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COVID-19 information

Commission Commission – General
Tuesday 5 May, 2020

Australian Human Rights Commission

Human Rights

  • Q. Why are human rights important now?

    The COVID-19 pandemic is a global challenge that has required extraordinary measures to protect the rights to life and health.

    Human rights are always important, but particularly in times of crisis when uncertainty and fear can spread, significant decisions are necessarily made in haste and previously untested policy solutions are implemented.

    It is more important than ever that decision-makers keep human rights front of mind to ensure health, welfare and economic measures respect people’s inherent dignity and are equitable. Particular attention must be paid to upholding the rights and dignity of those who may be disproportionately at-risk to adverse impacts from the crisis.

  • Q. Are restrictions on human rights acceptable?

    Most human rights are not absolute. There are situations where human rights come into conflict and it may be necessary to restrict some rights for a greater benefit.

    Human rights law sets out specific requirements to be met in this situation.

    In times of national emergency or public health crisis, for example, it is permitted to restrict people’s rights. This includes by introducing restrictions on movement and association, as we are seeing now.

    Any limitations on human rights must be:

    • necessary and proportionate to the evaluated risk
    • the minimum restriction that is necessary to address the emergency
    • clearly set out through law
    • in place for the shortest time possible to address the emergency situation
    • applied equitably and without discrimination

     

  • Q. What is a human rights-based approach to crisis response?

    Human rights provide a framework to help navigate complex situations, like the one we're in now, by showing how people are affected. Using human rights as a guide, we can ensure that responses to the crisis put human life and dignity first.

    A human rights-based approach should include the following elements:

    • Transparency in government decision-making: governments should consider the human rights impacts of their decisions and explain any necessary breaches of people’s rights, and the remedies provided.
    • Accountability of government: mechanisms to monitor government actions against human rights standards.
    • Participatory approaches: to ensure people affected by government decisions are given a voice in identifying solutions.
    • A non-discriminatory approach to public policy and law: to ensure government actions treat people equally, while also considering the specific needs of people who are disadvantaged.
    • Promotes a forward-looking approach: by aspiring to achieve human rights to their maximum, governments are required to think about the future that they are looking to foster for the community.
    • Builds the capacity across the community to deliver human rights: and supports community driven action[i].

    The United Nations Secretary General has also released a set of six human rights messages to guide the response to this crisis. They are:

    1. “Protecting people’s lives is the priority; protecting livelihoods helps us do it”
    2. “The virus does not discriminate; but its impacts do”
    3. “Involve everyone in your response”
    4. “The threat is the virus, not the people”
    5. “No country can beat this alone”
    6. “When we recover, we must be better than we were before”

    You can read more about the Secretary-General’s message, including the full policy brief, here.

     

    [i] Adapted from Australian Human Rights Commission, Free and Equal Issues Paper 2019 (April 2019). At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/ahrc_free_equal_issues_paper_2019_final.pdf

  • Q. What oversight is in place for parliamentary activity during this time?

    It is crucial during this period that there is continued government oversight to ensure unnecessary or unjustifiable breaches of human rights do not occur.

    Mechanisms in place to help hold government to account include:

The Australian Government COVIDSafe App and privacy 

Discrimination and impacts of Covid-19 on particular groups

Health

Police, detention and justice

  • Q. What additional powers do police have and what are my rights?

    Some states and territories have made different rules about what you can and can’t do during the emergency and are using different methods to enforce those rules, including by giving police new powers. You can find more information about the rules in your state or territory at the following links:

    Regardless of what rules are in place, you have the right to be treated with respect and dignity in all interactions with Police.

    You have the right not to be discriminated against for any reason, including on the basis of sex, age, race or disability.

    You also have the right to be informed what the police powers are during this time, and to expect they will be applied fairly and consistently.

    The powers must be proportionate and used by police only to the extent necessary to prevent the virus spreading.

  • Q. Who should I contact if I have concerns about my treatment by police?

    Particularly during times of crisis and when police have been granted increased powers, processes for handling complaints when there is police misconduct must be independent, impartial, timely and must hold police misconduct to account.

    You can find more information about where to make a complaint about police misconduct in your state or territory at the links below:

  • Q. What are the risks to people in detention at this time?

    Adequate physical distancing may not possible in crowded detention facilities, such as immigration detention facilities, prisons, police lockups and jails. Many people in detention are also vulnerable due to existing chronic health conditions.

    The Commission acknowledges the work of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee in providing advice to the Government on preventing and managing a potential outbreak of COVID-19 in detention settings.

    Public health experts, including the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases (ASID) and the Australian College of Infection Prevention and Control (ACIPC), have advised that an effective response to protect the health of people in immigration detention and the broader community requires the release of people who do not pose significant security or health risks into the community. In March, the Human Rights Commissioner wrote to the Department of Home Affairs to request urgent action to implement this advice.

    While people remain in detention, they must have access to adequate healthcare and hygiene facilities.

    The Human Rights Commission supports the advice of Australia’s health experts. It is critical that the health and human rights of vulnerable people in detention are protected.

  • Q. Who can I contact about mistreatment or conditions in detention?

    If you have concerns about your own or someone else’s treatment or conditions in prison or youth justice centres, you can contact the Ombudsman in your state or territory:
     

    If you have concerns about your own or someone else’s treatment or conditions in detention please contact The Australian Human Rights Commission on 1300 656 419 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday between the hours of 11.30am to 1.30pm EST or email us at any time on infoservice@humanrights.gov.au. You can also contact the Commonwealth Ombudsman at https://www.ombudsman.gov.au/contact or on 1300 362 072.

    People in immigration detention can also contact the Australian Red Cross via the information on their website here.

  • Q. I am currently in detention, what rights do I have regarding visitors?

    To help stop the spread of COVID-19 and ensure vulnerable members of the prison population are protected, many states and territories have stopped allowing social or family visitors to their detention facilities.

    The Commission welcomes reports of initiatives to ensure people in detention can maintain social and family connections via video and phone.

    In detention, you have the right to be treated with respect and dignity and must not face unreasonable restrictions on corresponding with your friends and family.

  • Q. I’m in quarantine in a hotel, what are my rights?

    Some people are currently being quarantined in hotels for 14 days after returning from overseas to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

    Other than restrictions on movement necessary to ensure public health, you should be able to access all other rights as you would if you were quarantined in your own home.

    You should still have enough nutritious food, access to hygiene facilities and the ability to contact your friends and family.

    You are also entitled to full information about why you are being detained and how long for. You are still entitled to seek independent legal and medical advice.

    You are still entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.

  • Q. My court hearing has been moved to a virtual format. What are my rights?

    Some Australian courts have begun conducting virtual hearings to help stop the spread of COVID-19. These include hearings using audio and audio-visual software.

    There is evidence that virtual hearings can have a disproportionately negative impact on people with a disability, particularly those with a cognitive impairment, mental health condition and/or neurodiverse condition, and their ability to seek justice.

    There are also concerns about privacy, confidentiality and the ability of defendants to privately communicate with their legal representation.

    Courts must continue to ensure participants in virtual court proceedings have accessible information about their rights, including their right to raise concerns about their participation.

  • Q. My jury trial or hearing has been moved to judge only. Is this allowed?

    The Commission is concerned that measures introduced by courts in some states and territories to help stop the spread of COVID-19 may affect the right to access a fair trial. This includes measures to halt all new jury trials and have trials presided over by a judge alone.

    In many states and territories, protections are in place to ensure the consent of all parties, including the accused, before a trial by judge alone can occur. All states and territories must ensure appropriate protections are in place to protect the right to access a fair trial.

    The Commission will continue to monitor developments in this area.

Travel and other restrictions

Employment, Housing and Business

  • Q. What rights do I have to safe work environments during the pandemic?

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, and always, employees have the right to be free from discrimination. These rights are protected under Australia’s anti-discrimination laws.

    Understandably, there are concerns about potential risks to the safety and wellbeing of frontline workers, including those working in health, education, transport, food and retail. All employees, regardless of their occupation, have the right to healthy and safe work environments. There must be accessible avenues for employees to raise concerns about unsafe practices or environments and employers must work in consultation with employees to identify and implement measures to address risks.

    Employers can alter an employee’s duties during the COVID-19 pandemic but only to the extent that employees are qualified for the task.

    You can find more information on your rights at work during the pandemic at Safe Work Australia here.

    The Fair Work Ombudsman also has specific information for migrant workers and visa holders here.

  • Q. I lost my job due to impacts from COVID-19, what support is available?

     

    The Australian Government has announced a range of measures to provide additional financial support to Australian citizens and permanent residents during this crisis.

    The Commission welcomes the introduction of:

    • the JobKeeper Payment, which supports businesses to continue to pay their employees some or all of their regular wages if a number of criteria are met
    • the temporary COVID-19 supplement to the JobSeeker (formerly ‘Newstart’) Payment, Youth Allowance JobSeeker Payment, Parenting Payment, Farm Household Allowance, Special Benefit and the Abstudy, Austudy and Youth Allowance for Payments for full-time students
    • the one-off stimulus payments for veteran income support recipients and eligible concession card holders

    To see what support you may be eligible for, visit Services Australia who provide information on all payments available for individuals and families affected by the pandemic here.

    Social supports must be made available to everyone living in our communities, including those on temporary visas. The Human Rights Commissioner has written to the Home Affairs Minister and the Minister for Families and Social Services to request they use new discretionary powers under the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Act 2020 (Cth) to extend the safety net to all people in Australia.

    The Commission commends initiatives from many states and territories to provide financial and other support to international students and those on temporary visas.

    Other financial support resources include:

    • The Money Smart website which has helpful information for people affected financially by COVID-19, including insurance, financial hardship provisions and financial counselling. Their website is https://moneysmart.gov.au/covid-19
    • The National Debt Helpline provides free community-based financial counselling, you can call them on 1800 007 007
    • The Australian government has also recently announced new provisions for people who have been financially affected by COVID-19 to access their superannuation funds early. Please refer to the Australian Tax Office’s website to find out more about this, and whether these provisions could extend to you
  • Q. I rent my home, what are my rights and what rental support is available?

    At the end of March, all Australian states and territories agreed to a six-month freeze on all evictions. You should not be facing eviction from your rental property during this time.

    This freeze has been implemented in different ways in different states and territories. There have also been different approaches to the type and nature of support available for residential tenants and landlords facing financial hardship during the pandemic.

    You may be able to access rental assistance and other types of support and assistance through Services Australia. You can find more information here.

    Services with information about other support available in your state include:

    If you are at risk of homelessness, you may also wish to seek help from a homelessness support service. You can find a national directory at: https://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/are-you-experiencing-homelessness

  • Q. Do businesses have to respect human rights during Covid-19?

    The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) are the recognised global standard for preventing and addressing business-related human rights harm. The UNGPs provide that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, including in times of crisis. Meeting this responsibility means businesses take steps to assess and address the human rights harms they may cause or contribute to though their activities, or are directly linked to through their supply chains.

    COVID-19 has elevated the risk of certain business-related human rights breaches, including failure to provide a safe and healthy work environment or work practices, or unlawful discrimination against employees in relation to conditions or termination of employment. Globally COVID-19 is also disproportionately affecting vulnerable and precarious workers due to factory shutdowns, order cancellations, workforce reductions and supply chain disruptions. Australian Border Force has prepared a factsheet for businesses reporting under the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) about how to reduce the risk of vulnerable workers in their operations and supply chains becoming exposed to modern slavery as a result of COVID-19.

    For information on how business can meet their responsibility to respect human rights in their activities and supply chains in the COVID-19 context, see: