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Protecting Australians' rights

By Graeme Innes - posted Monday, 28 April 2008

The new century has thrown up enormous challenges, as well as breathtaking opportunities to us all. One such challenge is the protection of human rights.

We have the opportunity to establish a federal Charter of Rights which could incorporate our international obligations into Australian law, thereby protecting the fundamental human rights of people in this country. This is an opportunity all Australians should embrace.

Yet this debate rarely extends beyond the converted and the dissenters because many Australians erroneously assume that the Constitution protects fundamental rights and freedoms such as the right to life or freedom from torture.


It does not.

Australia's governance system does not adequately protect human rights. Though the Australian government has agreed to many international human rights treaties, it has not fully incorporated them into Australian law.

This means that victims of human rights violations in Australia are often left without an enforceable remedy. Numerous high profile examples highlight the need for a federal Charter of Rights.

In Australia our news is full of stories about the housing crisis, people being forced onto the streets and the shameful rise in homelessness. It is becoming more apparent to all of us just how easily a person could find themselves living on the streets.

Yet people experiencing homelessness, like all of us, have human rights, and many of these rights are breached on a daily basis. Their right to an adequate standard of living (including shelter, food and clothing), to physical and mental health care and to education are major rights that are often breached. For homeless people, the right to personal security is very often under threat. Homeless people also have the right to vote, though this is often impeded because they may not carry identification and have no fixed address.

These are rights we take for granted that these people often do not enjoy.


Over the last decade we have witnessed children spend years in immigration detention in Australia. Many of these children have suffered serious mental and physical health problems as a result of prolonged detention. Many were not able to go to school. Many witnessed violence and some tried to harm themselves in their despair.

The fundamental rights of these children (to health, education and safety) were breached.

We are well aware that there is a 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This is partly due to inadequate legal protection of the rights of Indigenous Australians. These are fundamental rights such as the right to an adequate standard of health, education and housing.

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About the Author

Graeme Innes AM is the federal Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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