Addressing the role of police in the protection of human rights: the UN Seminar, Canberra, 1963

Human rights Police Australia Canberra

This paper looks back at a 1963 United Nations seminar on police and human rights to consider the hopes that were held for the event, the course of its deliberations, and observe the scope of debate around its outcomes at that time.


On 12 May 1963, Australia’s leading scholar of jurisprudence and international law, Professor Julius Stone of the University of Sydney’s Law School, delivered a broadcast on ABC Radio, ‘Australia looks to the world: the police and the people’. His comments were occasioned by his recent attendance at the United Nations Seminar on the Role of the Police in the Protection of Human Rights, held in Canberra. Stone had attended the Seminar as an observer representing the International League for the Rights of Man.

Stone asked rhetorically why an international meeting dealing with issues such as police arrests, wiretapping, police interrogation of suspects and universal fingerprinting was related in any way to the United Nations and international affairs. He answered in two ways. At one level there was a need to address gross violations of human rights which had grave international repercussions. He cited egregious provisions of the South African Government’s apartheid legislation; and the brutality of police in Alabama in dealing with black Americans demonstrating for recognition of their human rights. From another perspective, in the 20th century the importance of human rights of men and women had been the focus of international laws and treaties. These were the contexts for the 1963 UN Seminar.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved at the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The Declaration has become a symbol of that organisation’s aspirations. Its enactment into binding institutional and governing norms has been a prolonged process, and continues. For one recent historian of human rights in the post-war world, the first two decades of the United Nation’s life were a record of failure. It was not the United Nations, argues Samuel Moyn, but the social movements emerging from the disillusion of the Cold War years, that enlivened human rights as a contemporary political agenda. Yet these were also years in which the organisation institutionalised a commitment to advancing human rights when it established a Division dedicated to the issue.

The 50th anniversary of the Canberra UN Seminar on the Role of the Police in the Protection of Human Rights offers a compelling opportunity to reconsider the emergence of human rights as a norm shaping criminal justice principles and practice since the Second World War. The event was unprecedented and its agenda potentially explosive. The institutional and political constraints on the advancement of the human rights agenda in such a forum nevertheless proved formidable. Looking back from 2013 we have the advantage of hindsight in appraising this unusual event. We also face the challenge of understanding its limitations. In the account that follows we consider the hopes that were held for the UN Seminar, the course of its deliberations, and observe the scope of debate around its outcomes at that time.

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