Human rights are those rights that are based on the recognition that all people are equal in dignity. They are essential for everyone’s enjoyment of life. They are designed to safeguard human integrity, freedom and equality. Human rights are not granted by others or governments but come by virtue of birth. They are not the preserve of minority groups. They are not privileges of majority groups. Human rights transcend all borders, cultures and notions of difference.
Over the past three hundred years European societies have developed a set of ideas about rights, that have now spread throughout the world. Rights are now taken to be statements about the relations between governments and their populations – what governments will do to ensure certain sorts of opportunities. In the wake of the Second World War the international community insisted that there were certain rights that people had whether or not individual governments accepted them. Moreover, the international community claimed for itself the capacity to intervene in countries where human rights were being grossly denied.
The International Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, accepted by all members of the United Nations, sets up a commitment to basic rights – which have then been elaborated in a variety of conventions (or agreements), most of which Australia has signed. These include conventions against genocide, for the elimination of racial discrimination, on the rights of children, against discrimination against women, and for civil and political rights.
The Australian Constitution has only a limited set of provisions on rights – and none really cover the sorts of rights protected in the US Constitution. The debate on whether Australia should have a Bill of Rights is very hot, as politicians and lawyers generally oppose such a Bill, while community activists generally want such laws.
There is also hot debate over whether or not Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers contravenes human rights.
10 March 2002