Human rights – what do I need to know?

Human rights – what do I need to know? 1
1 What are my human rights? 3
1.1 Where do human rights come from? 3
1.2 Where are my human rights written down? 3
1.3 How do countries agree to protect human rights? 4
1.4 Which human rights treaties has Australia agreed to? 4
1.5 Who is responsible for making sure that my rights are respected? 5
1.6 Who can I complain to if I think my human rights have been breached? 6
(a) The Australian Human Rights Commission 6
(b) State and Territory human rights agencies 6
(c) International bodies 7
1.7 What is the International Bill of Rights? 9
(a) Universal Declaration of Human Rights 9
(b) The International Covenants 10
(c) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR) 11
(d) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (ICESCR) 12
2 How are human rights protected in Australia? 13
2.1 The Australian Constitution 13
2.2 National legislation 13
2.3 State legislation 14
2.4 Common law 14
2.5 How does the Australian Human Rights Commission protect and promote human rights? 15
(a) What is the Commission’s vision and mission? 15
(b) What does the Australian Human Rights Commission do? 16
3 What are some of the human rights problems in Australia? 17
3.1 The rights of Indigenous Australians 18
3.2 The right not to be arbitrarily detained 19
4 How can we improve human rights protections in Australia? 21
4.1 Australia should adopt a national human rights law 21
4.2 Australians should have a say about how they want their rights to be protected 22
5 Should Australia have a Human Rights Act? 23
5.1 What other countries have legislation protecting human rights? 24
(a) How do these charters improve respect for human rights? 25
5.2 Is there any legislation protecting human rights in Australia already? 25
(a) How do the ACT and Victorian human rights laws work? 26
5.3 What difference would a federal Human Rights Act make? 27
(a) Do Australians want a Human Rights Act? 28
(b) Why a ‘statutory’ charter of rights? 28
(c) Does the Commission support constitutional protection of human rights? 28
(d) What role should a federal Human Rights Act give courts? 29
5.4 What rights should a federal Human Rights Act include? 29
(a) Should a federal Human Rights Act protect economic, social and cultural rights? 30
5.5 Responses to the common arguments against a Human Rights Act 31
(a) There are already sufficient human rights protections in Australia 31
(b) The best rights protection in Australia is our democratic system – we should trust in our politicians and vote them out if necessary 31
(c) The business of Parliament will be frustrated 32
(d) Power will be transferred from the democratically-elected Parliament to unelected judges 32
(e) There will be a rush of litigation 32
(f) Rights will be frozen in time 33
(g) There is no historical basis for national human rights law in Australia 33
(h) A federal Human Rights Act is constitutionally flawed 33
6 Where can I find more information about a Human Rights Act for Australia? 34
6.1 Resources on a federal Human Rights Act 34
6.2 Australian Human Rights Commission submissions 34
6.3 Resources on state and territory legislation protecting human rights 34


1 What are my human rights?
All Australians have human rights. Human rights are universal: they are for everyone, everywhere, everyday. Human rights are based on values such as freedom, equality and dignity and seek to protect our quality of life.
Your human rights include well known rights such as the right to:
• a fair trial
• vote
• free speech
• freedom from discrimination because of your sex, age, race or because you have a disability
• protection from imprisonment for arbitrary reasons
• protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
• education
• health
• protection from violence.
1.1 Where do human rights come from?
Human rights are not a recent invention. The principles of human rights can be traced back to ancient civilisations and are central to Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish teachings.
Human rights have been important parts of the development of nations such as the United States of America, France, and more recently South Africa.
The growth of totalitarian regimes in the 20th Century and the atrocities of World War II made the protection of human rights an international priority. The first attempt to develop a complete statement of human rights was made in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
1.2 Where are my human rights written down?
Human rights are written down in international agreements called ‘conventions’ and ‘covenants’. These types of agreements are also called ‘treaties’.
Human rights can also be written down in other international documents such as ‘declarations’.
These treaties and declarations are made by representatives of national governments at the United Nations and reflect international agreement about the fundamental values that make up ‘human rights’.
1.3 How do countries agree to protect human rights?
Countries indicate their intention to become a ‘party’ to a new treaty by ‘signing’ the treaty. For countries like Australia, this is a first step in becoming bound by the treaty. Signing a treaty does not, however, automatically make it part of our law. Our Parliament has to pass legislation to make a human