Australia’s human rights framework
Human rights and freedoms are inherent to all of us, regardless of our background, culture, gender, age or belief. Australia played an active role in developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties that followed – many of these fundamental human rights are reflected in our laws, policies and programs. However, while some of our international human rights commitments have been enshrined in domestic law, including Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, many gaps remain. The absence of a national Human Rights Charter means that core human rights and freedoms may not be properly safeguarded at a federal level.
What is human rights law?
In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out the basic rights and freedoms that apply to everyone.
It has become the most important document of its kind and is the basis of many legally-binding international human rights laws.
Human rights law has many declarations and international conventions that underpin it. The best-known conventions are:
- the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which covers economic, social and cultural rights including the right to health and the right to education
- the Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects civil and political rights, for example, freedom of speech and freedom from torture.
International laws also recognise the rights of specific groups of people, including women, different racial groups, children, people with disabilities and migrant workers. One example is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons, which establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples.
Some of these treaties are complemented by optional protocols that deal with specific issues or allow people to make complaints. For example, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) is an international agreement aimed at preventing the mistreatment of people in detention. Under OPCAT, State Parties agree to establish an independent National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) to conduct inspections of all places of detention and closed environments. In addition to the NPM, State Parties also agree to international inspections of places of detention by the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture.
What are Australia's obligations under international law?
Australia is a party to the seven major human rights treaties:
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
- Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
- Convention on the Rights of the Child
- The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
These treaties set the standards for human rights scrutiny that is undertaken at a national level and outlined in the Australian Human Rights Framework. The Framework was developed by the Australian Government in 2010 and introduced the following processes:
- a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to look at whether federal laws comply with international human rights law – this follows the model of Parliamentary scrutiny in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory
- a requirement that each new Bill introduced into the Australian Parliament is accompanied by a Statement of Compatibility with Australia’s international human rights obligations
- a requirement to review legislation, policies and practice for compliance with the seven core international human rights treaties Australia is a party to
- human rights education for the Australian Public Service and the general community
- development of a National Action Plan on Human Rights to outline future action for the promotion and protection of human rights. The Action Plan also contributes to the Universal Periodic Review, through which the United Nations reviews the human rights records of all member states once every four years in order to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur.
The Australian Government must also publicly report to the United Nations on the steps it has taken to implement each of the treaties and appear before the relevant committee or treaty body. The reporting process aims to provide an opportunity for the United Nations to examine states’ progress on implementing the treaties and to make recommendations for further progress.
Does Australia have any human rights laws?
There are a number of laws within its federal, state and territory jurisdictions that help Australia to fulfil its human rights obligations, such as the Victorian Charter and, at a national level, the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth).
However, Australia does not have a national Human Rights Act. This means that many core human rights and freedoms may not be adequately protected and promoted at a federal level and there is an inconsistent level of protection across Australian states and territories.
This gap is particularly concerning for vulnerable groups, such as young people navigating the youth justice system, vulnerable individuals and families relying daily on public housing, disability services or social security, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities seeking to uphold their cultural rights.
The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently undertaking an inquiry on the need for a national Human Rights Charter and will release a finalised roadmap for national human rights reform in mid-2020.
In our submission to the inquiry, we reflected on our experience as Victoria’s independent human rights regulator and shared real-life examples of how Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities has helped build a human rights culture in Victoria.
A national Human Rights Act would be a powerful foundation for embedding a fair, respectful and inclusive culture of human rights for the benefit of all Australians.
State and Territory human rights laws
The Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (the Charter) protects 20 civil and political as well as cultural rights that must be considered by public authorities. Read more about the Charter below. A key human right is the right to equality, which is upheld by Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
Australian Capital Territory:
The Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) promotes civil and political rights, cultural rights and the right to education. Find out more from the ACT Human Rights Commission.
Queensland’s Human Rights Act 2019 protects 23 rights, including civil and political rights, access to education and health services, cultural rights, and more. Find out more from the Queensland Human Rights Commission.
What is Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities?
In 2006 the Victorian Parliament passed the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (the Charter), affirming the importance of building respect for human rights across the Victorian community.
Human rights are a basic entitlement of every one of us, regardless of our background, culture, sexual orientation, age or what we believe. The Charter enshrines civil, political and cultural rights into Victorian law. Any limitation on these rights must be reasonable, necessary, justified and proportionate.
The rights set out in the Charter reflect fundamental values of freedom, equality, respect and dignity. These values are important for our wellbeing and our ability to live a dignified life where we are treated fairly and can make genuine choices.
Victorian public authorities are accountable in how they consider the Charter in their decision making and the work they do. To learn more about the responsibilities that public authorities have under the Charter see the For public sector part of our website.
Story of Our Freedom
The Story of Our Freedom is a series of online educational resources.
by the Australian Human Rights Commission
An Introduction to Human Rights
An educational tool which introduces Human Rights
by the Australian Human Rights Commission