There’s been a lot of talk, anger and resistance to the changes of our rights and freedoms as Australia deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. In some way or another, each and every one of us has encountered restrictions – on our freedom of movement, the right to peaceful protest, the ability to engage in public areas without wearing masks and the requirement to provide personal information for the purpose of contact tracing.
Australians for the most part have been willing to “do the right thing”, guided by public health advice from federal, state and territory governments. Some have not. Some have acted through a sense of invulnerability, ignorance or simple stupidity.
Others have spoken about their rights. Some have even invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or other international human rights instruments in their refusal to follow public health directives.
Government measures in the interests of protecting the health of the entire community have sparked a range of conversations about our rights. And for the most part, I welcome these discussions. But there are some in our community who could benefit from a deeper understanding of our rights in general and about human rights in particular – and especially about what rights are protected, or not, under Australian law.
As president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, it seems to me this is a good time to clarify a few things.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, as a consequence of the atrocities of World War II. This was followed two decades later by two other major components of what is known as the International Bill of Rights – comprising of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Australia is a founding signatory to all these instruments. However, little has been done to enact the rights and freedoms protected by these instruments into Australian law. This means the rights and freedoms enshrined in these international human rights instruments are not directly enforceable in our justice system.
So there is much to be done in Australia in terms of translating these great commitments into Australian laws – hence the increasing discussion about the need for an Australian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But even if there were direct laws about rights, it doesn’t mean that everything is a right; nor does it mean that rights are unqualified. And all human rights come with the corresponding responsibility to respect the rights of others.
Rights such as freedom of movement and freedom of association are the kinds of rights that may be limited by clear laws, especially when it comes to issues of public health in responding to a serious threat to the health of the population or individual members of the population and the measures are aimed at addressing that threat.
Restricting these rights, such as not authorising the Black Lives Matter rally on Tuesday, should not be done lightly. Restrictions must be necessary to protect public health, with no other less restrictive alternatives being available.
However, wearing a mask as a public health measure is a legitimate requirement when framed in that context. It is a minimal intrusion on our rights and freedoms. In fact, wearing a mask is the very thing that will protect our rights and freedoms – especially our rights to life and health, and to avoid another widespread lockdown that restricts our movements and activities even further.
We must protect ourselves and be mindful of others in our community who are more vulnerable to the lethal reach of the COVID-19 Pandemic. It is about the rights of everyone; “all members of the human family” and “in a spirit of brotherhood”, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expresses it.
Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher is president of the Australian Human Rights Commission.