Senator Sarah Henderson – Estimates questions to the Australian Human Rights Commission relating to statements on Gaza, Hamas and anti-Semitic attacks

May 31, 2024

I’ve reviewed your media releases and there’s no mention of Hamas. I’ve looked at your media release of 13 October 2023 and, again, there’s no mention of the Hamas terrorist attack. That’s very concerning, I would put to you, President.

Senator HENDERSON: Good morning, Minister, and good morning, President. I too want to associate myself with the remarks of the minister, the chair and Senator Scarr and wish you all the best in your new life. I also welcome the new commissioners. Thank you for all your work over seven years. President, on 8 November the High Court handed down its decision in the NZYQ case and on 9 November you issued a media release welcoming a ‘truly historic’ decision; is that correct?

Prof. Croucher: Yes, we did.

Senator HENDERSON: On 30 March 2023, the Attorney introduced the Constitution alteration for the Voice and you issued a media release on the same day; is that correct?

Prof. Croucher: Yes, we did.

Senator HENDERSON: When did you put out a statement about the Hamas atrocities in Israel?

Prof. Croucher: We have made a number of statements that have dealt with the various issues raised by the conflict precipitated on that particular day by the Hamas attacks on Israel. We provided a full account of those at the last estimates hearing, but I am happy to recite those again—

Senator HENDERSON: Have you put out a statement condemning the conduct of Hamas, or a statement that mentions Hamas?

Prof. Croucher: I am hesitating only because I would not like to give an inaccurate answer at any stage in these proceedings. I would like to check the precise wording. We have put out a number of statements in relation to the conflict, which continues; whether we expressed the precise words that you are asking me about, I would need to confirm.

Senator HENDERSON: I’ve reviewed your media releases and there’s no mention of Hamas. I’ve looked at your media release of 13 October 2023 and, again, there’s no mention of the Hamas terrorist attack. That’s very concerning, I would put to you, President.

Prof. Croucher: Thank you for noting your concerns. The commission’s approach has been to acknowledge the crisis that has arisen and to speak about the mandate that we have within Australia, which is to focus upon the impacts of that crisis on our people here—the rise in antisemitism, the rise in anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab attacks and Islamophobia. Our mandate, under the Racial Discrimination Act in particular, is focused very clearly on Australian communities. When we have put out statements, they have been on the nature of the impact of the crisis on the people and communities affected in Australia and our mandate under the Racial Discrimination Act, particularly in relation to those communities.

Senator HENDERSON: Hamas is a listed terrorist organisation in Australia. A review of your website shows that there’s no mention of the word ‘Hamas’. Do you not acknowledge the horrific impact that the Hamas terrorist attack has had on Australians?

Prof. Croucher: All of our focus has been on that horrific attack, indeed.

Senator HENDERSON: There was no mention of Hamas terrorists, though. Is there any reason why that’s the case?

Prof. Croucher: We have referred to the attacks in October and we’ve referred to the hostages issue. If you want that particular word, the word ‘Hamas’ may not have been used, but the context of all of our statements clearly draws attention to the impact of the attacks of 7 October and all of the impact on people in Australia who have inherited trauma that they carry—our communities that are deeply affected by the traumas of previous generations. While ‘Hamas’ may not appear as a word, the implication is that the attacks had a very big impact on our communities in Australia, and that is where our energies have been focused.

Senator HENDERSON: When did you put out a media release responding to the wave of antisemitic attacks across Australia?

Prof. Croucher: Commissioner Sivaraman can refer to the various comments that he has made. Any of the statements that we have made in relation to the impact on communities in Australia draw attention to all of the communities affected, and ‘antisemitism’ is a key word in all of those statements, along with other communities affected.

Senator HENDERSON: I’m just wondering because, from a review of your media releases, you haven’t put out a media release responding to the wave of antisemitic attacks across Australia. I would also ask whether you put out a release condemning the protests by pro-Hamas individuals at the Opera House.

Prof. Croucher: All of our material refers to the impact on all of the communities—

Senator HENDERSON: Could I just ask you to address that question, please, President.

Prof. Croucher: The communities affected were mentioned in our releases on 13 October and 29 January. We may not have referred to the specific incidents that you are calling out. However, the entire tenor of the suite of media releases and other engagement, both public and with communities, is focused on addressing the very real impacts on the communities affected in Australia.

Senator HENDERSON: When did you put out a release condemning the terrifying antisemitic protests in Caulfield?

Prof. Croucher: Once again, we focus on the impact on all communities, so all of the—

Senator HENDERSON: I’m just asking that specific question.

Prof. Croucher: There is not a specific one on that issue because our focus is on all communities.

Senator HENDERSON: I will move to my next question. When have you put out a media release calling out the horrific and unprecedented sexual violence used by Hamas on 7 October, which has caused real trauma for so many Australians?

Prof. Croucher: The focus on the trauma for so many Australians that you refer to is absolutely right. The whole nature of our engagement with communities is to focus on the trauma of the events in the Middle East affecting our communities here. The consultations that Commissioner Sivaraman is leading are directly in communities and to seek information of the kind to which you refer.

Senator HENDERSON: You couldn’t bring yourself to unequivocally condemn the Hamas atrocities in Israel, but there’s a comparison. If I look through your history of releases, on 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and just four days later, on 28 February, you were able to put out a release entitled ‘What is happening in Ukraine should matter to every Australian’. That’s right, isn’t it?

Prof. Croucher: That was not a commission statement; it was the statement of an independent statutory office holder, which is entirely appropriate within our commission.

Senator HENDERSON: It was under the umbrella of the Human Rights Commission, President.

Prof. Croucher: Yes, because each of our statutory office holders is a member of the commission.

Senator HENDERSON: The point that I am very concerned about and that I am raising with you is that the Human Rights Commission can release an eloquent, articulate statement in support of Ukraine when it is subject to an incredibly violent attack, but it cannot do the same for Israel.

Prof. Croucher: The 13 October statement directs attention to the horrific civilian impact in Israel and Gaza and the impact on our communities. We act within our mandate. Many people would like us to do more, including senators and members of the public. We scrutinise all of our actions within our mandate and ensure that we are seen to be open and impartial with all of the communities that are affected in our country, recognising that the impact is huge. The increase in antisemitism is palpable and the increase in Islamophobia is palpable. We have a statutory mandate and responsibility to all affected communities.

Senator HENDERSON: President, it has been more than six months since Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October. Will the Australian Human Rights Commission release a statement condemning the acts of a terrorist organisation—Hamas—on 7 October?

Prof. Croucher: The lens that we will use is the lens that I have just stated. In considering what statements we make, we consider very deeply when we engage in that particular way. Our principal focus at the moment is on engagement with communities.

Senator HENDERSON: Can I take that as a no?

Prof. Croucher: With respect to the specific issue?

Senator HENDERSON: Yes.

Prof. Croucher: ‘Yes’ or ‘no’ depends on the process that we embark upon in the commission for deciding what—

Senator HENDERSON: This is just a simple question. Do you intend or are you going to release a statement condemning the actions of the terrorist organisation Hamas on 7 October?

Prof. Croucher: It’s not anticipated that we’ll do so, given the statements that we have already made and the community engagement that we’re embarked upon at the moment.

Senator HENDERSON: Do you believe, President, that human rights were respected on 7 October, when Hamas terrorists raped, murdered, kidnapped, tortured and abused innocent Israeli civilians—young people, women, children, babies and the elderly, including elderly Holocaust survivors?

Prof. Croucher: Senator, we—

Senator HENDERSON: I’ll table your statement of Friday 13 October, which does not mention the Hamas attack.

Prof. Croucher: Obviously, you have seen each of our statements. We consider each of our statements through that lens. We have condemned breaches of international human rights law and urged the sustainable—

Senator HENDERSON: But, President, the point is that you are not—

CHAIR: Senator Henderson, you will not interrupt the president. The president is finishing her answer.

Senator HENDERSON: Well—

CHAIR: Senator Henderson, you will not interrupt me.

Senator HENDERSON: Chair, I’m not interrupting you; I’m entitled to ask a follow-up question.

CHAIR: And you will be able to. President, you have the call, and then we’ll come back to you, Senator Henderson, for your last question in this block.

Prof. Croucher : Thank you. I respect the earnestness with which you put your questions, Senator. The statement that we released on 13 October does call for human rights in Australia to be upheld in the wake of the Middle East conflict. At the time, I was the acting race commissioner as well, the previous race commissioner having left on 5 October. We spoke of the conflict. But we’ve played the role that we consider is the correct role for us as the Australian Human Rights Commission—focused on the domestic impacts. We are not the adjudicator of situations internationally. We can call for respect of international humanitarian and human rights law, but the principal focus of our mandate is the impact on our communities in Australia, all of whom, like Holocaust survivors and displaced Palestinian survivors, are our concern.

Senator HENDERSON: President, I’ve only got limited time, so I’d just ask—

CHAIR: You have one more question, actually, and then I’m going to hand over the call.

Senator HENDERSON: I’m not sure that Hamas, the terrorist organisation, needs adjudication; that wasn’t my question. My concern is that you’re treating two groups very differently and that your failure to call out the Hamas terrorist attack is a shocking failure of the Human Rights Commission.

Prof. Croucher: I disagree with the premise of that statement. We have made continued statements, where we consider it appropriate. Our focus is on communities. Our focus is on the impact in Australia—

Senator HENDERSON: So you don’t think—

CHAIR: Senator Henderson, I’ve already called you to order.

Senator HENDERSON: So the Jewish community doesn’t matter because—

CHAIR: Senator Henderson! Senator Henderson! We’re going to suspend the hearing. Thank you.

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