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Australia and the United Nations

We don’t very often tell the story of Australia’s role in establishing the United Nations. Perhaps it is not widely known that a delegation of 20 Australians at the San Francisco Conference on International Organisation from April to June 1945 helped shape the Charter of the UN in decisive ways.

The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights falls on 10 December this year.  So it is timely to recall that it was an Australian president of the General Assembly of the UN who saw the document through the processes that gave those enduring phrases to the world. Remembering this story helps shape a more accurate memory of who we are as a national community. Who we remember, and how, has theological implications too.

The names Jessie Street and Dr Herbert Evatt are two of many that deserve recognition for their contribution to international collaboration.

Jessie Mary Street of Sydney, the only woman among the Australians in San Francisco, was an advocate of justice for workers locally and active in the network of international women’s groups (along with other Australian women since the 1890s).

Street became an important voice on the drafting committee ultimately responsible for establishing the Human Rights Commission and also the more contentious Commission on the Status of Women. She was particularly proud of her role in drafting Article 8 of the Charter to ensure that there would be no restrictions on the equal eligibility or participation of men and women across the UN.

Jessie Street led the Australian delegation through the heated debate on this matter that hinged on whether or not ‘women’ needed to be named separately, pointing out that the representation of women in public life did not bear out the claim that ‘men’s rights’ included women.

The leader of the Australian delegation, H V Evatt, is recognised as one of the architects of the United Nations. In 1945, the former barrister and Justice of the High Court was minister for external affairs and attorney-general in the Chifley Labor Government. He had a reputation for both hard work and brilliance.

Evatt was on 20 committees at the San Francisco conference. He submitted 38 amendments to the UN Charter and saw most of those incorporated into the final document. Evatt warned against the decision that the ‘Big Powers’ would be able to veto resolutions in the Security Council, and chipped away on behalf of ‘small powers’ advocating a strong role for the General Assembly.

Evatt’s role as one of the leading minds and personalities at the gathering was widely acknowledged in the press, perhaps because he exasperated some participants by not ‘taking sides’.  His achievements established his status internationally and secured his place as president of the third General Assembly in 1948 where the Declaration on Human Rights was supported by 48 countries, with none voting against it.

Both Street and Evatt have other reputations, perhaps more commonly recognised. Street was the wife of Sir Kenneth Street and mother of Sir Lawrence Street, both eminent jurists, and labelled ‘Red Jessie’ for her activism on behalf of Soviet Russia.

‘Doc’ Evatt was the unpredictable leader of the Opposition against the resurgent government of Robert Menzies in the 1950s; leader of the ‘no’ campaign in the referendum to ban the Australian Communist Party and embroiled in the ALP split over Communist and Catholic influence in the trade unions.

Both were also much more subtle personalities than these summaries suggest, as the good scholarly biographies of them show.

Power is embedded in how we tell stories of individuals and of nation-states.

Nigerian novelist Chimanda Ngozi Adichie warned of the danger of a ‘single story’ in a now-famous TED talk in 2009.

A nickname (‘Red Jessie’, ‘Doc’) or a stereotype of a community (‘crime-ridden’, ‘sport-loving’) can negate complexity and nuance. Even if they might have some foundation in fact, the single story is essentially incomplete and potentially misleading.

Fuller and more complex stories flow from greater economic and social power, from access to media, from time and space to recognise diverse experiences and to honour them.

Christian theologian Miroslav Volf has drawn on his own memories of abusive interrogation to explore what it means to remember ‘rightly’. In his 2006 book The End of Memory, Volf offers the metaphor of patchwork to explore the place of remembered stories in healing.

He argues that making decisions about the pattern of stories that help constitute our identity is part of being human; a process of individual design that “will depend greatly on how we sew our memories together”. What is also crucial is  “how others – from those closest to us all the way to our culture as a whole – sew them together for us”.

Every human quilt of identity for individuals and for nations must include tattered and ugly memories, as well as bright and inspiring ones, if we are truthful and remember honestly.

When we remember with all the complexity of patchwork, Volf argues, those memories can support hope for maturity and for reconciliation.

Paying careful attention, moving beyond stereotypes and building complex accounts of reality is an urgent task for Australians in the face of the simplifying impulses of commercial media. It is an urgent task for researchers when funds flow selectively. When there is high public awareness of the Anzac tradition and unprecedented funding for war memorials, it is important to also weave memories such those of the organisers for peace and international co-operation into the tapestry of national life.

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    Katharine Massam

    Katharine is Associate Professor of History at Pilgrim Theological College. She is interested in how communities articulate their faith (in art and music, food and festivals, as well as in documents) and in how and why spiritual traditions change over time.

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