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APS Human Rights Network - Speech by Prof. Gillian Triggs (2012)

Commission Commission – General

APS Human Rights Network

Professor Gillian Triggs,
President, Australian Human Rights Commission

Monday, 29 October 2012


May I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land and on which we now gather. I pay my respects to elders, past and present. It is also a pleasure to be here in the Old Parliament House where the human rights treaties were first approved for acceptance by Australia.

Thank you to the Attorney-General’s Department for co-hosting today’s meeting of the Australian Public Service Human Rights Network with the Commission. I would also like to acknowledge my fellow speakers: Harry Jenkins, Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, and Mark Ney, Manager of Learning and Development for the Australian Federal Police.

As the new President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, I am pleased to be here today and to introduce myself to the Australian Public Service Human Rights Network.  

This is an especially appropriate time to the launch the joint publication of the Attorney-General’s Department and the AHRC, Human Rights at your Fingertips, as Australia has successfully gained a two year seat on the UN Security Council. We will now be better able to build on our reputation as a good international citizen by strengthening the UN human rights complaints processes and to advance human rights protection internationally, regionally and at home.

When considering the development of human rights by the international community over the last nearly seventy years, it is fair to say that Australia has played a significant role in negotiating the seven treaties and Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that are listed in the handbook.

Australia has long been engaged with developing human rights law. In the 1940s, our minister for foreign affairs, the brilliant, if outspoken Dr HV Evatt was a champion of the smaller nations, arguing against the veto power in the UN Charter. He was the president of the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted unanimously; setting the benchmark for human rights for the next decades.

Supporting the efforts of Doc Evatt were other notable Australians—the ‘peppery and aggressive’ Colonel Roy Hodgson, who was on the Drafting Committee for a Bill of Rights, and Jessie Street, the only woman on the  Australian delegation to establish the UN in 1945.

Since those days, Australia has actively worked to build human rights law through negotiation of the major human rights treaties and the UN Treaty Committees and, more recently, the Human Rights Council.

APS Human Rights Network

Important though the articulation of human rights law has been, it is axiomatic that implementation of that law in practice depends largely on education. It is for this reason that the Human Rights Network is such a vital initiative. The Network provides an open forum for government officers to discuss human rights issues, to share their experiences, and to support each other in applying human rights in their day-to-day work.

The way that public servants do their job—whether drafting laws and policies, making administrative decisions, or delivering services—can have a significant impact on the human rights of an individual or a group, or on the way particular rights are protected and fulfilled in Australia. You are all essential actors in shaping Australia’s human rights landscape and the day-to-day experience of human rights for everyone in Australia.

Impact of Teoh’s case

In recognising the central role of public officials in giving practical effect to human rights, it might be useful to recall the decision of the High Court of Australia in Minister of State for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs v Teoh in 1995.

The case concerned a Malaysian citizen who came to Australia on a temporary entry permit in 1988. Teoh formed a relationship with an Australian woman and her children and had three more children with her. He made an application for full resident status that was denied by the Immigration Review Panel on the ground that Teoh had recently been convicted for importing heroin.

He appealed against an order for deportation on the ground that the best interests of his children, as a primary consideration under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC), meant that he should be allowed to remain with his family in Australia.

Teoh’s case ultimately reached the High Court of Australia where a majority of the Court, including the Chief Justice Mason, found that Teoh had been denied natural justice. Most importantly, the High Court found that ratification of CROC created a ‘legitimate expectation’ that administrative decision-makers will act in conformity with the treaty.

The thrust of the Court’s judgment was that officials are required to take into account of, or have regard to, treaties to which Australia is a party, even where Parliament has yet to provide legislation implementing the treaty obligations in domestic law.
While the High Court has since been critical of the reasoning in Teoh, the judgement remains a powerful illustration of the need for public officials to be informed about international human rights agreements to which Australia is a party.

The gap between international human rights and Australian law

The Teoh case  also  illustrates the longstanding ‘disconnect’ between international human rights law and Australian law, for treaties such as CROC have not been given legislative force in domestic law.

In short, as CROC is not directly part of Australian law, it cannot provide a sword for a complainant to gain judicial determination of his human rights in a court. Rather, the Australian Human Right’s Commission’s statute includes this Convention as one of the benchmarks against which we can monitor the implementation of human rights in Australian law and administration.

Australia’s Human Rights Framework and education

This network builds on the priorities set out in the Australia’s Human Rights Framework, which has brought welcome and unprecedented attention to human rights education in Australia. The framework promotes human rights education—in schools, in the community and in the Australian Public Service—as a critical step to improving the protection and promotion of human rights in Australia.

The focus on public sector human rights education includes the ongoing development of human rights education materials and training on how human rights relate to the work of public servants.

The development of these materials has become even more important since the enactment late last year of the Human Rights Parliamentary Scrutiny Act 2011. This Act means that there is now a formal requirement to ensure that human rights are considered in the drafting of laws and policies and that all laws and policies (both new and old) are human rights compliant. I will leave further discussion of the role of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights to Mr Harry Jenkins, who will speak shortly.

Today I am very pleased to be launch one of these resources, which seeks to better equip public servants with the ability to protect, respect and fulfil human rights in their work.

Human right at your fingertips

Human right at your fingertips is a pocket guide for public servants, which provides quick and easy reference to Australia’s core human rights obligations.

Human right at your fingertips contains the full text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – as well as the seven international human rights treaties ratified by Australia and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The pocket guide also provides a table summarising the articles related to each right across the instruments.

The seven treaties included in this booklet are the binding agreements signed by the Australian Government, which create legal obligations under international law. Australia’s commitment to respecting and protecting the rights contained in these seven core treaties was also explicitly affirmed in the Human Rights Framework.

Also included are the Paris Principles relating to the status of national institutions which provide guidance on the attributes of independent, robust national human rights institutions – of which the Australian Human Rights Commission has long been a leading example.

Human right at your fingertips is not a definitive guide to human rights – there are further human rights declarations, conventions, interpretive general comments and international jurisprudence which can be applied in your work.  However, this guidebook details Australia’s core legally binding obligations, which will be particularly helpful in developing public policy, programs, and Statements of Compatibility on human rights when drafting legislation.

This guidebook seeks to complement further resources being developed as part of the Human Rights Framework, including the e-learning module for public servants, which will also be launched today.

We hope that these resources support you in the development of public policy, programs and legislation and contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights in Australia.

Professor Gillian Triggs, President

See Also

Commission Commission – General

Bystanders must join fight against bullying (2011)

The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.