Confronted by the worst that human beings can do to each other, the drafters of the International Declaration of Human Rights set about articulating the rights and freedoms which every human person “is equally and inalienably entitled to.” This year, as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Declaration, it is important to reflect on the words “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and ask: How does my country ensurethe equal rights and freedoms of all? Is the essential dignity of each person cherished and respected? Do some seem to have most of the rights and freedoms while others have few or none?
Australians, in general, are poorly educated when it comes to knowledge of the constitution, political and judicial processes and basic human rights. While priding themselves on their democratic government, rule of law, freedom of speech and religion and their right to assemble and protest, few really know how unprotected are our basic freedoms and just how under threat they are at the moment.
Australia is the only common law country which does not have a bill or charter of human rights. The protection of human rights can only be found in our common law and this is often found wanting. A case in point is a recent High Court judgement regarding an asylum seeker on Manus Island which had the judges forced to find the lengthy imprisonment of asylum seekers legal, because we had no other protection for their rights. Currently, there is at least one person imprisoned on Christmas Island for eight years because he is stateless. In countries with a bill or charter of human rights it is unlikely that a court would find this acceptable. While a signatory to the Declaration Australia has not incorporated many of the covenants, such as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, into our national legislation.
Presently Australia is under threat from processes and proposed bills which seriously undermine our fundamental rights and freedoms. The proposed overhaul of our secrecy laws, the recently introduced foreign interference legislation and the Bill on Foreign Donations and Elections, all opposed by journalists, law associations, universities and churches, instead of ensuring that most government information is available to the public, except in very select circumstances, “flips that principle on its head by creating broad criminal offences with only narrow exceptions” (Dr Sathanapathy Human Rights Law Centre). Under the proposed legislation public servants, academics, journalists and whistle blowers risk jail for exposing corrupt or embarrassing government activities. Fr. Frank Brennan in a recent article referred to shoddy legislation and makes the point that “keeping foreign billionaires and foreign governments out of Australia’s elections can be done without keeping churches and charities out of routine advocacy for the poor and marginalised”.
Vinnies campaigning against homelessness, Amnesty International speaking on behalf of asylum seekers, Greenpeace fighting for the oceans and Caritas condemning cuts to overseas aid are fundamental to our political process and ensure that the voices of those with little power and influence are heard. It is time for all Australians to be alert and alarmed about government attempts to limit our fundamental rights and freedoms. History has taught us that freedoms lost are rarely regained.