Ron Merkel QC has won the 2011 Human Rights Medal at the Australian Human Rights Commission's annual Human Rights Awards.
The awards, which took place at a sold-out event in Sydney last Friday (9 December), were in celebration of International Human Rights Day, celebrated on 10 December each year around the world.
Commission president Catherine Branson QC congratulated Merkel, a former founding trustee of the Koori Aboriginal Heritage Trust and president of the Victorian and Australian Councils of Civil Liberties, on his extraordinary efforts in protecting and promoting human rights in Australia.
"For 40 years, Ron Merkel has devoted himself to access to justice for people who are marginalised and disadvantaged. He has had a long and outstanding commitment to the promotion and advancement of human rights as a legal practitioner," said Branson.
"Ron Merkel takes on cases that many others would avoid and his advocacy spreads far and wide including defending the rights of prisoners to vote in elections and protecting the rights of Indigenous Australians."
More than 200 entries were received for this year's awards, with 40 finalists selected in 10 categories.
Finalists for the 2011 Human Rights Medal included David Manne, executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre (RILC); former ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope; and Muriel Bamblett, a Yorta Yorta woman and the long-standing CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA).
Allens Arthur Robinson, RILC, Debbie Mortimer SC and Richard Niall SC (Vic) won the Law Award for their successful pro bono work in two landmark High Court cases which upheld human rights and the rule of law.
In Plaintiff M61 v The Commonwealth & Ors , the team acted on behalf of two Sri Lankan asylum seekers who arrived by boat at Christmas Island and sought to claim refugee status. In Plaintiff M70 v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the team acted for two asylum seekers, including one 16-year-old child, scheduled to be deported from Christmas Island to Malaysia for the processing of their refugee claims.
Nineteen-year-old Tshibanda Gracia Ngoy from Berkeley in NSW won the Young People's Human Rights Medal. Ngoy is a caseworker for refugee families, a radio co-host, a tutor for international students, a youth motivational speaker, and a member of the Illawarra Regional Advisory Council, NSW Multicultural Youth Network, and the Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families.
Branson also delivered the 2011 Human Rights Day Oration and announced a new Commission initiative, entitled "Something In Common", to build understanding and respect for human rights in Australia through social media.
"We have developed a micro site, TellMeSomethingIDontKnow.gov.au, [which] presents a series of human rights facts that are arresting and sometimes shocking," said Branson.
Users of the site have the opportunity to add their stories, contribute to Australian film reviews that deal with human rights issues, respond to polls and commit to taking a number of online and offline actions.
"It is impossible to refute the reach of social media and impossible to ignore it if human rights education and community engagement are to remain relevant," said Branson.