A maturing attitude to human rights

A decade after the ACT's Human Rights Act was legislated, ACT Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner DR HELEN WATCHIRS, MPubLaw '92, PhD '02 reflects on its impact.

This year, the ACT Human Rights Act celebrates its tenth birthday.

The legislation has already achieved much, but needs to mature further to reach its potential.

The ACT and Victoria are the only Australian jurisdictions to have enshrined the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights into domestic law.

A product of the Cold War, the treaty focuses on individual rights, such as the right to equality and freedom of expression, which were only part of the historic 1948 United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights.

Many of Australia's democratic allies have since adopted this instrument into their domestic law, including the UK, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and many countries in Europe.

The UN also adopted the corresponding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which contains group rights that are more concerned with those services that a government must provide for its residents, such as the rights to health, education, housing and work.

In 2013 the ACT followed the lead of the UK and South Africa and added the right to education to our legislation.

The ACT Human Rights Act requires everyone, including courts and tribunals, to interpret legislation consistently with these rights, and obliges ACT Public Authorities to act and make decisions consistently with human rights.

The Act's operational requirements have driven a gradual cultural change within ACT Government, but less so in the legal sector and broader community.

The Attorney-General must table an assessment of whether new laws introduced into the ACT Legislative Assembly are compatible with human rights.

Further, the Justice and Community Safety Committee of the Assembly scrutinises new bills for compatibility.

The Committee publicly reports on issues of concern and asks Ministers to address such issues.

Human rights issues raised by the Committee, the Human Rights Commission, non-government organisations, the media and others have resulted in tangible changes to ACT law, sometimes in the last moments of debate.