Hard-Headed Practicality at the Brisbane Social Fo...

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Hard-Headed Practicality at the Brisbane Social Forum's Human Rights Seminar

NOTE: This is comment, not straight reporting. I am trying to faithfully report the ideas and attitudes of each speaker, but I have chosen many terms because they made better reading. Especially please do not assume that any speaker has seen, or approves of, this report, or what I have said about them or their ideas.

The Brisbane Social Forum 2006 was better than last year's, which was also good.

While there are some on-going faults that should be looked at, I heard a lot of people who stood out because they were NOT just there to parrot the same old conservative-left* line.

The Saturday morning session I attended was about human rights. I was skeptical, because I am not going to give my energy to help to pass a law that I think will have little or no effect. But the people who spoke, even the one who had spent a lot of time with the UN human rights process, all seemed to not be fooled by the idea that just passing a new law will solve any real problems.

The first speaker was Kim Pate, from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, who spoke mainly about the 20th anniversary of equality provisions in the Canadian Human Rights Charter. Many, she said, were not being protected by this law, even though the law says they are protected. She was skeptical of courts - she thought that 'half the time' they are not the place to argue (for a start, lawyers are expensive, and they don't like informed clients) - but still, they are often the only place to get even half a chance at justice for the female prisoners she works for.

And she spoke very tellingly of the reaction from those prisoners when she suggested that court challenges and so on were not the right way to go - THEY insisted that she carry on with her legal work. Obviously the women she works for thinks it's useful.

Pate also spoke about pushing academics to do the sort of research that the powerless need, and about forming links with other organisations for nation-wide campaigns.

Next to speak was Deb Kilroy of Sisters Inside.

She talked about a government report on systematic discrimination against women prisoners in Queensland that her organisation had to push hard for - in fact the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commission's first reaction was to deny that there was any systematic discrimination. The report finally got done, but the government has disowned it. Sisters Inside is trying to get female prisoners to lodge formal complaints about their treatment - but the fear of retaliation is a big rock in their way.

Kilroy was keen to see a Human Rights Act passed here in Australia, not because it will end any battles at all, but because it will give people like her one more tool to use when pushing for the rights of female prisoners. She was quite prepared to wait for the right sort of law though. Apparently there is a feeling among many who want a Bill of Rights, that 'if we just pass any law we can even if it is not very good, we can amend it later'. Kilroy disagrees - if the government will not do the right thing now, why would they do it in the future?

The third speaker, Lillian Holt, a vice-chancellor's fellow at the University of Melbourne, said much that I don't agree with, and also said many things that made me think that she is very good at shocking people out of old, boring ways of thinking. She is Aboriginal, and my favourite thing that she said was that over 30 years, the 'empty rhetoric' of 'motherhood statements' about self-determination had turned into 'motherf****r' statements.

Holt went on to make the point that the rhetoric of tolerance is not about changing society, it is about getting the victims of discrimination to accept the society that has victimised them. She is also against political correctness - she wants to know if she is dealing with a racist, instead of having to guess. (And she said she may even get on well with the racist, once they get over that hurdle).

Next up was Caroline Lambert of the Women's Rights Action Network of Australia (WRANA).

She spoke about how she had lobbied the UN's human rights officials, and while she is brutally aware of the limitations of the system, still thinks that at least some work needs to be done there. For instance, the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (now there's a catchy name) provides the only legal basis for Australian human rights law entering the 'private' areas of the market and the home.

The CEDAW committee at the UN is looking closely and radically at women's productive and reproductive labour at the moment. Lambert's work in New York was about pushing this further, and especially encouraging the UN to not look just at the written law, but the practical, day-to-day effects of policy. To take an extreme example, a woman's right to vote is meaningless if no girls ever go to school.

A woman who works at a shelter for female victims of violence raised the same point that had been in my head - can words, laws and documents really protect people? Kilroy replied that it was just one more way to get abuse noticed, and solve a few real problems for people.

Pate said that sometimes you have to prove you have exhausted the legal solutions before moving onto direct action - and made the crucial point that people on the ground need to know that someone is fighting for them. She went on to describe the work her group is doing to teach female prisoners to be advocates for other prisoners.

Lambert explained that while she sees the work with the UN as important, the most important thing is building a culture that produces 'rights-claiming individuals', instead of human rights being something that activists 'do' to victims of abuse.

After this discussion, the final programmed speaker, Serina McDuff spoke briefly, but time was running out. I only have brief notes on two comments that she made: She'd like to see an expansive Bill of Rights/Human Rights Act in place now, and that the Government is very good at using Human Rights law to SAY it is doing good things, without actually doing them. That was a pity, because her resume sounds interesting:

"Serina McDuff is currently the Executive Director of the YWCA of Brisbane and is the youngest woman to lead the organisation. Since she began 18 months ago Serina has repositioned the Y in Brisbane to advocate and respond to women's issues...Serina's activism is centred on ensuring women's and young' people's rights are on the agenda for action, and advocating for systemic change."

Well, time for lunch. The Student Union's pizza cafe was open, so I had a double-garlic, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese (mozzarella) and cheese (fetta) pizza, washed down with a small bottle of Beez Neez honey beer. Damn, we activists do it tough.

Next in this series: The media workshop after lunch, crammed with useful how-to information.

*"Conservative-left" = a term I am using to describe those who are thought of as 'radical' by the average person. That is to say, 'Resistance' in Australia, the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, most 'anti-globalists', and so on.

I think these people are conservative because their angry speeches are usually about being 'anti' this or 'anti' that, and they personalise their opposition to the system (They blame 'Howard', 'Bush', or whoever, instead of talking about what the ruling class is doing. They also often talk as the ruling class as a conspiracy (which it is not)). There also appears to be an undying hatred of the USA, which means they fail to understand its motives, and a rejection of modern society.

This sort of thing encourages people to believe that the system cannot be changed at all.

Radical-left thought, the opposite of conservative-left thought, encourages people to study the world as it really is, coolly and clearly, and asks people to think about how they would solve the problems of taking over and then running society. The revolution will be the easy bit - after that we actually have to run things!

Radical-left thought talks about the ruling class as it is, not as some conspiracy that plans attacks on its own cities.

Radical-left thought is proud of this modern world that workers have built with their own hands and skill and power. We are not going to destroy it, we are going to take it over and make it better. And it is now better than it has ever been before.

This article courtesy of  http://www.mentzlaw.com.
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* Government Statistics on Legal Verdicts and Jury Awards - $ U.S. district courts terminated approximately 512,000 civil cases during fiscal years 2002-03. Nearly 20% or 98,786 of these cases were torts in which plaintiffs claimed injury, loss, or damage from a defendant’s negligent or intentional acts. $ Of the 98,786 tort cases terminated in U.S. district courts in 2002-03, about 2% or 1,647 cases were decided by a bench or jury trial. $ An estimated 9 out of 10 tort trials involved personal injury issues C most frequently, product liability, motor vehicle (accident), marine, and medical malpractice cases. $ Juries decided about 71% of all tort cases brought to trial in U.S. district courts; judges adjudicated the remaining 29%. $ Plaintiffs won in 48% of tort trials terminated in U.S. district courts in 2002-03. Plaintiffs won less frequently in medical malpractice (37%) and product liability (34%) trials. $ Eighty-four percent of plaintiff winners received monetary damages with an estimated median award of $201,000. $ Plaintiffs won more often in bench (54%) than in jury (46%) tort trials. The estimated median damage awards were higher in jury ($244,000) than in bench ($150,000) tort trials. April 2006 - A Jury in New Jersey found last week that Vioxx significantly contributed to a 77-year-old man's heart attack awarded him $9 million in punitive damages yesterday, raising Merck & Co.'s liability in the case to $13.5 million and intensifying pressure on it to settle such lawsuits. Example of Personal Injury Case 2004 : Ford Explorer rollover-prone and roof not crash safe and worthy- CASE TYPE : Product Design Defect, Auto Truck Vehicle - SUV, Motor Vehicle – Rollover CASE : Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Co., San Diego Co., Calif., Super. Ct. GIC 800836 Los Angeles, Calif. JURY VERDICT: $369,000,000 (369 Millions Dolalrs 2005 - In what may be one of the biggest massive medical malpractice tort verdicts in the state of Texas, a state jury awarded $606 million - including a remarkable $ 600 million dollars in punitive damages - to the family of an 82-year-old patient who had cancer and then who died after receiving an overdose of chemotherapy drugs. 2005 - In the 9th big loss for Ford in SUV Explorer rollover cases, a Florida jury awarded $61.2 million to the parents of an 18-year-old boy who was killed in a 1997 (wrongful death & Product Defect and Product Liability Issues) Example of Personal Injury Lawyer Case 2004 : Dodge Caravan seatback collapsed on baby in a car-seat - CASE TYPE : Automobiles, Products Liability - Product Design Defect, Wrongful Death, Motor Vehicle - Rear-ender, Motor Vehicle - Passenger, Motor Vehicle - Minivan CASE : Flax v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., Davidson Co., Tenn., Cir. Ct. O2C-1288 JURY VERDICT : $105,500,000 (105 Million Dollars 2005 – Billion Dollar Verdicts - In one of 2005's largest verdicts to an individual plaintiff regarding financial fraud , a Florida jury ordered Morgan Stanley Broker Dealer to pay $1.45 billion to investor Ronald O. Perelman for defrauding him in the sale of his camping gear company - Coleman. 2005 - February, a prominent Houston law firm and a Texas bank were SMACKED and Beaten with a $65.5 million verdict in a highly complex estate planning case that involved major problems and conflicts of interest. (65 million dollar jury award) 2005 – 3 years after a jury acquitted a company in Florida of manslaughter and criminal charges, a Florida civil jury SLAMMED the outdoor advertiser with a $65 million jury award verdict for the shock and electrocution of a sixth-grade boy. Age Discrimination - In December, a Los Angeles California jury found that PrivatAir - an aviation company focusing on private airline services - wrongfully fired Captain Doyle D. Baker on the basis of his age, defaming him in the termination process and causing extreme emotional distress.

Punitive damages serve a number of important functions which—despite a few horror stories, which are themselves either apocryphal or overturned in the courts, the functions remain valid and in the public interest. Persons causing great harm—persons deliberately or with gross negligence causing great harm should not view paying damages as merely a cost of doing business, a cost that might fit neatly into a risk analysis of wrongdoing. That is what happened in the Ford Pinto case in which the cost of paying claims to victims of a known deadly hazard was deemed less than the cost to retool the assembly line, and thus the hazard was maintained knowing full well that further people—more people would be injured or killed. This is the purpose of punitive damages, to punish this kind of egregious wrongdoing, and to deter, to be a deterrent to such conduct. It is not immediately clear why a deterrent—or the necessity of the deterrent should bear any great relationship to the amount of actual damages in a given case. There is nothing wrong and indeed something highly desirable in maintaining this disincentive to wrongdoing in an appropriate relationship to the harm and the conduct of the tort-feasor. This trend has led one commentator to suggest that ''[p]unitive damages have replaced baseball as our national sport.'' Theodore B. Olson, Rule of Law: The Dangerous National Sport of Punitive Damages, Wall St. J., Oct. 5, 1994, at A17. See also Malcolm E. Wheeler, A Proposal for Further Common Law Development of the Use of Punitive Damages in Modern Products Liability Litigation, 40 Ala. L. Rev. 919, 919 (1989) (''Today, hardly a month goes by without a multimillion-dollar punitive damages verdict in a product liability case.'').  


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