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How the principle of "HUMANITY" should unite us all to build a better world

Australian Multicultural Foundation Conference 2006: Towards a healthy nation: meeting the challenges of a diverse society for good health and well-being

30 October 2006

Robert Tickner
Chief Executive
Australian Red Cross

Thank you for the invitation to address you today.

Firstly may I commend the Foundation for convening this conference and for assembling such a diverse group of committed Australians working for social justice and a more inclusive Australian society.

During the course of the conference you will be hearing from many knowledgeable and experienced scholars, health practitioners and policy makers and I note with approval that a central focus of the conference is to focus on the position of marginalised and disadvantaged people in this country.

I am very pleased to have this opportunity, not as an occasion to simply talk about the valuable work which Australian Red Cross does both within Australia and around the world as a part of the global Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, but to also highlight some important general principles, some of which I believe should guide humanitarian work and good public policy.

Australian Red Cross and the global Red Cross Red Crescent Movement does undertake some inspirational work and I will make some reference to that work to illustrate the theme of my address.

I hope you will find these thoughts helpful to the conference deliberations and of relevance to your own work in your communities.

And I trust you will hear them in the spirit in which they are intended, and be assured I do not seek to dictate to you how you should go about your own valuable work.

As a threshold point I need to emphasise that Australian Red Cross does not engage in partisan political debate.

Our international Movement has seven "fundamental principles" which guide us in our all our work.

One of these seven principles is the principle of Neutrality which provides:
"In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature."

Adherence to this principle does not mean that Red Cross cannot advocate for the most vulnerable people in the Australian and global communities, who are, of course, the very people that the Red Cross Movement was created to serve over 100 years ago.

Often when we do advocate we raise issues in private and the importance of this role should not be underestimated.

You will note from media reports over recent months one particular component of the Movement, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been working on key humanitarian issues in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, privately drawing attention to issues of detention of prisoners.

To those who criticise our adherence to the neutrality principle I respond by stressing the Red Cross and Red Crescent mandate, and the importance for the world of having an independent and neutral humanitarian organisation which can secure access to prisoners detained by governments in distressing circumstances.

Remember that when Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island it was the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, which was able to secure access to him. When Xanana Gusmao was languishing in an Indonesian jail, it was the ICRC which was able to secure access.

There are, however, occasions when advocacy by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement needs to be public, but when that is done it must focus on issues on the basis of humanitarian needs and principles, and argue the case without regard to party political considerations.

Thus any comments of mine today are relevant to governments and politicians of all political persuasions.

However my comments will not necessarily be directed to our elected members.

Within the not for profit sector itself I believe there is a need to issue some challenges and indeed for all of us working in the sector to critically examine whether we are working most effectively to secure real improvements in the lives of the marginalised and disadvantaged people we serve. In other words, our sector needs to be increasingly open and accountable and have the confidence to engage in internal debate about the effectiveness of our practices and about our future directions.

Let me begin by making a bold assertion which I confidently believe to be true: human kind is fundamentally decent.

I believe that at the end of our lives each of us will of course reflect on the extent to which we have fulfilled our obligations to our loved ones and family and friends.

I also believe however that all of us will, or should, reflect on the extent to which our actions and our life's work will have contributed towards a better world. This is not to devalue the importance of commerce and commercial activity to the progress of human society. But that alone is not sufficient to build a better world. How interesting it is that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, two of the richest people on the planet have given away so much of their fortunes to create a multi billion dollar fund for humanity.

Not all of us can be Bill Gates or a Prime Minister, but all of us in our work can make a contribution to a better world through our professional work or our voluntary work in the community. This principle also applies to all our elected members and to our public servants whose own contribution to building a better world is often devalued and overlooked.

I am sure you will agree that no political party has a monopoly on good public policy and all of them at some time need to be pushed to do more to advance the humanitarian agenda. At the end of the day the people at the ballot box will decide how important these principles are in their own priorities and which political parties best meet their aspirations for meeting the humanitarian needs of the vulnerable in the community.

That having been said, however, let me outline to you the priority which our International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement places on giving effect to these humanitarian ideals.

The very first of the Red Cross and Red Crescent seven "Fundamental Principles" which guides our work and which I referred to early in my remarks is the principle of "Humanity" and it provides as follows:

"The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavours, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples." Noble ideas indeed!

The second fundamental principle is also of very great relevance to the ideals and discussions of this conference. This principle is titled "Impartiality" and provides that the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will make "no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress."

I will mention one more principle as particularly pertinent to my remarks today: Independence. This states unequivocally that 'The Movement is independent' and elaborates it as follows:

'The National Societies, while auxiliaries in the humanitarian services of their governments and subject to the laws of their respective countries, must always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at all times to act in accordance with the principles of the Movement.'

The first two are clearly principles which can provide guidance for the work of all political parties in all parliaments, but are also a useful reminder to those of us in the not for profit sector to have a priority focus in our own work of meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged and marginalised in our communities as a priority in our own work.

I want to explore the practical implications of these laudable principles in the course of my remarks to you today.

Let me start with the principle of Independence.

A challenge we all face in the not for profit sector is the need to keep our organisations financially viable so that we can continue to perform our good works.

Many of our organisations either receive government grants or enter into contracts with government for the provision of services.

We must make sure that our government funding does not compromise our integrity and that when we sign government contracts for the provision of services in the era of contracting out of government services (which is highly likely to continue under both sides of politics in one form or another) we must also make sure that our integrity is not compromised.

The other side of the coin is that the not for profit sector should not suffer financially by entering into government contracts. We are entitled to a level of remuneration which recognises our costs, the risks we often incur, the challenges we face in delivery and the value of the services we provide and which would otherwise have to be provided by governments at a much higher cost.

Furthermore, we must ensure that our humanitarian principles are not compromised by the delivery of what would have originally been a purely charitable service by us but where the service has become seen as an ultimate responsibility of government.

Australian Red Cross was faced with exactly this kind of challenge with the delivery of the blood service to the people of Australia where we continue to publicly champion the absolutely critical nature of the voluntary non remunerated blood donor system which underpins all the work we do in this area.

I need not remind you of what a wonderful humanitarian gift it is for one person to voluntarily give blood to save the life of another, unknown person.

Until recently the provision of this service was actually costing the Australian Red Cross a vast amount of money and was not fully paid for by Australian national, State and Territory Governments.

The actual cost to Red Cross was over 21 million dollars over the last five years and was money which could have been otherwise allocated to other needed priorities, given the clear ultimate responsibility of governments for the provision of this service. I am delighted to report that the Governments of Australia have agreed that the service should be fully funded and the Australian Government to its credit is making a general purpose grant of 5 million dollars this year to the Australian Red Cross which we intend to use wisely and effectively to address the position of the most vulnerable.

Australian Red Cross also delivers a whole range of other specific programs which have a health relationship, of which the delivery of First Aid programs across the country is but one.

But many more of our activities are properly characterized as involving the promotion of health, using the World Health Organization's definition of health as 'a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.'

WHO's definition of health has been formally adopted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, of which we and 184 other societies are part.

The implications of such an expansive definition are elaborated in the policy on health agreed by the Governing Board of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation in late 2005.

Let me read you some of the components which are particularly pertinent to the development of the work of Australian Red Cross domestically and internationally and which I believe are important for all Governments to give effect to as well of course as the not for profit sector.

The policy affirms that health is an inalienable right of all people without regard to race, religion, colour, nationality, sex or origin.

Poverty, inequity, the widening gap in social justice and the lack of respect for human rights and gender inequality need to be addressed as critical determinants of physical, mental and social health.

The policy calls on national societies to be a strong voice of social conscience in protecting and promoting the health of the most vulnerable populations and to advocate for the establishment and improvement of a national health system which is capable of meeting the health needs of the entire population, including the most vulnerable.

So for Red Cross, contributing to a healthy society means us:

  • having regard to individuals wellbeing holistically - that is the physical, mental and social aspects; and
  • addressing the so-called social determinants of health.


Globally, probably the most prominent area of work where Red Cross and Red Crescent has adopted a comprehensive approach with respect to people affected by, or at risk of a physical disease, is HIV/AIDS.

Our approach in this area has three interrelated components:

  • prevention - for example through peer education programs
  • care and treatment and
  • last but not least, fighting stigma and discrimination.


These components are mutually supportive - all three components must be addressed if any one is to succeed.

Globally, Red Cross Red Crescent launched an anti-stigma campaign in 2002 and since then well over 100 national societies have held activities on HIV/AIDS related stigma and discrimination.

However the adoption of such strong anti discrimination principles, as laudable as they are, are an inadequate public policy response and an inadequate response by the not for profit sector to ensure that there are programs in place to truly address the situation of the most vulnerable.

The real test for all public policy makers and the providers of services in the not for profit sector is not whether there is a policy of non discrimination in the provision of services, but whether in practice - to quote the Red Cross Red Crescent principles again - our work and that of government "relieves the suffering of individuals and being guided solely by their needs, and so as to give priority to the needs of the most urgent cases of distress."

It is to this question of determining who are the most vulnerable and the addressing of their needs that I now turn my attention and which I note is a key question which this conference will focus on.

People may well say that of course governments and not for profit organisations should focus the priority programs on the most vulnerable but the reality is that this is often not the case.

In Australian Red Cross we have recently begun the challenging process of re-examining all our programs to see if they remain currently relevant and address our core work of working to support the most vulnerable in our community. We have discovered that in some instances, we have not involved ourselves in key areas of social policy where we really have a capacity to make a difference and so some of the most vulnerable members of the community have been neglected by us. Sometimes this involves a painful self assessment and even before I came into the organisation, Australian Red Cross had realised that for 90 years of our existence we had failed to quite a large extent to involve ourselves in the support of Indigenous communities.

I am pleased to support that this is no longer the case. Our National Board has endorsed an increasing commitment to work with Indigenous communities on a range of programs and we will be doing this from a strong ethical foundation and basis of operation with the communities we work with. I will have more to say on this question in a moment.

Not only is there often a failure of governments and even not for profits themselves to target the most disadvantaged Australians with special programs, but often in mainstream programs there is a failure to ensure that principles of access and equity apply so that marginalised groups do not miss out receiving the benefits of a program. I have found in my life that it is often the people who are the most disadvantaged who do not have the loudest voices or who are marginalised and disempowered and unable to seek the support they need. It is the responsibility of all of us to seek out and support these marginalised groups.

On this score Australian Red Cross has just taken the first tentative steps to establishing programs to work with prisoners and their families and to build strategic relationships with other not for profits who will assist us in our work. The fact is that while our prison population has virtually doubled in recent years, there has been no substantial increase in the resources available to work with prisoners and their families. There are a small number of agencies operating in this very untrendy and virtually totally neglected area of human misery.

People with mental health problems are also another marginalised and often disempowered group. Here again, Australian Red Cross is looking to build strategic relationships and to expand a community based program called MATES which has been operating successfully in Tasmania for the last 8 years, where volunteers form friendships and ongoing relationships with people with mental illness who live in the community. The program works to reduce the social isolation and stigma of people with a mental illness.

In our work in this area and in our work with young people and substance abuse, we are seeking to build more strategic relationships with other not for profits such as our engagement with Beyond Blue.

This conference will focus its work on the needs of many marginalised and disadvantaged people in our community and their needs, including: sections of the aged community, marginalised youth, refugees, Indigenous Australians, people with a disability and others.

Time will not permit to comment on all these areas and because of time I want to focus some comments on just three of these areas.

Firstly I turn to the position of Indigenous Australians and draw your attention to the recent reports of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. I am proud of the fact that in my former life I conceived the idea of this position and championed the creation of this office into a reality.

The latest report notes the following about the health status of Indigenous and other Australians.

Life expectation
Over 1996-2001, there was an estimated difference of approximately 17 years between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous life expectation. Life expectancy at birth for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians was estimated to be 59.4 years for males and 64.8 years for females, compared with 76.6 years for all males and 82.0 years for all females.

Death age and rate
Over 1999-2003, in Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, 75% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males and 65% of females died before the age of 65 years compared to 26% of males and 16% of females in the non

Indigenous population.
For all age groups below 65 years, the age-specific death rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were at least twice those experienced by the non-Indigenous population.

Infant and child health
In 2000-02, babies with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mother were twice as likely to be low birthweight babies (those weighing less than 2,500 grams at birth) as babies with a non-Indigenous mother.
In 1999-2003, the infant mortality rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infants was three times that of non-Indigenous infants.
None of us should remain silent in the face of the continuing plight of Indigenous Australians reflected in this data and my plea for action is directed towards all Governments and all political parties.

This is a national priority which needs to be addressed.

I also wanted to say something about a second area of public policy where all of us must recognise the suffering of others, and that is in relation to the position of people who are recognised as refugees under international law.

Australian Red Cross has no intention of being dragged into the often partisan political debate which surrounds these issues and for the many reasons I have outlined we will leave it to others to engage in this debate.

We would however plead for the creation of a greater climate of empathy for the refugees who have often suffered so much in their country of origin and in the course of their flight to seek safety. As Australian Red Cross said in a recent public statement to commemorate Refugee Week, we celebrate "the vital contribution made by refugees to Australian society, and urge all Australians to consider the plight of those forced to leave their homelands through persecution with the compassion and generosity that is deserved." We went on to say " it is crucial that we take the time to place ourselves in the position of those who are not so fortunate - those who have suffered for their race, religious or political beliefs, or even their nationality."

I should also outline for the record that Australian Red Cross:

  • Recognises that asylum seekers and refugees are very likely to be vulnerable people, and thus a legitimate concern for the Society;
  • Recognises the right of asylum seekers to seek the proper processing of their claims for protection regardless of the way they arrive in Australia;
  • Is concerned about the humane and respectful treatment of people during and beyond the process of refugee determination. This includes advocating for the provision of support such as housing, living needs and healthcare;
  • Seeks to influence government policy regarding asylum seekers and refugees, whilst not involving itself in direct public criticism of a political nature;
  • Advocates strongly to government about the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers and refugees;
  • Works to alleviate suffering for all asylum seekers and refugees regardless of race, gender, legal status or other potential factors of discrimination; and
  • Challenges public misperceptions and myths about, and the consequent negativity in sections of the community toward, asylum seekers and refugees.


These principles form part of a wider policy statement but I thought it important to at least talk about this aspect of our policy at this forum.

In our advocacy to government on these issues we most often operate in private (and highly effectively I might add) but there are times when a public position is called for.

As I move towards my conclusion I would like to turn to another area of policy challenge which is truly global in nature as well as having direct Australian dimensions and challenges.

It is undoubtedly the case that in recent years there has been an increase in conflict between people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity and nationality, around the world.

In particular, the attacks in the United States of 11 September 2001 and subsequent events believed to be related - rightly or wrongly - have caused significant tensions within a number of countries where people of Muslim identity live.

In 2003 the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, one of the international Movement's key policy setting bodies, adopted a resolution requesting the different components of the Movement to promote tolerance, non-discrimination and respect for diversity and I think it is important that I refer to this decision at this time.

Each component of the Movement was expected to do so within the areas in which it operated, whether local, national or international.

The resolution suggested both internal and external types of actions to achieve the aims.

For example:

Internally, Red Cross and Red Crescent organisations were asked to assess the composition of their leadership, staff, volunteers and membership and to address

Externally, they were asked to network with other organisations working for the same aims, and to develop advocacy tools in order to promote tolerance, non-discrimination and respect for diversity.

These and other measures have been incorporated into the strategic plan of Australian Red Cross which covers the period to 2010.

I am proud to report that Australian Red Cross has recently been involved in a joint initiative with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to give effect to this objective.

In a project jointly supported by Australian Red Cross and the Commission, children around Australia were invited to express their thoughts and feelings about human rights issues in Australia, in the form of essays or art.

Additionally we are presently undertaking the first ever national survey of the composition of our staff.

As those of you who have been involved in these exercises will know only too well, this is the easy part.

The challenge is to give meaning to the data and decide what action to take in response, but we are determined to do that.

We are about to implement a national STEP program to boost the numbers of Australian Red Cross Indigenous employees with the support of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, and to join the Prime Minister's Corporate Leaders for Indigenous Employment Program. But there is so much to be done, not just in this area, but to ensure that our workforce truly represents the diversity in the wider Australian population.

If the implementation of this commitment is likely to be challenging, a far greater order of difficulty will be involved to implement the commitment to develop advocacy tools in order to promote tolerance, non-discrimination and respect for diversity.

A key focus for us will be relations between Australians of Muslim faith and the broader community.

Australian Red Cross is reflecting on what the organisation can effectively do in this situation.

I believe that one of the particular strengths we can build on is that we provide opportunities for Australians to work together to provide humanitarian services to other Australians. Today we have more than 30,000 trained volunteers and deliver over 60 local programs and services around Australia.

Such action strikes me as potentially one of the most powerful tools for building bridges between peoples of diverse backgrounds.

Earlier I mentioned the health policy adopted in 2005 by the Governing Board of the Red Cross and Red Crescent federation. One of the implementation actions which it commends to national societies is that they develop programs that build social cohesion and strengthen the social fabric and social support through volunteer action.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is a global expression of the idea that whatever differences they may have, people can be mobilised and work together productively, united by a common profound humanitarian sentiment.

Look at us - 185 national societies in almost every country of the world. Our most recent members, admitted in the middle of this year, are the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and the Israeli Magen David Adom. The process of their admission was complex and protracted and not without fraught moments, but the fact that we got there is very telling about the power of the humanitarian cause.

I hope that in my remarks I have helped to set the scene for this important gathering of deeply committed people and organisations dedicated to working for a better world and for better health and quality of life for marginalised and disempowered people within Australia.

The humanitarian ideals which Australian Red Cross champions as being a part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are the drivers of our work.

I hope that by talking of our work and the importance of our fundamental principles that I have provided at least some modest encouragement to you to continue in your own work and to support the humanitarian ideals which are an inspiration to us all.