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UN human rights declaration turns 70

  • 10 December 2018


Today we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) which was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly as 'a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations'. Australians like Dr H. V. Evatt and Jessie Street played a significant role in the drafting of the declaration.

Evatt, Australian Minister of External Affairs at the time and then President of the UN General Assembly, welcomed the declaration as a 'step forward in a great evolutionary process'. The drafters consulted a broad range of thinkers including religious and philosophical greats such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ, Mahatma Gandhi and Aldous Huxley. Teilhard counselled the drafters to focus on 'man in society' rather than the human being as an individual.

A decade ago when marking the 60th anniversary of the declaration, Irish poet Seamus Heaney said: 'Since it was framed, the declaration has succeeded in creating an international moral consensus. It is always there as a means of highlighting abuse if not always as a remedy: it exists instead in the moral imagination as an equivalent of the gold standard in the monetary system. The articulation of its tenets has made them into world currency of a negotiable sort. Even if its articles are ignored or flouted — in many cases by governments who have signed up to them — it provides a worldwide amplification system for the "still, small voice".'

Ten years ago, the newly elected Rudd government set up a national human rights consultation. I was privileged to chair the consultation which recommended a national human rights act. Neither side of politics was much interested in this suggestion. The more conservative religious leaders were strongly opposed, thinking that religious freedom might be better protected by parliament without legislation being subjected to judicial oversight for compliance with human rights generally.

Ten years on, they might have cause to think differently. The Queensland government has announced plans to legislate a human rights charter similar to that adopted by the parliaments in Victoria and the ACT. But other jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth, are out of kilter with other equivalent jurisdictions such as the UK and New Zealand which have their own human rights acts.

In the absence of a human rights act, religious freedom tends to be treated by means of exemptions for religious bodies or exceptions for religious behaviour set down in anti-discrimination acts such as the Sex Discrimination Act.