibiotic resistance because of their misuse in the industry. OK we all want clean, healthy animals killed for our gastronomic pleasure. But antibiotics are administered in huge quantities, not just for disease prevention, but also for growth promotion. Tender, juicy breasts of chicken so big that the poor chicken cannot stand up and lies face down in its own excrement.

Reports show that between 17.8 to 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics per year are pumped into these animals. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of the antibiotics dispensed in the United States annually are used in farm animals. The practice of adding low levels of antibiotics and growth hormones has become common practice among battery farm operations.

Disease experts are investigating the links between this widespread use of antibiotics in animals and the role of antimicrobial resistance in epidemics. Benign or beneficial bacteria, which normally live in the human digestive tract or on human skin, such as Golden Staph, may pass antimicrobial resistance to harmful bacteria. Golden Staph is an enduring problem in many large Australian hospitals, attacking intravenous lines, catheters and wounds after operations.

The Pew report states ‘While it is difficult to measure what percent of resistant infections in humans are caused by antimicrobial use in agriculture as opposed to other settings, it can be assumed that the wider the use of antimicrobials, the greater the chance for the development of resistance.’

The essentially unregulated use of antibiotics in US industrial farming has serious implications for the incubation of epidemics. Public health experts are studying the correlation between conditions in industrial food animal production and the spread of the influenza virus. Dr. Ann Marie Kimball, at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health says influenza surveillance may be missing the key bridging populations, such as farmers, veterinarians and meat packers. Just as avian influenza (H5N1) and SARS had connections to human contact with animals, reports point to a swine flu epicenter around a huge hog farm in Veracruz.

Industrial food animal production and fast food consumption are intimately linked. These production centres are no longer farms. We must relinquish our bucolic dreams of cows peacefully chewing in lush fields and chickens clucking contently in the farm yard. They have now been replaced by the clamour and bustle of something more like the cross between a science lab and a factory but with more shit, blood and pain. Surprisingly, these images are produced by dispassionate scientists not by animal activists in the street. Monika Samaan is a symbol for everybody on the planet. We are all at risk from this dehumanised factory system.

April 29, 2009

Democracy, the old-fashioned way

Filed under: human rights — joanneknight @ 9:29 am
Tags: , ,

Just as the grand old Windsor Hotel survived the wrecking ball and has been revived through an extensive restoration, so democracy in Australia is having new life breathed into it by the Human Rights Consultation. An Indian woman in a pink sari rises and laments the death of a soldier in war and proclaims the best way to protect human rights is to end war. A disabled woman from a peak disability body remains seated and advocates to protect the rights of disabled people to vote because the Electoral Commission has just decided that assistance to blind people to vote in privacy is beyond their resources.

Mary Kostakidis, one of the panel heading the consultation, said that the passage of a Human Rights Act represented the hallmark of a civilized society.

Various right wing and Christian groups advocated the rights of the unborn child and the right to express unpalatable religious views. One speaker referred indirectly to the controversy of anti-Islamic views expressed by Catch the Fire Ministries in 2004, as an infringement on freedom of expression and religion. Another speaker alluded to the recent debate surrounding the Victorian abortion legislation and the rights of doctors to refuse treatment. Certain groups see the requirement for doctors to refer patients to other help where they are unwilling to advise on abortion as an infringement on freedom of religious belief.

The variety and plethora of issues, causes and interest groups represented at the morning session of the Federal Government’s Human Rights Consultation in Melbourne represents democracy at its best. Numerous views of the pros and cons for a Human Rights Act in Australia were aired.

Our table heard a heart-wrenching story from a grandmother who has a grandson with a severe brain injury, unable to move or communicate, whose entire needs must be provided by another. Her concern for his welfare has fallen on deaf ears as she desperately seeks assistance in the bewildering world of human services bureaucracy and legal confusion. The concern that governments remain unaccountable was expressed over and over, as others articulated unease that a Human Rights Act would take decision-making out of the hands of Parliament into the hands of the judiciary.

As other countries, like Thailand, descend into turmoil because the people lack a voice to call their politicians to account, I felt proud of our country’s political system for the first time in many years. All listened with interest and tolerance to the views of others. Any disagreements were aired as differences of opinion, in a way that many politicians in Parliament could learn from.

While I felt ambivalent about the opulence of the Grand Ballroom at the Windsor Hotel as a venue, it seemed that the figures in the stained glass windows peered at us with curiosity and benevolence. The atmosphere of this grand room imbued the proceedings with an air of dignity which heightened the atmosphere of tolerance and rational debate.

The views expressed portrayed a Human Rights Act as the answer to many ills in our society, which of course it cannot be. We can only hope that the positions voiced will not simply disappear into some bureaucratic black hole but will inform the decision making process in this milestone in Australia’s history.

Human Rights and Corporate Responsibility

The debate in the Australian Parliament over the Fair Work Bill, earlier this year, highlighted some important issues on corporate responsibility and human rights. Rachel Nicholson from Allen Arthur Robinson law firm argues that under the Victoria Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, in certain circumstances, businesses already have a responsibility to protect human rights. The continuing small business exemption from unfair dismissal violates the rights of these workers to a fair hearing. Despite any legal ambiguity, it seems the drive for a culture protecting human rights is gaining force and business needs to be prepared.

Under the WorkChoices legislation, some businesses have been a little too eager to abandon corporate responsibility and impinge on labour rights, working conditions and fair pay. Internationally, companies have invested massive resources and money into countries like Indonesia and Burma, turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations, including the use of child labour.

A growing body of evidence details human rights violations due to corporate activities in poor communities in developing countries. A study undertaken by the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net) in June 2008, found that in 159 cases from 66 countries, business enterprises have had significant negative impacts upon the enjoyment of all types of human rights, in different political systems, around the world and across industries. Professor John Ruggie, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Business and Human Rights in 2006 found that the oil, gas and mining extraction sector were responsible for two-thirds of reported abuses. The damage caused to company image in the past has been severe and lingers on even when the company cleans up its act.

Rachel Nicholson from Allens Arthur Robinson law firm, at the Everyday People, Everyday Rights Human Rights Conference on March 17, argued that a national human rights charter may make it possible to pursue human rights violations committed offshore by subsidiaries and related entities of companies incorporated in Australia.

In its Submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Fair Work Bill 2008, the Australian Human Rights Commission raised concerns that the Bill fails to fully implement Australia’s international human rights obligations. The continuing exemption of small businesses from unfair dismissal procedures violates the rights of more than a third of the workforce (36%) to procedural fairness and a fair hearing. It recommended that employees of all small businesses be entitled to the same protections from unfair dismissal as all other employees. The WorkChoices legislation seriously eroded the labour rights of Australian workers and the current government is continuing these appalling practices.

However in a seeming contradictory move last year the government launched a consultation process on how best to promote and protect human rights. Sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Australia is the only modern democracy without a national charter of human rights. Rachel Nicholson argues that under the Victoria Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, in certain circumstances, businesses already have a responsibility to protect human rights.

Under the Charter, where a company wins a government tender or otherwise receives government funding, it may be acting as a ‘public authority’. It is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is inconsistent with human rights set out in the Act and it has an obligation to give proper consideration of the impact of any decision on the rights protected.

Councils, Government Ministers and public officials have an obligation to act consistently with and give proper consideration to human rights in relation to all acts, omissions and decisions of a public nature, including the granting of contracts, project approvals and licences and the reviewing of impact assessments. Thus businesses applying for contracts, projects and licences are likely to be required to take human rights into account in the development of their project and be able to demonstrate that they have done so.

Telstra has expressed a general interest in having better protection of human rights in Australia. In its submission to the federal government last year it called for a national charter of rights, similar to the charters introduced in Victoria and the ACT, based on the statutory model adopted in Britain in 1998. However Telstra’s manouvering around negotiating a new enterprise agreement since June last year does not suggest a great respect for employees’ rights to freedom of association.

Ben Schokman of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre asserts that there is a sound economic case for a human rights charter. ‘When you look at human rights violations, whenever you’ve got the violation of a human right, that’s essentially a real cut to any human potential, it’s a cut to the economic potential of their society.’

With the passage of the Fair Work Bill, the arrangements for unfair dismissal procedures still fail to apply to significant numbers of the Australian workforce. If a human rights charter is passed, it leaves corporations in doubt as to their legal position. In spite of any legal uncertainty, it seems the movement to protect human rights is gaining momentum and business needs to be in position to meet the challenge.

January 26, 2009

Guantanamo to close

President Obama signed executive orders to close Guantanamo Bay and end the use of torture. This means an end to CIA secret detention centres around the world, an end to torture such as waterboarding, and an end to human rights abuse in the name of the “war on terror”.

The first 100 days of Mr Obama’s term in office is a unique opportunity for America to reclaim its role as a leader for human rights. In February Amnesty International will present a global petition to President Obama. It will urge the US Administration to establish an independent commission to investigate abuses committed by the US Government in its “war on terror”.

Your name will stand alongside thousands of others from around the globe. Please sign your name to the petition now – and call on the President to achieve positive and lasting change.

From Amnesty International

January 21, 2009

President Obama: A new era of responsibility

Filed under: human rights — joanneknight @ 2:15 am
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Since his election Barack Obama has pledged to close Guantánamo Bay and rebuild “America’s moral stature in the world”. The next 100 days in office offers the opportunity to make a clean break with the past.

In his inauguration speech US President Obama promised a “new era of responsibility”:

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, America has committed grave human rights violations around the world under the banner of the ‘war on terror’.

Suspects have been abducted and covertly transported to secret US-run facilities or to other governments where they have faced torture and ill-treatment. Individuals have been victims of enforced disappearance and some still remain unaccounted for.

Hundreds of people have been unlawfully detained in conditions that have amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. US officials have admitted the use of torture and other ill-treatment and have reserved the right to do so again.

By closing Guantánamo, ending torture and setting up an independent investigation into US ‘war on terror’ abuses, President Obama can make concrete human rights reforms a reality.

We’re not expecting miracles, but we do expect President Obama to stand by his commitments.

We’ve produced a checklist if actions we’d like to see President Obama take in his first 100 days in office. These include:

  • Announcing a timeline for the closure of Guantánamo Bay
  • Issuing an executive order to ban torture and other ill-treatment
  • Ensuring an independent inquiry into the US’s detention and interrogation practices in its ‘war on terror’

You can help bring to an end the previous administration’s seven-year assault on human rights in the ‘war on terror’.

Please join Amnesty International members in calling on President Obama to uphold his promise to restore justice and accountability within his first 100 days in office.

Learn more

From Amnesty International

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