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Human Rights 21: Change and challenges

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Change and challenges

HREOC offers extraordinary support and the possibility of redress to those pushed to the edges of our society. The rigor and innovation of its staff and the quality policy work, inquiries, reports and educational programs have given visibility to critical social issues and informed our democracy. Australia's history as a global human rights advocate owes much to HREOC's achievements and reputation.
Andrea Durbach, Director, Australasian Human Rights Centre

HREOC was established on 10 December 1986 (International Human Rights Day) as Australia’s national human rights watchdog.

With an expanded complaint handling role and a major focus on research and education, HREOC replaced the previous Human Rights Commission, which had operated essentially as a part-time body since 1981.

Three full-time Commissioners were appointed to the new organisation – a Human Rights Commissioner, Race Discrimination Commissioner and Sex Discrimination Commissioner – along with a part-time President.

Based in Sydney, the organisation was given statutory responsibilities under the the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (the RDA), the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (the SDA) and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 (now known as the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986), which allows HREOC to receive complaints and monitor Australia’s performance under international human rights standards.

Over the next 21 years HREOC’s role and workload grew markedly. Following are some of the major organisational and legislative milestones.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is established (10 December).

The Privacy Act 1988 comes into force on 1 January. The position of Privacy Commissioner is created within HREOC.

Ten additional grounds of discrimination in employment, including age, are added under the International Labour Organisation Convention (ILO 111), increasing the number of, or grounds for, complaints to HREOC.

The RDA is amended to explicitly protect people against indirect discrimination.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 comes into force. The position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner is created within HREOC.

The position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner is created within HREOC. The Commissioner is given the role to monitor and report on the human rights situation of Indigenous Australians, as well as the operation of the Native Title Act.

The SDA is amended to make dismissal on the grounds of family responsibilities against the law and to provide protection against sexual harassment in a broader range of areas.

HREOC is given responsibility to monitor Australia’s performance under the newly-ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

The High Court decides in the Brandy case that HREOC does not have the power to make legally binding determinations in complaints of unlawful discrimination.

The RDA is amended to make racial vilification against the law.

HREOC hosts the inaugural meeting of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions in Darwin. The APF Secretariat is based in HREOC.
HREOC begins an on-going technical co-operation program on human rights with China.

HREOC’s role of hearing complaints of unlawful discrimination is transferred to the Federal Court and the Federal Magistrates Service. HREOC Commissioners are given the role to appear as ‘amicus curiae’ (‘friend of the court’) in relevant cases before the Courts.

An Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, separate from HREOC, is created.

The Age Discrimination Act 2004 comes into force – an outcome HREOC has been working towards since 1992.
The Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination is appointed.
20th anniversary of the Human Rights Medal and Awards.


The defence of human rights is by its nature never a popular task. HREOC has a daunting job, as successive Commissioners have found, but we have been fortunate that the character of those appointed has been such that they have carried out their work with courage and without (apparent) fear or favour. The Hon. Fred Chaney - Director of Reconciliation Australia

For more information on the history of HREOC see

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