A number of Christians are concerned about human rights, and in particular are critical of a proposal for a Federal ‘Charter’ of Rights (or, ‘Human Rights Act’). Some of the main concerns are:
- Human rights ‘instruments’ (such as Charters or Bills of Rights) promote ideological agendas which undermine the expression of faith (and the general good order and health of society);
- Contemporary human rights are driven by special interest groups and are too frequently played out in the context of courts (which are ill-equipped to handle the social issues being raised);
- An over-reliance on ‘rights-talk’ erodes community cohesion and promotes a culture of individual self-entitlement.
These are important claims, and are deeply felt by many. Human rights are an inescapable part of today’s debates and practical efforts to assist people in need. Many Christians and Christian-based agencies are very involved in human rights issues ‘on the ground’, both here and overseas. At a practical level, then, human rights overlap to some extent with the central call of Scripture to love our neighbour. At the same time, there is a high degree of uncertainty and confusion about human rights generally and how it is they can or should be further promoted in this country. IsaiahOne hopes you find this website a helpful resource for evaluating the hotly debated issues around a complex and yet deeply important issue for all of us.
Some Christians or Churches are suspicious of the United Nations and its work in promoting human rights. One example of this was the evangelical opposition against signing the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990). This opposition was a factor in the United States deciding not to ratify the Convention. Today, the United States sits alongside Somalia as the only UN members not to have signed the Convention. But what value did the Convention have for children? To find out read this article showing how Christian agencies and organisations have used the Convention to support their work fighting child exploitation, child pornography, child slavery and more…
A number of concerns have been raised over the introduction of a Federal Charter of Rights. We at IsaiahOne don’t hold a utopian vision of what a Charter of Rights can achieve. Nevertheless, many of the concerns circulating in the church are based on misunderstandings.
Claim: Most Australians don’t want a Charter of Rights. (suggesting its introduction would be ‘undemocratic’)
An AC Nielsen poll in February 2009 found 81% of Australians favoured new laws protecting human rights. The National Human Rights Consultation was one of largest public consultation ever in Australia, with over 35,000 public submissions, 66 public round-tables involving more than 6,000 people in all areas of the country. The Consultation also commissioned a representative national poll which found that the majority of Australians want a Human Rights Act, whilst only a small percentage are opposed.
Claim: Human rights don’t guarantee the rights of the vulnerable.
This criticism sets an impossible target for success. No system can guarantee everyone’s rights. The question is what we should do with the failings under the existing system. Although some point out that countries such as Zimbabwe or the former Soviet Union which have / had a Bill of Rights, such examples are meaningless. Bills of rights require healthy and robust democratic institutions to back them, they don’t operate in isolation.
Claim: A Charter or Bill of Rights is an arbitrary collection of values ‘of the moment’
The proposed Federal Charter, like its state counterparts already in existence, would be based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which itself is directly drawn from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights put together in 1948 (“Declaration”). The Declaration is a collection and summary of the basic values and principles of Western democratic society over several centuries, plus the input from the major faith traditions, including the bible. The Declaration (and a Charter based on it) is a summary of long-standing, cherished values and ideas, such as Jesus’ words to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.
Claim: A Charter of Rights will lead to Victorian-style religious vililfication laws.
Critics of a Charter more often insinuate, rather than directly state, a link between a Charter and legislations such as Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (RRT). The obfuscation is understandable since the RRT legislation was conceived in 1999 and passed in 2001. The Victorian Charter wasn’t passed till 6 years later and only came into effect in 2007. A Charter can hardly be responsible for something which happened before it existed!
Claim: Religious freedoms will be under immediate threat if a Federal Charter of Rights is enacted.
This progostication is speculative and lacks any concrete examples in the two Australian jurisdictions which already have Charters, the ACT and Victoria. After 5 years of the ACT Charter and in the third year of the Victorian there has been no case of religious freedoms being withdrawn through the operation of the Charters. There is simply no evidence, only speculation.
Claim: Australia’s freedoms are protected by the common law.
This claim simply ignores the well documented failures of the common law system, particularly for the more vulnerable members of our society. Overlooking such problems seems at odds with the Bible’s repeated exhortations to be on active watch for the welfare of the vulnerable.
Claim: Our common laws do a better job protecting rights than places which have human rights laws (ie. every other advanced democracy in the world).
This claim needs specific examples for evidence. Some point to the harsh UK anti-terrorism legislation. Since ours is allegedly less harsh this is proof that bills of rights don’t protect us better than just the common law. But comparing Australia with the UK on terrorism is unfair. The UK has experienced a major terrorist attack (7/7 attacks on London’s public transport), several major close calls and has a much larger radicalised Muslim population than Australia. The political pressures on lawmakers are very different. Some also say the UK continues to hold children in detention while Australia doesn’t. Whether or not the UK does hold children in detention is uncertain. What is certain is that Australia continues to do this. The only change to July 2009 under the new government is that children aren’t kept in prison-type facilities. But they are still held in detention facilities and still kept isolated from the community, support services and family members. Some have pointed to the US Bill of Rights’ failure to prevent slavery and racial segregation. But those practices were overcome by using the US’ Bill of Rights, as Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech makes clear. Bills of rights don’t operate apart from cultural norms and attitudes, it is demanding too much to expect them to be able to have immediately vetoed slavery or entrenched racial attitudes in the US. On the other hand it can be argued that they helped in the process leading towards better racial equality. For example in the case Loving v. Virginia, miscegenation was struck down by the courts on the basis of the right to equality as expressed in the US Bill of Rights. At the time this was against the majority view in Virginia as in many of the Southern states.