27 March 2019

Human rights law: a vital tool for social justice

‘Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.’
– Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

It has been more than 70 years since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Australia remains the only western democracy without some form of a national bill of rights. But the states and territories are taking matters into their own hands and, in February, Queensland became the third jurisdiction in Australia (behind Victoria and the ACT) to protect human rights in law when the Human Rights Act was passed through the Queensland Parliament.

Twenty-three vital human rights, including freedom of association, freedom of expression, the right to education and health services, the right to humane treatment in detention and the cultural rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, will now be better protected in Queensland law. This Act is the strongest model of human rights protection yet seen in Australia, as it includes an accessible complaints mechanism, which allows anyone who considers their human rights have been infringed by a public entity to go directly to the Queensland Human Rights Commission to have their issue heard and responded to.

In passing this Act, the Queensland Government has provided a vital tool to not only protect the human rights of Queenslanders but to also better deliver social justice.

Core to international human rights law are the principles of equality and non-discrimination. Recognition of those rights is the foundation of justice.1 Fairness and equality are concepts inherent to any understanding of ‘social justice’.2 Part of social justice is providing an equal opportunity to obtain social goods such as health care, housing, employment and education. Ensuring the recognition and protection of human rights in law means that Queenslanders will now enjoy improved social justice outcomes, as have people in other jurisdictions before them.3

The Human Rights Act will allow Queenslanders to hold public authorities to account through formal dispute mechanisms and also to challenge decision making and negotiate better outcomes based on human rights principles. In the ACT, the government noted a positive impact on political debate and consideration of policy issues as well as an impetus for agencies to consider human rights issues.4 In Victoria, the Human Rights Charter has played an important role in ensuring human rights are appropriately considered by government, leading to improvement in public service design, delivery and outcomes.5 The Charter drives important human rights initiatives to address systemic issues.6

People that have the most difficulty accessing social resources are most in need of a Human Rights Act to enforce their rights. They also often require pro bono legal services. Those who provide pro bono legal services in Queensland are well advised to properly understand the Act and how it can be used to deliver better outcomes for clients and social justice in Queensland.

1Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Art 1 and 2.
2The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘Social Justice’ as: ‘a concept of justice which requires there to be a fundamental fairness in the way in which individuals can be active and productive participants in a society which thus enables its individual members to participate fully.’
Baldry describes social justice as ‘ensuring systemic and structural social arrangements to improve equality’ – Eileen Baldry, ‘The Revival of Social Justice’ (Speech delivered at the Marg Barry Memorial Lecture, Alexandria Town Hall, 16 September 2010) 7.
3Nathan Kennedy, ‘How a Human Rights Act would make a Practical Difference to Improve Social Justice in Australia’, Court of Conscience, Issue 11, 2017, 16.
4ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate, Government Response: Australian National University Human Rights Research Project Report The Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT): The First Five Years of Operation (March 2012), 2 and 26.
5Human Rights Law Centre, “More Accessible, more Effective and Simpler to Enforce: Strengthening Victoria’s Human Rights Charter, HRLC Submission to the 2015 Review of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights” (June 2015), 1.
6Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, 2014 Report on the Operation of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (June 2015) at 1, <https://humanrightscommission.vic.gov.au/index.php/our-resources-and-publications/charterreports/item/1260-2014-report-on-the-operation-of-the-charter-of-human-rights-and-responsibilities>.