The Uniting Church in Australia, in March 2008, formally committed itself to support the development of a national human rights charter for Australia. While Christian opposition to such a charter is often reported, Christian support remains largely unnoticed and undiscussed.
The Christian faith understands life as a gift from God, and that through the life of the Trinitarian God, our humanity, made in this image, is inherently relational. We are human as we live in community - in relationship with God, each other and the natural environment. Christian support for human rights rests on the understanding that community flourishes when all people are included and accorded the dignity and respect they deserve as beloved children of God.
In response to the Christian call to stand with people who are marginalised, poor and oppressed, the Uniting Church believes that we have a responsibility to contribute to the building of societies in which all people are valued and respected. In the context of public policy, Christian churches can contribute by supporting the development of policy and legislation which upholds the rights of all people to participate in community and public life, be treated with respect and accorded dignity without discrimination.
This is not merely about the rights of individuals separate from our responsibilities rather how we, as individuals and as a society, develop systems and structures that support our responsibilities to care for the most marginalised in our society and bring justice and peace to the world. In this endeavour “human rights” is one (but not the only) important tool at our disposal.
Over its life, the Uniting Church in Australia has made strong and unequivocal statements of support for human rights, including civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.
We have on numerous occasions, especially in recent years, drawn the attention of church members, the public and politicians to policies which have been implemented with inadequate attention given to civil and political rights; and to policies that have had a discriminatory and detrimental effect on distinct segments of the population. These are policies which have had devastating personal impacts on people who are homeless, low-income workers, Indigenous Australians and refugees and asylum seekers for example, and policies that have impaired the right to a fair trial and to freedom of speech and association.
While we may have believed that such human rights as freedom of speech and religion and the right to a fair trial were safe in Australia, it has become clear that they are not adequately protected. We need to do more on these issues and on so many others.
The Report of the Consultation Committee for a Proposed WA Human Rights Act, released in November 2007, highlights the range of human rights issues that concern many Australians. Through community consultations, the committee heard people speak of their experiences and those of their friends and families: elderly people in nursing homes suffering infringements of their basic rights; family members of patients in hospitals worried that the rights of their loved ones were not being respected; grandparents concerned about their rights and those of their families in child protection proceedings which affected their grandchildren; ratepayers concerned about the behaviour of their local councils; farmers dealing with corporations; concern about the lack of protection for whistleblowers; many stories of the rights of people with disabilities and those living with mental illness being ignored.
The examples are numerous and broad-ranging. The question of whether we need national human rights legislation is important for everyone.
A common argument against the development of a charter is that it will give judges more power than our elected parliamentary representatives. This is a specious and mischievous argument that relies on our exposure to US-made television through which many of us know more about the US Constitution than our own.
If Australia was to adopt some form of human rights legislation, in cases taken to the courts judges would assess whether a law (set by Parliament) meets the standards of the human rights legislation. The Parliament would then respond to that judgment, one way or another. Judges do not and will not have the power to make or remake legislation.
This is how it already works in the ACT and Victoria which have introduced human rights charters through legislation: courts can rule that a piece of legislation is inconsistent with the human rights charter, but the parliament maintains the power to decide whether or not to act on the decision and change legislation.
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