Protecting everyone’s rights benefits us all
11th Mar 2021
It’s easy for many of us living in a country like Australia to take our human rights for granted. For most of us, most of the time, Australia is a great place to live.
But the downside of this can be a complacency about our own rights protection and, more importantly, ignorance or misunderstanding about the importance of protecting the rights of those less fortunate. We need to understand that when everyone’s rights are protected, our society is stronger and healthier. We all benefit.
Recently, Australia’s human rights performance was closely scrutinised in a major UN review that happens every four to five years. This process is known as the Universal Periodic Review and involves a peer review with other countries asking questions and making recommendations to Australia to improve our rights protection.
122 nations participated in Australia’s review, making close to 344 recommendations to improve rights. One key concern was Australia’s very low age of criminal responsibility which is out of step with world standards.
Australian laws currently allow governments across the country to arrest, prosecute and lock up children as young as 10. In just one year, across Australia close to 600 children aged 10 to 13 years old were locked away in prisons.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are disproportionately impacted, accounting for 65% of the younger children locked away. Evidence shows that there are far better ways of helping young kids who are in trouble to get back on track. The Morrison Government’s engagement with the review was lukewarm at best. As part of the process, the Government made only modest, unambitious commitments to improve rights protection, essentially repackaging things it was already doing.
Despite Australian civil society and several nations highlighting climate change as a human rights issue and the need for Australia to do more, the Australian Government didn’t even mention the issue in its report to the UN.
The Morrison Government’s indifference is disappointing and also a missed opportunity. As a wealthy, stable democracy, Australia could lead the world on human rights.
There has been progress since Australia was last reviewed five years back. Marriage equality, legislation to combat modern slavery and the ratification of a torture prevention treaty are all important steps forward.
Australian governments have delivered generally effective public health responses to COVID-19 that have saved thousands of lives. Despite its gaps, the Morrison Government also provided a vital safety net for millions facing economic hardship during the pandemic.
Yet this progress has been undermined by repeated failures to protect rights in critical areas, particularly around the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and of refugees and people seeking asylum.
When Australian governments, at both the federal and state level, breach people’s rights, it is not only morally and legally wrong under international law, it is against our national interest. Human rights belong to all of us, no matter who we are or where we are.
They are the vital ingredients that we all need to lead a decent, dignified life. They reflect shared values like freedom, equality, respect and dignity. When human rights are respected, our lives are better and our communities are stronger and healthier.
Respect for human rights is also the key to international stability, peace and prosperity. Yet Australia’s reluctance to better protect rights undermines our ability to promote rights in our region and globally. It affects our ability to promote compliance with other critical international laws on trade, maritime boundaries and more. Why should other nations play by the international rules that the Australian Government ignores to suit its short-term political interests?
The Morrison Government can and should continue to criticise China’s brutal crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and the detention of around a million Uyghur people. As a developed democracy, we have a responsibility to speak out and promote rights globally.
But our calls would have stronger force if the Government wasn’t raiding the offices of journalists or detaining refugees eight long years after they arrived in our country seeking safety. Australia’s human rights failings open up ground for authoritarian governments to reject international pressure to protect the rights of their own people.
Australia needs to live up to the human rights promises it has made under international law. It also needs to implement those promises under our domestic law.
Australia is the only Western democracy without a national charter of human rights or similar instrument. Australian politicians often talk about the importance of freedom of speech, assembly and association, but none of these rights are properly protected in Australian law. This must change.
Australia played an important role in the establishment of the UN and the international human rights framework, including by helping to draft the UN Declaration of Human Rights, one of the pinnacles of modern human achievement. We have so much to gain by leading on rights. We need to recognise that protecting rights is in all of our interests.
This is an edited version of an article first published on The Age on 2 February 2021.
Hugh de Kretser is the executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre who jointly lead the NGO coalition participating in Australia’s Universal Periodic Review. The coalition report was endorsed by over 200 Australian NGOs.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Youth justice in Australia 2018-19 (Report, 15 May 2020), table S78b: Young people in detention during the year by age, sex and Indigenous, Australia, 2018–19.
 See for example, C Grover, ‘Youth justice in Victoria: Research paper’, Department of Parliamentary Services, 2017, 7; S Hemphill and H Smith , ‘Preventing youth violence: What does and doesn’t work and why?’, Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2010, 50–62.