Fixing Australia’s Human Rights Black Hole

By Stephanie Wulf

Australians commonly boast that they are all about the fair go, and a recent study even found that Australia’s fair go culture is not just a myth, with our country enjoying high social mobility that allows people born into disadvantage to work their way into high status jobs.

So if we really value the fair go, why are Australians allowing the government to treat asylum seekers so unfairly, turning them back to places of grave danger, or detaining them in inhumane conditions for indefinite periods of time?

One reason could be that the idea of the fair-go works against asylum seekers when they are portrayed as “queue jumpers” rather than genuine refugees. Or is it because we apply our values discriminately – as something that applies to “us” but not “them”?

As we start asking these questions it becomes clear that we cannot expect to live in a just society that treats asylum seekers fairly simply by reinforcing our so-called common values.

What is really needed is a robust human rights culture in which the vast majority of Australians understand the inherent rights that all humans have, and the responsibility that the Australian Government has to protect these people. As Catherine Branson QC has highlighted: “It’s at the very heart of human rights that they are for the unpopular as well as the popular and for the powerless as well as powerful.”

Herein lies the problem for asylum seekers looking to come to our shores – Australia has a very weak human rights culture. Sarah Joseph, head of the Castan Centre for Human Rights, has observed that this could be because Australians do not really understand why human rights are important.

She highlights that “very few Australians could sit back and name many human rights in the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] or would know very much about the Universal Declaration at all.” Damning evidence of this is a 2006 Roy Morgan Research poll commissioned by Amnesty International Australia which found that 61 per cent of Australians thought that Australia had a bill of rights. In fact, Australia is the only western democracy that does not.

Of course, saying that Australia does not have a human rights culture does not mean there aren’t groups and organisations in our society that are working tirelessly to uphold the human rights of asylum-seekers – there are indeed many.

But their calls to action are largely falling on deaf ears. The majority of Australians, quite understandably, don’t really know what human rights are or the specific human rights protected under Australian and international law.

One of the reasons we have found ourselves in this position is because Australia’s human rights law is an absolute mess, scattered among statutory law, common law and constitutional law.

On top of that, Australia has international legal obligations under numerous treaties such as the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child – many of which have not been implemented into domestic legislation as they are required to under international law.

So how will we achieve the kind of human rights culture that is so desperately needed? There are two radical changes that we need to see happen.

Firstly, we need to keep pushing for a national bill of rights – a move that was rejected by the federal government in 2010. A bill of rights is a critical foundation for a strong human rights culture. It would not only consolidate the scattered human rights laws we do have, but also build on them, and serve as an easy reference point so that everyone – not just a small elite – can understand what human rights and responsibilities exist in Australia.

Most importantly, it would create an external check on parliament by giving the judiciary a role in ensuring that legislation affecting asylum seekers does not infringe on their human rights – something that the self-regulatory Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has so far not been able to achieve.

Secondly, we need to invest heavily in human rights education so that the people of Australia can also hold the government to account. A long-term solution to protect asylum seekers must involve the next generation growing up with a deep respect for the dignity and rights of all human beings, particularly vulnerable minorities.

The development of a national school curriculum is an excellent opportunity for this, and indeed the Australian Human Rights Commission has proposed that human rights be a “highly visible and cross-cutting element” of the new curriculum.

These two closely related strategies are by no means new ideas – they have been pursued enthusiastically by countless human rights advocates and organisations over the years. Nor are they easy or quick solutions, which is why we still find ourselves having this discussion. They are however, crucial changes that will have the biggest impact in ensuring that asylum seekers receive the fair go they deserve.

Stephanie Wulf is a humanitarian and development communications specialist, and a Master of International Law and International Relations student at the University of New South Wales.

Feature image: EnjoSmith/Flickr