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The empty platitudes of Australian human rights

  • 25 October 2017


In the one week, Australia's human rights record made headlines in two quite different ways. First, the UN announced that Australia would be joining the Human Rights Council. Subsequently, the UN Human Rights Committee criticised Australia for 'chronic non-compliance' with the committee's recommendations.

Indeed, it reported that Australia's non-compliance was 'completely off the charts'. The dissonance of these two stories calls into question Australia's commitment to human rights, even as it proclaims its global human rights leadership.

As a field of law, human rights emerged in the post-WWII context of the UN's universal declaration. Their foundation lies in recognising the dignity of humanity, and translates a somewhat esoteric understanding of a person's inherent value into a legal right with concomitant legal responsibilities. As a question of law, those responsibilities lie with the state. In a domestic context, the state has the power to censure individuals (or corporations) who breach the established human rights of another.

The development of a human rights framework as law reflects some of the underlying principles of liberalism, including notions of personal freedom and the idea of rights as inherent. To the extent that human rights go beyond these ideas, they reflect additional ideological, political and cultural foundations.

These foundations are reflected also in a broader non-legal and non-technical understanding of human rights that suggests an appreciation of our 'right' as an individual to live our lives free from the interference of others, but supported by government action. Because of the cultural and ideological construction of human rights, in a legal sense such rights manifest unevenly across the world.

It would be misguided, however, to assume that a liberal democracy such as Australia would necessarily embrace human rights. Despite an ostensible cultural fit with the individual freedoms supported by human rights as law, there remains considerable resistance to the uptake of human rights in Australia — both in general social discourse, and as a legal framework per se.

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is a case in point. The provision prohibits an act that 'offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates' and that is directed at the 'race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group'. This has garnered loud criticism in some quarters as running counter to another freedom — freedom of speech, otherwise somewhat unfortunately described by our Attorney-General as 'freedom to be a bigot'.


"The Australian government