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For human rights a focus on free speech is far too narrow.

December 19, 2013

The appointment of Tim Wilson as a Freedom Commissioner to the Australian Human Rights Commission has seen interesting and at times vociferous responses.

There are a number of apparent hypocrisies in Tim Wilson being appointed to this position, with a number of previous statements and a tweet seemingly at odds with his new role.

In the last 48 hours the left and the right have traded insults and barbs, but very little of it has been constructive. It’s a shame that this outrage and these interchanges haven’t prompted a larger discussion on human rights, because it is a discussion that is sorely needed.

On the appointment Attorney General George Brandis stated:
“The appointment of Mr Wilson to this important position will help to restore balance to the Australian Human Rights Commission which, during the period of the Labor government, had become increasingly narrow and selective in its view of human rights.”

I happen to agree with Mr Brandis, but not in the way he would hope. Mr Wilson’s appointment suggests a focus on free speech which is far too narrow.

An increasingly narrow and selective view of human rights is a charge that can be laid upon both the ALP and the Coalition. It is a charge that can laid at the feet of all Australians because for too long we have focused too narrowly on a range of human rights.

Human Rights have evolved and been written down, expanded and been written down, and evolved still further throughout history. From the Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights, to the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we have sought to determine our human rights.

I wonder how many people have read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? In the past two days I have refreshed my knowledge, and found myself asking questions of myself and our society. How many of the human rights asserted in this document do we uphold today? There are a few I can point out where human rights are under threat.

Article 1.

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

It seems so simple and straightforward, but too often our laws suppose we cannot act with reason and conscience. This is most apparent with women being denied the ability to make decisions about their own procreation, with abortion still in the criminal code of many states.

Article 12.

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Interference with privacy is all too apparent, with evidence of of the PRISM project snooping on Australian communication/correspondence. Attacks on honour and reputation are all too clear in Andrew Bolt’s now infamous attacks on fair skinned aborigines accusing them of being professional aborigines.

Article 16.

  • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

Marriage is a clearly defined human right yet marriage is currently denied to same sex couples in Australia. Arguably this limitation is due to the religious beliefs of others.  We know the majority of Australians support marriage equality, so come on, let’s just get this done.

The preceding examples are not that controversial. At least I don’t expect much debate to result, compared to the next clause and my accompanying observations.

Article 22.

  • Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Does this sound meaty to you? It does to me. It looks ripe for disagreement.
As a member of society? Why not as an individual?
National effort? Sounds large and bulky.
Economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for dignity?
What does one consider to be indispensable? What does one consider to be dignity?

Article 23.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Favourable conditions of work? Gina Rinehart’s blood pressure would sky rocket just thinking about it.
The right to equal pay for equal work? Clearly we have a problem evidenced by the gender pay gap.
Favourable remuneration? Someone better check on Gina to ensure she hasn’t had a coronary.
An existence worthy of human dignity? That word dignity again.
Other means of social protection? What could they have in mind?

Article 25.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Do we uphold this standard for all Australians? With our numbers of homeless, long waiting lists for surgery and lack of dental health?
Security in the event of unemployment? Newstart is woefully incapable of providing short term security, let alone for those who are long term unemployed.
Security in the event of disability? We have barely begun to implement a National Disability Insurance Scheme and it’s already under threat of funding cuts.

Article 26.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  • (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

It is questionable that our higher education is equally accessible to all on the basis of merit, especially when access to quality secondary education isn’t equally accessible.
Education shall be directed… to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms? Given so many leave school with no concept of respect for the lives of others some suggest ethics and civics classes are sorely needed in schools, but “freedom lovers” in the IPA may suggest that such an education is an intrusion by the state.

I’ve raised many questions and many more could be raised. I’m sure many will disagree with me but if we think back to Mr Brandis suggesting that our view of human rights has been too narrow, there are plenty of areas in which we can look to expand it. His statement and Mr Wilson’s appointment suggests a focus on free speech which is far too narrow.

We should look towards expanding human rights in our society to provide that everyone can enjoy the benefits of our society. An enriched individual, enjoying more of the benefits of society will be more productive, and contribute more in return. Let’s call it value adding. That should appeal to the economic rationalists.

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