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Much to do about rights

By Robyn Seth-Purdie - posted Monday, 15 June 2009

Australia has a near-exemplary record of signing on to human rights treaties. It’s a shame the follow-through has let us down.

When a country signs on to one of these binding agreements under international law, it undertakes to act in accordance with all articles. That is, to give effect to all the treaty rights and freedoms in a way that does not discriminate between men and women or between groups of people of a particular colour, creed or nationality, and to accept and co-operate with the associated monitoring and accountability mechanisms.

In the first half of this year Australia was called before the UN Committees that monitor states parties’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) respectively. These Committees found that Australia has much work to do about the rights it has committed to protect.


The Human Rights Committee published its findings in March. It was critical of Australia for not having acted on its number one obligation - that of ensuring that all rights recognised in the ICCPR are reflected in law, policy and practice. Such rights include freedom of expression and of association, fair trial, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

During hearings, Committee members left the delegation of Australian officials in no doubt as to their concerns about Australia’s record in recent years of consistently rejecting recommendations on individual complaints made to it under the First Optional Protocol. One Committee member reminded the delegation of a fundamental principle of international law - that treaties are for keeping; they should not be broken through acts of commission or neglect.

When human rights treaties are violated, the breach injures not only those individuals in Australia whose rights are violated. It also damages Australia’s reputation both as a country where people can find true freedom and dignity, and as a state whose word is its bond when it signs a “contract” with fellow members of the international community.

When the Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights - the body charged with monitoring progress in protecting rights such as living and working standards, as well as housing, health and education - were published in May, they contained themes in common with those of the Human Rights Committee.

The most basic of these themes is a failure to provide a framework for giving effect to Covenant rights in domestic law. Without such a framework, the enjoyment of these rights is not guaranteed, as neither the Commonwealth nor the States and Territories have assumed responsibility for recognising and protecting them. Violations of the rights of Indigenous Australians - in the suspension of protections against racial discrimination, and the continued absence of a national representative body - drew criticism from the Committee. So, too, did the continued use of Christmas Island, changing territorial borders for migration purposes and mandatory detention of asylum seekers. The continuing wage gap between men and women, unduly restrictive industrial relations legislation, and inadequate social security benefits and coverage were also criticised. The Committee also criticised the weak mandate and inadequate resourcing for the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Defending economic, social and cultural rights is as important as advocating for civil and political rights. Economic, social and cultural rights are real rights because they express the essential interests of individuals if they are to flourish and make the fullest possible contribution to the life of their community. This is why, for example, the death as a direct result of poverty of 25,000 children a day globally, is a human rights issue. Together these rights provide the conditions essential for a life of dignity and social inclusion. Without them civil and political rights are hollow. And vice versa. This reflects what is known in international human rights law as the interdependence of rights.


The violations of treaty rights identified by these two UN Committees indicate very clearly the need to address the substantial shortcomings in Australia’s current arrangements for protecting rights.

When our government ratifies a treaty it does it on our behalf. It is our treaty. We are the intended beneficiaries. Treaty rights are our rights. And treaty responsibilities are our responsibilities - they arise from the need to respect the corresponding rights of others. If the government fails to integrate treaty rights into Australian law, policy and practice, it has failed us and we need to demand action.

Australia needs, at the very least, a Human Rights Act that includes civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, an Act that forces legislators, policy-makers and decision-makers to take treaty rights into account. Until then, Australia will still have much to do about rights.

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About the Author

Since joining Amnesty International Australia in 2007, Robyn Seth-Purdie has briefed UN treaty bodies in New York and Geneva on Australia's human rights performance. She contributes lectures to the Masters in Social Policy Course at the ANU and has published papers in social policy, governance and public administration. She has a long and varied background in the public sector, including policy analysis and review, program management, complaint investigation (with the Commonwealth Ombudsman) and research on inquiries. She has a PhD in Psychology and a Diploma in Jurisprudence from the University of Sydney and is a member of the Australian Institute of Management Consultants.

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