This piece was first published by The Guardian Australia
Andrew Bolt is not the most aggrieved victim of human rights abuses in Australia. He is freer than most. To highlight his racial vilification case as a significant violation that merited more attention from the human rights community, as incoming human rights commissioner Tim Wilson has done, does a disservice to all those who suffer real rights abuses.
Why not mention Lex Wotton, the Aboriginal community leader who is not permitted to attend public meetings without government approval and who is prohibited from speaking to the media?
Why not mention Ranjini, a refugee who has spent years in immigration on the basis of a secret security assessment that she can’t challenge?
Why not mention Andrea Pickett, a mother of 13 who was killed by her estranged husband after being turned away from crisis accommodation?
Of course, human rights belong to everyone. The rich and powerful can have their rights violated, as can the poor and marginalised. However, the causes and consequences are generally different and human rights organisations, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, must recognise and respond to this.
Effective human rights organisations focus their limited resources on the areas where there is the greatest need and where their activities can have the greatest impact. To do otherwise would be irresponsible, wasteful and a disservice to the Australian public. It is therefore surprising that both Wilson and Brandis have called on the Commission to refocus its efforts on the "traditional" right to free speech with little reference to the scope and scale of violations of this right in Australia.
Free speech is a fundamental human right in need of better protection in Australia. The right to free speech – like most human rights – is not adequately protected under Australian law. Human rights organisations can and do respond. For example, the Human Rights Law Centre has acted and intervened in litigation to protect free speech, including in Wotton’s 2012 high court challenge. I am not aware of a single human rights organisation that did not recommend changes to the former government’s Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill to ensure that it did not unduly threaten free speech.
Some groups like to peddle the myth that human rights organisations respond to issues according to political ideology and personal whim. In fact, good human rights organisations – including the Australian Human Rights Commission – respond to their mandate under human rights law and to actual need. They recognise that some groups in the community are more likely to be subject to serious human rights violations and less likely to obtain redress, or have their voices heard. Effective human rights organisations also understand that to achieve systemic and sustainable change, they must address the discrimination that is entrenched in laws, policies, practices and social structures.
Discrimination often lies at the heart of human rights violations and explains why some people are more likely to have their rights violated than others. The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly stated that non-discrimination and equality constitute basic and general principles relating to the protection of all human rights. This is another reason why any suggestion that the Australian Human Rights Commission should de-prioritise the right to equality in favour of free speech and freedom of association is misguided.
Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention Children in Detention, conducted by former Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski. That inquiry opened the eyes of many Australians to the numerous and repeated breaches of human rights suffered by children in Australian immigration detention centres.
Over 1,000 children are still suffering, locked up in detention. Who is less free and more in need of the attention of the Australian Human Rights Commission, these children, or a wealthy, powerful media commentator?
Rachel Ball is Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the Human Rights Law Centre