Why a Fair Go should be the law
More than 70 years after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), Australia continues to lag behind many countries in providing adequate human rights protection. So where are we falling down - and what is the solution?
It's been almost 71 years since the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This milestone document was announced at the United Nations in Paris on December 10, 1948 and set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.
Australia was a founding member of the United Nations and was instrumental in drafting the UDHR with Herbert “Doc” Evatt becoming the president of the UN General Assembly and overseeing the adoption of the UDHR.
Since then, we have enjoyed some significant human rights wins including legislating equal pay, the 1967 constitutional referendum on Aboriginal rights and the legalisation of same-sex marriage — in my 12 years as National Director of Amnesty International Australia, we have seen a number of important changes, but the struggle for equality is not over, there is still much more to do.
The successful Marriage Equality plebiscite showed that Australians not only value protecting people's rights, but doing so in law. Which begs the question, why then, are we the only Western democracy that doesn't protect everyone's rights in law, through a charter of human rights?
Human rights are not a right-wing/ left-wing argument, or one of party politics - they should be at the heart of policy decisions no matter who holds government.
At their core, human rights are about respecting the dignity of everyone. Someone's quality of life should not be determined by factors beyond their control – be it race, nationality, gender, socio-economic background, sexuality or age.
The work of government, and the laws they enact, are central to how these rights are expressed, or limited. They have the power to better protect all Australians.
Currently in Australia, human rights protections are found in a range of legislation which are complex, decentralised and sometimes only implied. Australia needs legislation at a federal level that brings together all human rights under one law, to ensure that everyone is protected, and importantly, that they are all protected equally. We should not have numerous individual laws on religious freedoms or sexual discrimination to the exclusion of others for example, as all human rights are intrinsically linked.
Implementing a Human Rights Act enshrined in law would make a real and meaningful improvement to human rights protection and have the additional benefit of untangling the current spaghetti bowl of legislation.
There are some major ongoing issues in Australia, such as structural racism and discrimination that our current laws do not, or do not go far enough, to prevent. These issues are complex, many are embedded in Australia's history, and they often affect the marginalised parts of society, such
Why then, are we the only Western democracy that doesn’t protect everyone’s rights in law, through a charter of human rights?
as Indigenous people, women, the disabled and the LGBTQI+ community. A Human Rights Act would help address these issues and ensure each right is balanced with others to create a fairer world.
Acknowledging and celebrating the fact that Australia is, was and always will be Indigenous land is necessary to heal the wounds of colonialism and for our nation to grow and mature.
But we must go further than these important symbolic gestures to right the wrongs of the past and create positive change for the future.
The shameful reality is that Indigenous people are over represented in many of the most unfavourable national statistics: imprisonment, suicide, poverty, mortality - the list goes on. We are setting up Indigenous kids for failure before they've even had a chance to grow.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2018, more than half of the children in youth detention were Indigenous.
Australia continues to lock up vulnerable children as young as 10, taking away childhoods and causing
ALL HUMAN. RIGHTS ARE. INTRINSICALLY. LINKED.
serious harm at a crucial time of development, when they are being shaped into the adults they will become. The evidence shows that applying criminal penalties to little children makes them more likely to commit offences as adults and seriously hampers their ability to get a good education or employment.
Children arrested before the age of 14 are three times more likely to commit offences as adults than children arrested after 14. The latest research shows that children's brains are not developed enough to foresee consequences, and cannot fully understand the criminal penalties attached to their behaviour. As Indigenous children are 25 times more likely to be locked up in Australia than non-indigenous children, these issues affect them disproportionately.
The current system focuses on punishing these children and locking them up. But there is a better way: by supporting children, and their families, when they are facing problems in their young lives, we can help them to thrive, and not offend in the first place.
When Amnesty's Secretary General, Kumi Naidoo, visited Australia recently, we were able to see some of this inspiring intervention work done by Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory through the programs run by organisations like Children's Ground and Bushmob connecting kids to culture and diverting them into a productive and happy life.
This is a “smart on crime” approach which addresses the root cause of the problems of poverty and discrimination which cause Indigenous kids to be overrepresented in detention. Because Indigenous communities already have the answers - they know the best ways to support and mentor Indigenous children. Governments need to support Indigenous-led programs that keep children strong, healthy and connected to culture.
The simplest and most effective way to begin to address some of these problems is by raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 in line with international standards as well as protecting and recognising the rights of Indigenous Australians and their ancient and ongoing connection to country.
A Human Rights Act would likely have avoided the dreadful scenes we saw in the Northern Territory's Don Dale Detention Centre and have kept kids like Dylan Voller out of the quicksand of the justice system.
Indigenous communities already have the answers – they know the best ways to support and mentor Indigenous children.
The achievement of marriage equality provided a resounding reminder to our politicians that Australians support inclusion and deplore discrimination. Seeing the joy of men and women marrying the people they love is an indelible reminder of the real difference legislated rights make in the real world.
Yet members of the LGBTQI community continue to face structural barriers inhibiting their ability to more fully participate in society and singling them out from other members of society.
LGBTQI+ young people suffer from higher than average rates of mental health issues. Research indicates that LGBTQI+ children and young people are more likely to experience discrimination, bullying and abuse than other children and young people and are significantly more at risk of suicide, self-harm and mental health impacts as a result. 80% of homophobic bullying involving LGBTQI+ young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their well-being and education.
Despite this, programs such as so-called ‘conversion therapy' continue to be practiced in our country. Sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts (SOGICE) are dangerous and should be banned nationally. Currently, only Victoria has outlawed these harmful practices.
In Australia, people with variations in sex characteristics are routinely subjected to medical interventions without prior, informed consent, typically in infancy, childhood or adolescence. Normalising surgery should never take place without personal informed consent.
The majority of people would agree that people should enjoy the same rights regardless of their sexuality or sexual preference, and yet in reality, this isn't the case in Australia. Students, teachers and other staff should be protected in law against discrimination by anyone, including religious schools.
The right to seek asylum
Similarly those who have fled their homes to seek safety in Australia should be adequately protected. Enshrined in the UDHR is “the right to seek and to
Seeing the joy of men and women marrying the people they love is an indelible reminder of the real difference legislated rights make in the real world.
enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.
Over the past two years I have been privileged to visit refugee camps in southern Europe and Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh to witness the heartbreaking stories of the people who find themselves in these terrible circumstances.
In Cox's Bazar I visited the widow's camp - a camp within a camp. All of those women I met had a horrific story - they'd been beaten up by the military, they'd had their babies literally torn from their breast and killed, they'd seen loved ones shot and killed in front of them and suffered horrendous abuse.
Those women are so vulnerable and traumatised that some of them actually want to go back home, even though it's not safe for them. It's these people, as well as those on Manus and Nauru and in other camps all over the world, that we must keep in our minds when considering our legislative approach to the desperate people seeking asylum.
Despite Australia being a signatory to the UDHR, in recent times Australia's treatment of people who have sought refuge here has been nothing short of cruel. Australia's offshore detention and processing arrangements are inhumane and inefficient. We should welcome asylum seekers and refugees who have been warehoused on Nauru and Manus Island into our communities in Australia. All people seeking asylum should be processed under a system that provides a meaningful appeals process and the discriminatory Temporary Protection Visas ( TPVS) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVS) should be replaced with permanent visas.
All asylum seekers should be guaranteed access to legal representation while their claims are being processed. The Government must commit to ensuring people who seek asylum here are treated humanely and can have their asylum claims assessed in a timely, fair and efficient manner.
Australia plays an important role in resettling vulnerable refugees through the humanitarian program. The Australian Government's commitment to increase refugee resettlement to 18,750 places, including for people fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, was a welcome move.
However, Australia has the capacity and moral obligation to do more. We can increase the annual refugee resettlement intake to at least 30,000 people, prioritising those selected by the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency). In addition to the government program Australia must create an affordable Community Sponsorship Program, to enable ordinary Australians to contribute to global protection, by coming together to sponsor refugees to Australia.
Climate change: A human rights issue
When you think of human rights - climate change isn't always the first thing that comes to mind. But there is a direct link between climate change and human rights. Climate change impacts people's human rights in several ways including endangering people's rights to life, health, food, water and housing.
What really brings it home is when you meet people in the Pacific who are seriously contemplating leaving their homes and countries because they fear soon, they simply won't exist.
Extreme weather-related disasters and rising seas continue to destroy homes and ruin people's ability to earn a living, particularly in the developing world. Unless emissions are significantly and quickly reduced, around 600 million people are likely to experience drought and famine as a result of climate change.
Across the world, women form the majority of self-employed, small-scale farmers, so droughts, floods and crop failures will hit them first and hardest. They're also more likely to take on the burden of collecting water, so will be acutely affected by severe water shortages.
Indigenous Peoples are often at the frontline of global warming. Many live in fragile ecosystems that are particularly sensitive to changes in climate. This threatens their cultural identity, which is closely linked to their traditional land and livelihoods.
As famines, droughts and natural disasters become more frequent, so too the numbers of people on the move across borders will increase. While not all of these people will meet the legal definition of “refugees”, they should still be entitled to support from the countries most responsible for climate change.
Climate change will also exacerbate well-known causes of war, such as competition over natural resources, increasing the risk of violent conflict in the future.
Australia must take immediate steps to reduce carbon emissions, including phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels. We must also assist people in Australia and internationally through our aid program, to adapt to climate change, and provide compensation, including to those who have lost their homes because of rising sea levels, salination or other climate change related impacts.
These things might seem a long way from the lucky country. But we have an obligation to make the world better for others as well as ourselves, as well as preparing for what could come. So while a Human Rights Act will not directly stop climate change, it can ensure that whatever happens, Australians and those coming to Australia, will continue to receive the life-giving resources they need.
After all, Australia believes in a ‘Fair Go' for everyone.
These things might seem a long way from the lucky country. But we have an obligation to make the world better for others as well as ourselves.
Getting serious about a Fair Go
The reality in Australia is that many of the people who call it home suffer daily challenges to realise their fundamental human rights.
It's an unpleasant truth that we must face as a nation. But it is one for which a relatively simple legislative change would make significant improvement.
Australia is right to be proud of its role in the proclamation of the UDHR and its involvement with the United Nations, including its hard-fought position on the UN'S Human Rights Council. But as well as our place on the world stage, we have a pressing need to get our own house in order when it comes to human rights.
The solution is not difficult. Simple legislation could be the greatest step forward for human rights that Australia has seen in the last 71 years, since the inception of the UDHR. The Morrison Government has a unique opportunity for a Human Rights Act to be its proudest legacy.