Unity in Diversity Conference

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					Unity in Diversity Conference
15 August 2008


I would like to begin by paying my respects to the Wulguru Kaba and Bindal peoples
past and present, the traditional owners of these lands, and to thank them for their warm
welcome to country yesterday.

I was particularly pleased to see that a plenary session of this conference had been
devoted to exploring culture, the environment and human rights. I want to thank the
organisers for inviting me to address you on this broad, but important, topic

While each of these three themes – culture, the environment, human rights – are
important, their importance lies not solely in themselves, but in their intersections.

In this presentation I would like to discuss:
      a case study that illustrates the relationship between culture, the environment
       and human rights
      the developing awareness of the intersection between these issues and how
       they are being discussed and understood at a global level
      some of the threats posed to cultural heritage and to the environment
      some of the opportunities available by understanding the issues and
       responding sensibly
      the central role of human rights as a framework for both action and for an
       ethical understanding of the situation.

I would like to start this talk by looking at a case study that illustrates how the themes
are related.

I hope I don‟t offend any locals by admitting my great love of Tasmania, and many things
Tasmanian. I have been to Tasmania several times with my wife and my children. We
love both the natural beauty and the architectural heritage, we love the friendly people
and the incredible arts and crafts industry, and we love the wonderful foods and wines
that the island state produces. When we go there we gorge ourselves with fresh berries,
cheese and sea food.

Tasmania markets itself on its „clean and green image‟. In particular, it has a vibrant
aqua-culture industry, if you are ever in Hobart, a visit to the incredibly stylish Tassal

shopfront off Salamanca is worthwhile, not least because if you enjoy smoked salmon
you can buy great slabs of the delicacy at ridiculously cheap prices.

I had long been of the view that this farmed product was, as the marketing claimed,
clean, green, healthy and sustainable – it produced a consumable product I could eat
with equanimity (although vegetarians may not necessarily agree with me). Indeed,
aqua-culture often promotes itself as a responsible form of ocean resource

However, there is another side to the story – and a rather disturbing one too.

Farmed salmon are bred and nourished in offshore hatcheries, and are fed pelletised
feed that is produced from „small fry‟ which are often caught by what are termed trawlers
from the „distant water fishing nations‟.

Most of the source of this pelletised food comes from fish that are trawled, in vast
quantities from the Pacific Ocean. There so much over-cropping of these fisheries that
the fishing industry off the South American coast is coming under threat.

Salmon are carnivorous, and it takes between 2.7 and 3.5 tonnes of wild fish to raise a
single tonne of farmed fish.

Destruction of the stocks of small fish (such as pilchards and herring) is affecting the
food chain within the region, and stocks of larger species are declining.

Fishing industries, fishing communities, and the indigenous fishing cultures that go with
such communities along the coast of southern America, are facing decimation.

Cultures that have survived centuries and have sustainably fished the oceans in the
region are now threatened by the international fleets of trawlers that are destroying the
marine ecology.

But it is far more complex than this. First Nation peoples elsewhere are deeply affected
by salmon aqua-culture, including those in Canada.

I don‟t have time to go into all the issues here, but they range from the spread of marine
diseases (especially sea lice), to pollution (particularly on the sea bed beneath aqua-
culture facilities), to the concentration of toxins in the flesh of the salmon through the
feeding process, to labour exploitation.

This is a classic example of an ecological and health problem that has been fuelled by
greed: the global market for a delicacy in the affluent „west‟ is driving an industry that will
deprive the livelihoods of people living in poor countries. Greed is destroying the

environment, it is affecting the stocks of wild/unfarmed salmon, and this greed will, in all
probability, see the decline to fishing cultures throughout the Americas.

Leaving aside the rather disgusting process of feeding mature, farmed salmon with food
dyes to get the desired flesh colour that appeals to the smoked salmon market, this
illustrates the fundamental lack of sustainability of the industry. It is a salutary tale of
globalisation, greed and cultural destruction. It has certainly made me think twice about
purchasing the product!

If you have an interest in these issues, I refer you to the work of the David Sukuzi
Foundation which has campaigned against farmed salmon for years. On You-Tube you
can view a short speech delivered by Suzuki on the issue, or you could look at Michael
Weber‟s paper published by the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity.

This is a story that is not just about globalisation and international market forces, or
about the nature of power-relationships between the rich and poor, between the state
and indigenous peoples, nor is it a story of environmental destruction, or of public health.

Most importantly, it is a story of connections. It is a story of how Australia plays a small
part in global events, of how what happens in one part of the world can affect another
part, and how culture, the environment and human rights can be, indeed often are,
closely inter-connected.

This inter-connectedness is well recognised in both the cultural, environmental and
human rights sectors.

As I‟m sure you know, human rights are a both a set of values by which human‟s should
aspire to live their lives within families, communities and societies. It is also system of
agreements internationally recognised, and often enshrined in national laws.

The system of human rights evolved in the years immediately after the World War II, and
the establishment of the United Nations, and is first enshrined in the key treaty which is
celebrating its 60th birthday this year: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As Commissioner Calma mentioned in his keynote speech yesterday, one way of
understanding the complexity of human rights is to separate them into „generations‟.

For example, the first generation of human rights are civil and political rights. They
include the rights to such things as the vote, freedom from discrimination, freedom of
speech and the like.

Second generation human rights are economic, social and cultural rights, like the right to
education, to adequate housing and the right to health.

Third generation human rights are collective rights, for example, the right to self-
determination and development.

While each are important and, as a principle, no rights should be relinquished (all human
rights are indivisible and inalienable, as stated in the Universal Declaration) human
rights can conflict and it is easy for rights to be eroded once they come under a form of
pressure, for example, political pressure.

Two examples can illustrate this. The first deals with cultural rights. Cultural rights have
been criticised as a justifying or allowing infringements of other human rights. The case
of female genital mutilation is such an example. However, in a case like this, the rights
of women and children to protection from harm, and to health, are far greater than the
claimed cultural right in this situation… but this does explain how cultural rights can
easily placed on shaky ground.

The second example is the case of the fundamental human right: the right to life. This
right, it has been argued, over-rides all others. It has been argued that the responsibility
of the State to protect the right to life (for example, during a period of heightened
security when there is a threat of a terrorist attack) means that other, „lesser‟ rights may
be sacrificed to protect more important ones. Such an argument can lead, after some
permutations, to the authoritarian state that does not respect human rights, but uses
human rights justifications to legitimise repression.

Over the years there has been much discussion as to whether environmental protection
is a sub-set of human rights, given the argument that its purpose is to improve human
life (although such an argument implies that the physical environment lacks any intrinsic
importance). The more general consensus, now, is that environment protection and
human rights each represent different but overlapping societal values.

To really understand the topic of discussion today, it is necessary to recognise that
human rights are complex and the inter-sections between rights, the environment and
culture are expedientially more complex the closer we examine these inter-sections.

Koichiro Matsuura, Director General of UNESCO (United Nations Education and
Scientific Organisation) noted in his introduction to the Universal Declaration of Cultural
Diversity (2001) that it “…is now one of the founding texts of the new ethics promoted by
UNESCO in the early twenty-first century.” The Director-General also noted the UDCD:

   “is a first for the international community. It raises cultural diversity to the level of
   “the common heritage of humanity”, “as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is
   for nature”…

   the Declaration aims both to preserve cultural diversity as a living, and thus
   renewable treasure that must not be perceived as being unchanging heritage but as
   a process guaranteeing the survival of humanity…

   The Universal Declaration makes it clear that each individual must acknowledge not
   only otherness in all its forms but also the plurality of his or her own identity, within
   societies that are themselves plural. Only in this way can cultural diversity be
   preserved as an adaptive process and as a capacity for expression, creation and
   innovation. The Declaration… can be an outstanding tool for development, capable
   of humanizing globalization.”

There have been a number of other important United Nations expressions of support for
cultural diversity and linking it to the environment. One I would particularly like to also
mention is the Convention Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, not least because
the Commonwealth Government is currently consulting as to whether or not Australia
should ratify this important 2003 treaty.

Intangible cultural heritage – that heritage that is passed through oral traditions, social
practices and rituals, traditional craftsmanship, the performing arts and special
knowledge relating to nature and the universe – is the mainspring of the world‟s cultural
diversity and its maintenance is linked to the survival of human creativity.

The Convention that deals with this vital form of heritage recognises its inter-
generational transmission, its constant recreation and evolution by communities based
around their response to, and interaction with, their natural environment. Processes of
globalisation and creeping mono-culturalism are amongst the biggest threats to heritage,
although, perhaps, not the biggest.

Rapid climate change, the threat of „peak oil‟, and the move away from carbon-based
economies will impact upon how we live in the future. Some media commentators have
noted that owning and driving a car is not only an expectation of young Australians, it is
almost a right of passage and a „cultural right‟! They decry the potential cataclysmic
future in which, perhaps, not all young Australians will own and drive a car: is there a
more dire and terrifying future than this consequence of climate change?

While difficult to imagine, there probably is. An example is the projected changes to
equatorial monsoons. As discussed recently on the program broadcast on the ABC
about wild China, if the glaciers in Tibet melt, and there are significant falls in rainfall,
combined with continuing deforestation, the region is facing a scenario where, not only
do delta countries such as Bangladesh risk being inundated by the combined effects of
rising sea levels and siltation, but rivers such as the Mekong, Hindus and Yangtze may
face drastically reduced water flows.

Countries and regions such as Vietnam, India, and southern China, not only face
agricultural failure in this scenario, they face cultural extermination.

Destroy an environment and you destroy a culture. Destroy the environment in the
countries I‟ve just mentioned and you have a scenario where almost half the world‟s
population is on the move and some of the world‟s richest cultures are under threat.

We are already facing the situation where some lands are so threatened that entire
communities may need to be resettled.

Examples of this are in the Pacific Islands. No less an organisation than the World Bank
reported (Not If But When in 2006) that low-lying countries such as Kiribati could loose
up to 80% of their land mass. This, combined with increased cyclonic events, increases
in disease, falls in health outcomes, and drastic cuts in agricultural yields in other Pacific

In the not-too-distant future it is likely that whole Islander communities will resettle in
other regions, such as in Queensland or New Zealand. They will bring their Islander
culture with them. While this will eventual morph into a transitional diaspora culture, its
survival is improbable for, without the source lands and community that maintain,
reinforce and replenish it, the culture will eventually perish.

What we are likely to see with these small cultures, we may see on a vast scale with
hundreds of millions of souls if the predictions of many climate scientists eventuate over
the next century.

Not only is this a potential tale of unparalleled human misery, it is a tale of global
consequences that countries such as Australia cannot escape.

If Australians believe that deterrents such as an offshore detention centre and a few
patrol boats will put off half a billion starving climate refugees from pouring across its
borders they are sadly mistaken – absolutely nothing can halt such a tsunami of human

Orderly movements of people, managed trans-national migration, planned programs to
provide basic human infrastructure (let alone preserve a delicate natural environment
such as Australia‟s) will all disintegrate overnight under some of the predicted climate
change modelling.

HREOC‟s President John von Doussa in December last year also outlined these issues
in detail in his speech, the title of which indicates its tone Climate change: catastrophic
impacts and human rights in which he says… “Whilst there is now plenty of discussion
about the responses that governments should be making to address the predicted

consequences of climate change, the focus seems to have been largely on the
economic, trade and security issues. The social and human rights implications rarely
rate a mention.”

The full transcript of this speech can be found on the HREOC website and is important
reading for those of you with an interest in these issues.

This, of course, will provide particular human rights challenges:
    how will future Australian governments respond under these circumstances?
    will the attempt to close borders imply that some human lives are worth more
     than others?
    will laws suspending human rights be introduced to protect the general good?
    How will we manage the ever-increasing conflicts between the need to better
     protect the environment with human rights, given that a choice will probably have
     to be made between saving lives, improving the quality of life, and preserving, or
     cleaning-up, the environment

Peoples‟ rights to life and to the essentials that make life bearable are first generation
human rights. However, under these extreme conditions there will be virtually no
capacity to plan for second and third generation rights – indeed the whole concept of
human rights will be under extraordinary pressure in such circumstances.

Indeed, in this situation, which describes how at a time when the norm in human
relations, human development and international relations are suspended, a framework to
humanise will become lost in the clamour of violent transformation, conflict and despair.

While some of the scenarios to which I have just referred apply to what could loosely be
described as our region, there are equally great risks in other parts of the world such as
sub-Saharan Africa. We already know that desertification and mass starvation in Africa
is linked to climate change (in particular patterns of rainfall) that has been caused by
human activity in Europe.

Of course, another important aspect of the relationship between culture, environment
and human rights is one often discussed, but is not always seen in these terms. The
affluent western or „northern‟ countries are locked into a form of materia and consumer
behaviour that has become enmeshed into our culture – we make assumptions about
our rights to certain behaviours, lifestyles, spending and purchasing patterns.

This reflects the subaltern relationship between the wealthy and the poor: entrenching
exploitative global trade arrangements and linking poor communities into situations
where the only way they can develop is through depleting the natural resources that are

both their one opportunity to build a base for a prosperous future, while simultaneously
destroying and degrading the environment that has built their culture – their culture
being the most important asset they have for good health, self-esteem, belonging and
social infrastructure.

This effectively describes the situation where our own greed justifies, but more typically
doesn‟t even recognise, the harm that it does. Add into this toxic mix the way wealthy
nations support dictatorial regimes that act counter to the interests of their people, or
worse, cultural misappropriation and cultural colonisation and it is hardly surprising that
a tiny minority of people become resentful and turn to violence against those agents of
the change and the injustices they perceive in their communities.

This pattern of „development‟ is repeated over and over again, the world over and power
and wealth relationships between capital and governance develop that can be counter-
productive to both the human development, human rights and ecological sustainability of
the region where the development is occurring.

To refer to my opening anecdote, we can see this in the case of intensive salmon aqua-
culture in Chile.

We also see it in Cambodia where people are removed from traditional farming lands
which are sold to tourist resort developers; we see it in Africa where communities are
forcibly evicted, or left to live in permanently contaminated traditional lands after multi-
national corporations have completed mining operations; we see it in Australia where art
dealers skim enormous profits from the work of Indigenous central desert artists.

The rather horrific potential scenarios of the future, some of which I have described, may
have the potential to either engender fear or denial. Before any of you do choose the
second of these responses and deny the potential impact of what we are talking about,
consider that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that up to 13,000,000
lives each year could be saved if the environment was cleaned up.

In many countries, and I quote, “one third of deaths and disease are a direct result of
modifiable environmental factors, that is, environmental factors that are realistically
amenable to change using available technologies, policies and preventative and public
health measures”

The peoples of First Nations have something particularly important to say to world about
the relationships between culture, human rights and the environment. For example, the
Indigenous Peoples‟ Seattle Declaration of 1999 states:
   “…Indigenous peoples…are the ones most adversely affected by globalization…
   However, we believe it is also us who can offer viable alternatives…Our

   sustainable lifestyles and cultures, traditional knowledge, cosmologies, spirituality,
   values of collectivity, reciprocity, respect and reverence for Mother Earth, are
   crucial in the search for a transformed society where justice, equity, and
   sustainability will prevail”

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the right of
minority groups, including Indigenous groups, to enjoy their own culture, to practise their
own religion, and to use their own language. It notes that environmental contamination
or destruction may affect a minority groups‟ traditional practices, such as hunting,
fishing, land ownership and use, which are a manifestation of their culture.

Conversely, there is a tension between traditional subsistence activities that may
threaten the environment, and the broader community aims to protect the environment.
Recognising this tension, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has recognised
these as important factors in maintaining culture, economic self reliance and

While such accommodation for Indigenous peoples are reflected in various international
treaties, nevertheless, they remain across the world as victims of some of the most
destructive impacts of environmental damage and loss of intangible cultural heritage – a
loss not just for the groups concerned, but a loss for humanity as a whole.

It is my sense that the world is now undergoing one of its intellectual tectonic shifts.
The last 20 or more years have been a time when the logic of market processes have
dictated policy and planning from the local to the international level.

If nothing else, the looming crisis of climate change illustrates the inherent failure of
unfettered neo-liberal economics to regulate human development on our planet. This
global, conspicuous failure is now driving a new kind of economics where long-term
planning, corporate social responsibility, sustainable environmental development and
more modest growth expectations are becoming a more significant factor in business
and government planning.

This will also be reflected in consumer preferences, patterns of purchasing and market
behaviours. We can debate whether this will, in fact, genuinely help our planet‟s
ecology, or will help to address disequilibria of wealth between human populations, but,
if nothing else there is awareness and engagement with issues, and recognition of the
complexity and relationship between individual acts and their wider impact. It is this
awareness that marks out this shift that I referred to a moment ago.

Part of our responsibility, as people interested in the intersections between culture,
rights and the environment, is to expand this growing awareness, and to argue that
culture and environmental issues represent more than a threat, or a object of guilt: they

can be understood as opportunities for justice, for efficiency and productivity, and for
creativity – opportunities that will offer dividends for a much wider range of people than
those directly involved.

Take for example indigenous or traditional medical knowledge of the healing properties
of plant extracts, or animal products, as well as the holistic way to treat illness. This
knowledge, and these methodologies, are not only progressively influencing the western
bio-medical paradigm in research and treatment, they have also provided information
that has led to new pharmaceutical product and therapeutic goods.

Of course, misappropriation of knowledge and abuse of intellectual property rights make
this contentious. However, if the issues of justice, cultural respect and fair trading could
be addressed – which in a decent world would not be difficult – this is an important area
where intangible cultural heritage has the potential to benefit humans across the world.

Another often-neglected issue is the opportunities for new approaches to managing
climate change that are offered through the process of trans-national movements of
people. Take for example increasing desertification or salination. These may be new
problems for some communities, but old problems for others.

Human communities have been able to survive in the harshest of environments. Rather
than encouraging refugee or immigrant communities to permanently settle in urban
environments and conform to an alien, highly wasteful consumer culture, there are great
opportunities provided to a country such as Australia, to help settle suitable new arrivals
in rural areas where they will not only be familiar with the climate, level of aridity etc, but
may be able to assist with the transition to a more sustainable lifestyle and to help the
social and economic development of such communities.

What I have attempted to do, in the very little time available today, is to touch on a vast
and complex set of issues. I would like to quickly refer you to recent publications in this
    The Asia Pacific Forum‟s Human Rights and the Environment: Final Report and
     Recommendations (September 2007)
    HREOC‟s own background paper Human Rights and Climate Change (2008)
    United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2007-08
     – Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world (November 2007)
    Climate Change and Human Rights: a rough guide from the International Council
     on Human Rights Policy (2008), also

    The Human Rights Council‟s resolution 7/23, of March 2008, to undertake a
     detailed international analysis of the relationship between human rights and
     climate change.

These are several examples of important analysis into the relationship between the
environment and human rights that are happening NOW. Culture, however, is more
tangential to their interests, or assumes that it is incorporated within a wider human
rights approach.

I do see there is an opportunity to more clearly focus on the inter-connection between
the three separate but over-lapping domains of policy, ethics, law, research and action.
I hope the discussion raised at this conference will contribute to an awareness of the
importance of integrated planning at both local to international levels to avoid the
potentially catastrophic impact upon human lives, rights and culture of climate change

Thank you