How are our human rights protected in law in Australia during COVID-19?
Existing laws continue to apply in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect people’s human rights. For example, people can bring complaints of discrimination or breaches of human rights to the Commission, or state and territory human rights and equal opportunity commissions if they are treated unlawfully.
Legal protections of human rights in Australia
Most Australians would be surprised to learn that there are very few direct legal protections of human rights in Australia.
Australia has laws to protect people against discrimination, but we don’t have laws throughout Australia that set down positively the rights and freedoms we should enjoy in Australia and what that should look like.
Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory have Human Rights Acts that require the governments in those places to act consistently with human rights and to fully consider human rights in law, policy and practice. No such law exists at the federal level or in other states and territories.
Australia is one of the only liberal democracies in the world that does not have its own Human Rights Act at the national level.
The Australian Human Rights Commission supports the introduction of a Human Rights Act in Australia to better protect the fundamental human rights of all people in Australia.
The Commission is currently undertaking a major project to identify what steps need to be taken to realise human rights for everyone in Australia. You can find out more about the Free and Equal project here.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which Australia helped draft) sets out guiding principles for human rights that have informed the development of international treaties Australia has signed, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
A Treaty is a binding agreement between countries. It creates obligations for the countries that sign it to protect and preserve human rights.
The Australian Government has agreed to uphold a number of human rights treaties including the:
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
- Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
- Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Treaties that have been committed to by Australia are legally binding on Australia in international law. However, there is a difference between Australia’s obligations to uphold human rights in international law and domestic law. Many of the human rights contained in international treaties that Australia has committed to have not been enacted into Australian law.
Every five years, the UN examines how well Australia is complying with its obligations under the treaties it has committed to. You can see their reports here.
To get a better understanding of how international human rights law works, why not take our FREE online course ‘An introduction to United Nations human rights frameworks’ ? (45 mins)
[Accessible version in preparation]
You can find out more about how the Commission engages internationally and with the UN on our website.