Why we fight for human rights

Why we fight for human rights

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

'Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter' – Martin Luther King Jr.

Our passion for the job

More than 50 years after civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr spoke these famous words, they continue to inspire our staff.

Having just celebrated yesterday’s Human Rights Day with our community legal centre partners, the legal assistance sector has a strong history of standing up for others.

At their heart, human rights provide the rules to govern how we interact with one another. They also offer a line in the sand we should never cross about how human beings should be treated.

Human rights are a set of principles to guide governments so every human being is treated with fairness, equality, dignity and respect. At Victoria Legal Aid, we use human rights to advocate for the basic rights and freedoms that belong to us all.

Face the facts

The need to stay vigilant about the protection of human rights is reflected in statistics that show some groups in Australia are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses.

These include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, women, asylum seekers, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people living in poverty and people with a disability.

A 2014 Australian Human Rights Commission Report, ‘Face The Facts’ revealed:

  • one-in-three women aged 15 years and over have experienced physical violence
  • one-in-four women aged 15 years and over have been sexually harassed in the workplace
  • one-in-five women aged 15 years and over have experienced sexual assault
  • four-in-ten Australians aged 18 years and over have a disability or long-term health condition
  • eight-in-ten gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people experience homophobic abuse
  • the average life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is 10 years less than that of non-Indigenous Australians
  • more than one-in-four older Australian live in poverty
  • one-in-three people who access assisted homelessness services are 18 years and under.

Standing up and protecting people’s human rights

We have a long and proud history of championing human rights through our work, including:

  • the right to freedom from arbitrary detention through our Migration Program
  • the right to equality before the law and freedom from discrimination through our Equality Law Program
  • the right to freedom from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment for people living with disability and people experiencing mental health issues through our Mental Health and Disability Law Program and Independent Mental Health Advocacy
  • rights to housing, social security, health and education through our Economic and Social Rights Program
  • protecting the rights of children and young people through our Family, Youth and Children’s Law program and our Youth Justice team, and
  • the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and to procedural fairness in criminal proceedings through our Crime Program.

Current work that affords an opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives includes our work on robo-debt, our contribution to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System (see our submission Roads to Recovery), the Power2Prevent coalition around preventing workplace sexual harassment and improving the National Disability Insurance Scheme for our clients.

Our advocacy is about securing fair and equal treatment for people who are too often kept from participating fully in society because of unfair laws and policies that block them from their human rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding a Universal Declaration of Human Rights poster (UN Photo, 1 November 1949, United Nations (Lake Success), New York, Photo #1292)
Eleanor Roosevelt holding a Universal Declaration of Human Rights poster. (UN Photo, 1 November 1949, United Nations (Lake Success), New York, Photo #1292)

Supporting stronger protections for human rights

We have called for an Australian Charter of Human Rights in our submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s ‘Free and Equal’ inquiry into stronger human rights protections.

Our submission outlines the need for a national Charter of Rights to better protect people’s human rights in our everyday lives.

A Charter would ensure the Australian Government considered human rights when developing new laws and policies, and government agencies and public authorities would take human rights into account when delivering public services.

Our experience with the Victorian Charter is that it contributes to improving public sector standards, centring human rights in decision-making and upholding our clients’ rights.

Australia is the only Western democracy without a Charter of Rights or similar law. Our submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s ‘Free and Equal’ inquiry proposes that an Australian Charter of Rights is the best way to safeguard people’s human rights into the future.

An important role in society

Our work is focused on people and human rights – people whose equal worth, rights and dignity are challenged or denied, and people who see these injustices and work together to address them.

Across our programs, our lawyers advocate for procedural fairness for our clients to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, for people who have experienced family violence to be supported to move on with their lives, for families who love each other to live together, and for people living in poverty to be free from mistreatment, discrimination and harm.

More information

Read our submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s ‘Free and Equal’ Inquiry Discussion Paper: A model for positive human rights reform in Australia.

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