Human Rights are not Luxuries

By Adam Fletcher

I was saddened on the weekend to learn of the demise of the Geneva-based International Council on Human Rights Policy, which was announced by its board last Thursday. In the course of my human rights work both in Australia and Switzerland I’ve had the pleasure of drawing on many of ICHRP’s reports which were brilliantly written and researched. Luckily they will be retained in a web archive, but sadly no new ones will be produced. The Council led human rights thinking in Geneva in many ways, and will be missed.

I suppose in the context of Europe’s current financial woes, it is unsurprising that funding for all sorts of projects is being squeezed. However, Europe is not alone in this. Earlier this month, the Tasmanian Attorney-General announced that his State can’t afford a Charter of Rights or a Human Rights Commission. The line that particularly caught my attention in the story was:

A government spokeswoman said other, more important legislation would still go ahead this year despite budget cuts.

Imagining the Government’s packed legislative agenda, I was surprised to see this revealing post from a Liberal Shadow Minister from late last year. Turning to the Parliamentary website for an update, I came across an abrupt message informing me that the MPs would not be sitting again until next month. The Attorney-General’s own website revealed some commendable reviews and initiatives, but again no planned legislation. I suppose I’ll just have to take the spokeswoman’s word for it that more important Bills are in development.

It seems that many people, both within and outside Government, perceive human rights protections as luxuries, to be discarded in the name of fiscal rectitude when the economy fails to boom. I realise that, in these straitened times, an ‘industry’ which isn’t even trying to make a profit is a tough sell. However, I would argue that it shouldn’t need to be ‘sold’ at all.

What we’re talking about here are minimum guarantees for basic rights, fair treatment and a decent standard of living. Not hand-outs, but protection from injustice and abuse of power. I’ve been lucky enough never to have had a bad experience with the criminal justice system, Centrelink or the Department of Human Services. I’ve never faced harassment in the workplace or domestic violence. Yet there are thousands of Australians for whom these kinds of things are daily occurrences.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, along with the ACT and Victorian Commissions, deal with people facing these kinds of problems all the time. They counsel, conciliate, and if need be go into bat in court – all in the name of seeing that governments, employers and others in positions of power uphold their obligations to treat people equitably and reasonably. Surely this is an essential function in a decent society.

Tasmania’s decision to defer the adoption of a Charter of Rights on the pretext of saving money is both regrettable and misguided. Human rights work is largely preventive. For example, if people can be helped out of precarious situations before they get involved with the criminal justice system, there are major social and monetary savings to be made.

Budgeting is always a question of balancing priorities, and I am not so naïve as to expect a human rights protections to trump, say, spending on infrastructure or health and education. However, they should at least be prioritised alongside funding for prosecutions and corrections. Even if the Attorney-General’s predictions of a cost of $1m per year for a Charter of Rights and Human Rights Commission were accurate (and the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner says it could be done more cheaply), this would represent just 0.0005% of the Government’s current expenditure on health and human services or 0.007% of its expenditure on law and justice.

In tough economic times, the potential for neglect of human rights only increases. In areas where there are significant business investments at stake, such as environmental protection or trade policy, no one questions the need for regulation or the independent advice and oversight which come from think tanks and ‘watchdogs.’ Yet when it comes to social policy and human rights in particular, there’s a prevailing ‘she’ll be right’ attitude in Australia which effectively means that it is much easier to ignore the concerns of the poor and the oppressed than those of the wealthy. I would urge decision-makers in Tasmania and elsewhere to reflect on this in future budget deliberations.

[Map source: Lonely Planet]

3 comments

  • Good post. Sadly, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) has also basically closed down. Although there’s no equivalent message from their board, I don’t think they have any staff or offices left. Sad for an organisation that played such a leading role in the development of ESC rights and in the role of NGOs in the treaty body process.

    On the main topic, while I agree with much of what you’ve said, it’s a more complex question. What if the choice is between implementing a human rights instrument such as the Charter and developing other specific legislation or programming in a way that is human rights compliant?

    A lot of work still needs to be done in considering how to measure impact of human rights instruments, and what our indicators of success are. As human rights advocates we have a long way to go to convince sceptical policy-makers and politicians. The flawed SARC report on the Charter Act show some of the difficulties here, and how these can be exploited for political purposes.

    • Hi Hugh. I am not sure whether it is actually possible to engage with most politicians and economic policy-makers on their own terms without reframing the argument for human rights work in a way which devalues it. Social and legal policy-makers are another matter, but it is the way of the world that the economic policy-makers tend to have the final say.

      Having said that, the ICHRP itself actually completed some very interesting work on assessing the impact of human rights work just before it closed – see: http://www.ichrp.org/en/projects/181.

      I also believe it is far more likely that a Government will develop legislation or programs in a human rights-compliant way if it is bound by law (or at least guidelines like the Commonwealth’s Framework) and has an independent organisation watching over it.

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