Justice is achieved through empowering the vulnerable

By Eugenia Flynn | 21 Apr 16

Power in society is distributed along race and class lines, based on gender, sexuality, or geographical location. Those with less power have long pushed for current distributions of power to be renegotiated and within these negotiations we see the debilitating nature of uneven power. Small wins are viewed as major victories and those with power often seek to placate the rest of society with crumbs from the table.

With a “one step at a time” approach, small changes become sites for lengthy negotiations, interventions and acts of resistance. A radical overhaul of how power is distributed in society becomes an overarching goal that is increasingly out of sight.

Take the example of asylum seekers coming by boat to Australia. Successive federal governments have been deaf to calls for the abolition of detention centres and mandatory offshore detention, including the detention of children and babies. As a result, refugee advocates are centring their arguments against Australia’s refugee policy on the emancipation of asylum seeker children and babies. By locating their concern on the vulnerability of babies and children, the racialised and Islamophobic nature of the refugee public discourse goes largely unexamined. Islamophobia and racism are much harder topics to discuss publicly, but the vulnerability of children and babies are more easily accepted as an issue to galvanise the masses.

Further, the interrogation of foreign policy that creates mass displacement of peoples, and the need to identify and dismantle the prison-industrial complex, are ideals that are pushed further in to the background.

To change the status quo of power in society,
we must privilege the voices of those directly impacted.

In the negotiation between those with immense power and those with little-to-none, the debate regarding refugees has become circular and shallow. We apply band aids to the problems, but we never get close to challenging the root causes of the “refugee problem”: racism and Islamophobia, war and conflict, the prison-industrial complex.

The Greens support a more compassionate approach to refugees, yet in trying to negotiate with the government they propose limited time in detention, based on economic rationale, not the complete abolition of mandatory detention. In negotiating with those in power, they have learnt to compromise on matters that should never be bargained upon: Australia, as the only country in the world to impose mandatory detention for asylum seekers in the first instance, including children and babies, contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. By negotiating within the parameters of our draconian refugee policies, the Greens move solutions away from the root causes that lead to both the creation of refugees and their subsequent vilification, toward economic rationalisations that those with power can understand more readily.

When refugees and asylum seekers themselves raise these criticisms of the Greens they are decried as being ungrateful and hurtful to those who are trying to help and advocate on their behalf. To quote RISE Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees, when non-refugee refugee advocates are questioned, refugees are often told “just move on, it’s not about you…”

To change the status quo of power in society, we must privilege the voices of those directly impacted so we don’t lose sight of why we campaign for human rights. In calling for attendance at the Palm Sunday walk for refugee rights, last month QC Julian Burnside tweeted “And if you’re a woman wear a headscarf to see how people react.” In seeking a reaction from the headscarf, Burnside contributed to the disempowerment of the very people he seeks to advocate on behalf of.

By trivialising the hijab as a social experiment, whether he intended to or not, he suppressed Muslim women’s voices and contributed to an agenda of silencing refugees and asylum seekers within the ongoing debate about their own lives.

In the negotiation for power transfer to achieve equity, we must centre the voices of those directly affected so they are empowered to advocate for themselves. We must also continue to focus on the underlying causes of inequity so we can effectively achieve the goal of human rights attainment. If we are unable to abide by these two simple principles in our human rights work, then we will continue to ineffectually struggle for justice.