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We are all entitled to human rights

By Sharon Beder - posted Friday, 6 June 2014


It may come as news to Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey but Australians do have entitlements. They are called human rights and they include the right to life, liberty, health and well-being as well as the right to free education. They do not include the right to low taxation rates. And not even elected governments are entitled to deprive people of their human rights so as to balance their budgets.

Human rights are entitlements that nations have collectively agreed humans ought to have, based on morality, justice and fairness. Human rights apply to every human being throughout their lives, no matter where they live or what their religion, occupation, race, colour, gender or age. They are regarded as essential to human dignity and are inalienable, which means they cannot be taken away, sold, or given away.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, after World War II. Before the war it had been thought that rights were a matter for national governments to decide and implement but the atrocities of the Nazis during the war showed that this could leave millions of people without even the most fundamental rights.

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The Universal Declaration was not binding on countries who signed it, as a treaty would be, but nevertheless it was a significant statement of moral and political principles that has formed the basis of subsequent human rights treaties and national constitutions. It has become part of international customary law. As customary law, all countries are bound by it, whether or not they have agreed to it.

Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security” and article 25 states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being … including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood...”

Yet in flagrant disregard to its human rights responsibilities, the Abbott government is proposing to strip Australian citizens under 30 years of age of this right by denying them access to unemployment benefits for 6 months at a time.

The right to social security is confirmed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). This Covenant includes rights to an adequate standard of living; health; education; social security and work in proper working conditions for fair wages. Because such policies cost money that a government may not have, the Covenant does not demand that these rights be guaranteed immediately but rather progressively as nations are able to afford them. Nevertheless governments are expected to spend money on ensuring the fulfilment of these obligations ahead of other non-rights-based objectives and once achieved they should be maintained. “Progressively” excludes reversal or withdrawal of gains in the attainment of these rights.

Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights  states that “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”. This ideal of free higher education has been recognised and implemented by earlier Australian governments but successive neoliberal governments have retreated from it culminating in the latest move by the Abbott government to deregulate university fees.

Article 12 requires “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” which includes access to affordable health care, something the co-payment for doctors visits may be undermining, particularly in conjunction with cuts to welfare benefits.

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Under these international agreements some human rights cannot be limited in any way, even during times of national emergency or in wartime. These include the right to life, the right to be free from slavery and the right to be free from torture. Other rights can only be limited or denied for reasons that have to do with the greater welfare of the community or the protection of others’ human rights. Such limitations are detailed in human rights treaties and no other limits to these human rights are allowed.

In other words, rights should always have priority over the preferences and desires of others and governments have a duty to ensure that human rights are protected and promoted. Human rights are supposed to have absolute priority over any political lobbying or economic trade-offs.

The need to balance the budget is not a legitimate reason to undercut human rights. The budget can be balanced by raising taxation of the wealthy, removing tax subsidies from environmentally damaging activities, and ensuring that big business pays its fair share of tax.

People who think they can legitimately take away other people’s human rights entitlements do so because they have a superiority complex that prevents them from identifying with those whom they are depriving. The Nazis believed they were a superior race of people so they felt justified in depriving others of their right to life and liberty. It is this inability of some nations’ leaders to identify with those who are different or less fortunate that mean human rights cannot be left to individual governments to define.

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About the Author

Professor Sharon Beder is in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. She is author of several books including This Little Kiddy Went to Market (UNSW Press, 2009), Global Spin (Scribe, 2002), Suiting Themselves: How Corporations Drive the Global Agenda (Earthscan, 2006), Environmental Principles and Policies (UNSW Press, 2006) and Power Play: The Struggle for Control of the World's Electricity (Scribe, 2003). Many of her articles can be downloaded at http://herinst.org/sbeder

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