It was one of Helen Szoke’s earliest jobs, defending the rights of an all-but-forgotten community in Melbourne, that taught her the values that guided a life’s work.
“I was working in West Heidelberg in the old Olympic village,” the chief executive of Oxfam Australia told the Guardian of her earliest days as a community advocate. “These were poor families, many facing generational poverty, but they taught me an enormous amount about the resilience of human beings, and about the importance of community. That has stayed with me.”
Szoke has been made an Officer of the Order of Australia in this year’s Australian Day honours “for distinguished service to social justice through roles with human rights, anti-discrimination and equal opportunity organisations, to health sector policy development, and to the disadvantaged”.
The award is recognition of her work, not only with Oxfam, but formerly as chief executive and commissioner of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, and as race discrimination commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission. Szoke has also worked in the field of health, working to eliminate workplace bullying and harassment in healthcare.
Szoke said she was “truly humbled, but really chuffed” to receive the acknowledgement.
“I feel honestly quite humbled, I’ve had a blessed life, working in so many different areas, and this is really icing on the cake, recognition like this.”
Szoke acknowledged, in particular, her time working at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, “bringing to life the Human Rights Act in Victoria” as especially fruitful.
“That was a time when, I think, there was so much advancement of domestic human rights protection.”
Szoke said while there had been significant gains made in the field of human rights over the course of her career, globally there were worrying trends.
“The world is pretty disrupted at the moment … the growing trend of nationalism in western countries means that the commitment to progressing and advancing human rights is somewhat compromised.
“The world is trying to deal with big problems: the impact of climate change; inequality and poverty – reform of the global tax system is critical in terms of making funds available for social protections; and we are dealing with sustained conflict and mass displacement.”
Szoke said nations and governments should resist the urge to shrink inwards in times of global volatility, but should think expansively and “act in more global ways”.
“We need a recommitment to the global human rights framework. There’s no room to be complacent. We have to get on and try to deal with it.”