By Professor the Hon Kevin Bell AM QC, incoming Director of Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Faculty of Law, Monash University
My first official external appearance as the incoming Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law will be this Wednesday, 29 April 2020. It will be before the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System as an invited expert witness on the human rights of people living with mental illness. I am very proud and excited to be appearing in that capacity, on that subject and before that Commission. By way of an opening message to the followers of the Castan Centre, allow me to explain why I have such strong feelings about the occasion.
I won’t hide my gratitude for being appointed as Director of the Castan Centre. Professor Sarah Joseph, the former director, and her colleagues deserve our sincere congratulations for building up the human rights powerhouse that we all see and support today. The current Newsletter is testament enough to that. Monash University and the Faculty of Law deserve our sincere thanks for their past and future commitment to this unique blend of research, public education and policy formulation about human rights implementation at a high level. From this foundation, we can take the Castan Centre to an even higher level in all three spheres of its mission, remembering that maintenance of a first-class research effort is indispensable. Developing expertise through the hard research slog, sharing the results with the community in an accessible way and defending and promoting human rights through official appearances and submissions from this foundation. This is what we do and what I will be doing when I appear before the Commission this Wednesday.
The subject of human rights and mental health is very close to my heart, as it is to everyone who is focused upon the rights of the most vulnerable. My family has personal experience with this issue, as I shared in the speech that I gave at my judicial farewell. So many families have that experience. I have a strong conviction that people living with mental illness need strong human rights – both the civil and political rights and the economic, cultural and social rights. They are usually more vulnerable than others to discrimination, lack of adequate health care and denial of personal agency and autonomy. Their capacity for realising their full human potential is often denied and not often enough supported. When people living with mental illness have other kinds of disadvantage, as they often do, their vulnerability is aggravated.
I am concerned about how some people living with mental illness are being treated during the COVID-19 emergency, especially those confined to their rooms in closed mental health facilities, prisons and other places of detention, and particularly those in developing countries, where the conditions can be even more dire. We should shout from the rooftops whenever we can to defend and promote the human rights of people living with mental illness, as I will be (well, maybe not shouting) this Wednesday.
The Royal Commission is into Victoria’s mental health system. Having regard to Australia’s international obligations and the Victorian Charter, this necessarily involves examination of human rights. Providers of public mental health services have human rights obligations as state agencies under international law and public authorities under the Charter, as do private providers operating under public contracts.
The list of questions that I have been sent by the Commission demonstrates a deep knowledge of the connection between the mental health system and the human rights of people living with mental illness. I am familiar with similar work being undertaken in other jurisdictions and I would describe the Commission’s understanding of the issues raised by this connection, as revealed in the questions, as cutting-edge. The Commission is clearly giving serious consideration to the many submissions that have been made drawing attention to the importance of human rights, including that of the Castan Centre.
As the new Director, Wednesday’s appearance presents me with a golden opportunity to give expert evidence on behalf of the Centre about how a re-shaped mental health system can better treat and support those living with mental illness and how human rights offer valuable insights into ways of doing so that respect dignity, agency and autonomy and help individuals to flourish and realise their full potential This is more important in contemporary circumstances than ever.
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