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What difference could a human rights framework make?

Human Rights on the ground in SA – what difference could a human rights framework make? 

Rights Resource Network SA: International Human Rights Day Event 
‘Time for a Human Rights Framework for South Australia?’ 

Address by Ross Womersley, SACOSS CEO 
December 10 2020 

Why is SACOSS interested in this question?  

As many of you know, the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) is the overarching peak body for the non-government health and community services sector.  In that capacity, we work with organisations on the ground who on a daily basis are working to help people to access justice, opportunity, and a share in the wealth of this country, in order to realise people’s right to live a decent life. 

In fact, we reject the need for anyone to live in poverty in Australia today. To this end, we undertake a range of policy and advocacy work in areas that specifically affect the lives of people experiencing poverty, disadvantage, injustice and more often than not, people living on low incomes.  In that context, we do think that a human rights framework could be helpful.  Let’s explore why…? 

Because, while often not framed this way, poverty is a key human rights issue  

Working to eradicate poverty is inherently about working towards realising people’s human rights. Poverty is multi-dimensional and about more than just the income that comes into households. Poverty affects people’s access to health, housing, education, justice, employment and social connection, and participation. It is not only about economic deprivation; it’s also about a violation of human dignity and an undermining of the human decency and compassion we should all show each other.  

Ultimately, the persistent presence of poverty in our society reflects the devalued status of those people and a comprehensive disregard for their human rights.   

Moreover, for anyone experiencing poverty and operating in survival mode, the realisation of their human rights is typically not front and centre. In fact, their focus is highly likely to be on their daily survival and in that context, they may be subject to and endure extremely poor treatment – thus have many of their rights violated.  It’s one thing to declare that people have a right to justice, it’s another to be struggling to make ends meet and simply not have the wherewithal to act on your rights.  

Structural inequality – resulting in discrimination, poverty and desperation – contributes to the undermining of human rights, while also being a consequence of repeated human rights violations. 

COVID-19, income insecurity and human rights  

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has made most of us realise just how precarious our job and income security can be, and thus, how vulnerable our lives might be. I count myself as very fortunate to have a level of job security that so many other people don’t. 

The pandemic has also brought into stark relief the extent to which some people's human rights are being realised or disregarded. Think for just one second what many older people or people living with disability felt, as public and medical discourse saw them being sent to the bottom of the ladder in discussions about who might have priority access to a ventilator?  

And what about those who are forced into dangerous insecure work? Pre-pandemic Australia already had one of the highest rates of insecure work in the world, and with one in three workers not eligible for sick leave during the pandemic, that’s a pool of 2.1 million workers who had no choice but to work during a pandemic, even if they’re feeling ill. Possibly even more terrifying is the number of gig economy workers who we see increasingly are losing their lives in the course of undertaking their work.  

As Sally McManus, ACTU Secretary, observed in her address to the National Press Conference on 2 Dec 2020: “this situation doesn’t happen by accident – it’s by design.”  

On the other hand, the pandemic also brought some people who had been struggling to find work the first real increase in income in many years, as overnight, the government moved to implement the JobSeeker Coronavirus Supplement.  For those people this was momentarily incredibly liberating, and for just a few months they were able to feel more secure about their ability to put food on the table, to care for their children, to take care of their health.   

The great travesty, of course, is that as we speak, that supplement is being reduced and the JobSeeker payment is on track to be back below the poverty line by early in the new year.   

Poverty does not have to be an inevitable feature of our social system.  

As has been illustrated with measures like the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement or indeed JobKeeper payments, enabling poverty and in fact driving people into poverty, is a conscious choice that our country and our socio-economic system makes. We can, in fact, overcome poverty and also inequality. And there is no doubt in my mind that this could indeed be supported by adopting a Human Rights Framework within SA.  

A few cautionary notes to consider as we look to chase the human rights dream

The development/adoption of a Human Rights Framework needs to be accompanied by a strong cautionary note or two.  

While a Human Rights Framework would act as a lever, on its own and in the absence of sustained pressure and being held accountable by those on the ground, the danger exists that a Framework could become another document on a shelf. For genuine progress, we would need a human rights culture to be embraced and enacted across the community and a series of initiatives that create genuine transparency and accountability, put in place. 

The importance of continuing to building connection/community:  

In this context it’s essential that we continue to build our social connections, community organisations and movements who will continue to challenge inequality and not give up on advocating for accountability and fairness from those who hold the reins of power. We cannot simply rely on a Human Rights Framework to do the work for us BUT our work would be greatly assisted if it was accompanied by the development and implementation of such a much-needed tool.  

Even though Australia was instrumental in establishing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 25 of this Declaration, the reality is that millions of Australians continue to struggle to access and enjoy the basic necessities outlined in this document. You don’t have to look far into the lives of our First Nations peoples, or people who live with a disability, or our elders or refugees or members of the LGBTIQA+ community, or any other group we choose to devalue as a community, to find countless examples where people’s rights are regularly violated and not being enacted or upheld.  

It’s essential that, in our quest for solutions to stubborn and endemic problems, we don’t lose sight of the messy, complex systemic and contextual factors that make up our socio-economic and political landscape as we gravitate towards the development of a Human Rights Framework.  

Equality established in law, and in conventions and declarations and charters, does not automatically translate or result in equality in practice. 

Declarations and rights frameworks are only as strong as the organisations of civil society and those who collaborate and work together to ensure that those who hold the resources and the power are held accountable, and are made to deliver on the declarations. Our colleagues in Queensland specifically argued for the implementation of a complaints mechanism as one vehicle to try and ensure a level of accountability. It remains to be seen whether this mechanism actually delivers in the way hoped. 

In conclusion

In working together to develop a Human Rights Framework, we need to concurrently continue to build our community organisations and work alongside those people whose voices remain unheard and whose needs are not met; we need to call those with power and resources to account.  

The development and application of a Human Rights Framework or Charter would play an important part in working towards a more adequate response to poverty and inequality as well as potentially reducing our exposure to vulnerabilities caused by pandemics and bushfires and global warming.  

A Human Rights Framework would require that governments, all our respective organisations, and our community, pay proper attention to poverty susceptibility and the persistent assaults on people’s sense of agency and rights that accompany poverty and inequality.  

The adoption of a Human Rights Framework would be an important landmark in guiding us to look not just at the allocation of resources but also at the capabilities, interests, choices, security and autonomy needed to live a decent life and enjoy other fundamental cultural, economic, political and social rights. 


Published Date: 
Friday, 11 December 2020