Re-imagining Human Rights

Re-imagining Human Rights in Australia

Radhika Roy

Social Responsibilities Commission

I recently attended a fascinating talk presented by Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission at the Inaugural Curtin University Human Rights Lecture. Professor Triggs argued that Australia has retreated from its human rights obligations over the last 15 years and is ‘drifting in an isolated way’. This slow but sure erosion of rights and freedom can be seen with the assertion of counter-terrorism laws, lengthy administrative detention of asylum seekers indefinitely and for prolonged periods of time, an explicit rejection of international law from statutes, the high and growing rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody and even the emergence of WA’s anti-protest laws. Despite human rights being closely related to Australian values of justice, equality and a fair go, there is a growing dissonance between these values and their link to the human rights principles we foster within our society. So how do we re-imagine the language of Human Rights within our political, cultural and spiritual environments?

Politically, there is a compelling case to re-open discussion about a legislated charter of rights which sets out the rights and freedoms of all individuals in a country. The most common forms of a Charter of Rights are either a Statutory charter of rights (an ordinary Act of Parliament) such as in New Zealand or the UK or a Constitutional charter of rights such as in the United States. This may be surprising to some, but Australia is now the only democratic country in the world that does not have some form of a national charter. A statutory charter of rights would be more suitable to Australia’s context as it would operate effectively within our existing system of law and government. Having a charter of rights does not automatically guarantee a government will respect human rights however it does ensure the language of human rights is at the forefront of the decision making process. At state level, the ACT was the first Australian jurisdiction to pass a ‘Human Rights Act’ in 2004 which was soon followed by Victoria passing the ‘Charter of Human Rights & Responsibilities Act’ in 2006. In WA, we have not yet moved to pass a Human Rights Act despite a Committee for a Proposed WA Human Rights Act being appointed in 2007.

It is also important to re-think ways of strengthening Human rights language and education within our cultural and spiritual settings. The SRC considers Anglican schools, parishes and agencies as having a unique opportunity to ensure the Anglican community develops a positive understanding and appreciation of human rights. It is often understandably tricky for teachers or parish clergy to integrate human rights education in already crowded curriculums and shorter service times. There are however simpler ways to reinforce human rights education which include distributing informative resources, running campaigns in collaboration with groups such as Amnesty International or CARAD, organizing themed bible study groups and fostering open and honest discussions about important issues. These simple steps can nourish a culture of acceptance and empathy that aligns well with Anglican principles and the Fourth Mark of Mission ‘transforming unjust structures of society, challenging violence of every kind and pursuing peace and reconciliation’.

Please contact the SRC on (08) 9286 0276 for a range of resources on this matter.