'Australians like to think of their country as a land of the "fair go." But for minorities, equal dignity is not guaranteed by any overriding constitutional provision.' Photo: Simon O'Dwyer
We did not have a Dignity Day when I was at school. But, even at my primary school at Summer Hill, we received an inkling of the values that should bind us together.
In 1949, we received a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first article declared: ''All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.''
Article two made the basic principles even clearer: ''Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.''
Although we were young, we knew our country had just come through the tremendous ordeal of World War II. We knew of the suffering tyrannical leaders had inflicted on minorities: Jews, communists, Jehovah's Witnesses and others in the concentration camps in Nazi Europe. And we knew of the fearful potential of the atomic bombs that had brought that war to a conclusion in 1945.
Australians like to think of their country as a land of the ''fair go''. But, for minorities, equal dignity is not guaranteed by any overriding constitutional provision. We are now virtually alone in being a nation that does not have a constitutional charter of rights of the kind expressed in the Universal Declaration. Moreover, there are sometimes votes to be won by denying just treatment to minorities. It is then that dignity is put at risk.
When I was a judge of the High Court of Australia, many cases were concerned with challenges to the treatment of people who claimed refugee status. This is still a significant part of the court's work as demonstrated when it overturned the so-called ''Malaysia solution'': legislation that effectively attempted to hand over boat people seeking asylum to Malaysia, a country that is not a party to the international refugee convention. Refugee applicants are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. But have we always, as Australians, accorded them equality and dignity?
And to show that the ''other status'' category in the Universal Declaration is never closed, our country must now face the dignity and rights of its homosexual citizens. When the Universal Declaration was penned, there were few champions of gay rights in the world and many hostile forces, most of them in religious organisations. Yet those who drafted the Universal Declaration did not presume to close the categories where rights and dignity were at risk.
This, I believe, is the journey towards dignity that gay people are now engaged in, not only in Australia but everywhere. Although attitudes are improving and laws are being reformed, inequality is all too common.
Gay people are told they have an ''inclination to evil''; that they are ''disordered''; that they are not entitled to equality of marriage rights, even though this involves a legal status created by a secular parliament. Gay fellow citizens are denied the right to lead a dignified life in full equality with their neighbours. They are refused an opportunity to fulfil their potential. Their freedom to make decisions about their lives is denied.
At this time, I am fulfilling a role for the United Nations to examine the infringements of human rights in North Korea. Cultural and religious differences must be respected. But so must the principles of dignity and rights declared in the Universal Declaration.
It is the duty of every state to guarantee and uphold those values and our duty to insist that they do. We must all raise our voices where those values are denied or endangered. And the place for the demand for global dignity to start is in our homes and schools.
Michael Kirby was a justice of the High Court of Australia from 1996 to 2009. This is an edited version of his address for Global Dignity Day at NSW Parliament House, organised by the University of NSW law school.