Equal before the law? Community groups push for a South Australian human rights framework

Equal before the law? Community groups push for a South Australian human rights framework

Following the lead of Victoria, Queensland and the ACT, community leaders and experts are calling for a South Australian framework to better protect human rights. (Image: Jack on Flickr)

By Anisha Pillarisetty | @nishkinsilk

Coinciding with International Human Rights Day, an online forum convened by the Rights Resources Network South Australia (RRNSA) on December 10 brought together various community leaders and multi-discipline experts to discuss the development of a South Australian human rights framework.

Marking the date the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the 2021 International Human Rights Day theme is equality.

In keeping with this, delegates at the RRNSA online forum discussed how a human rights framework would affect everyone, specifically considering the impacts it would have on community groups that do not experience an equitable standard of living.

Formed in 2019, the network is a collective of legal professionals, academics, community organisations and student volunteers who are working towards rights protection in South Australia.

RRNSA Director Dr Sarah Moulds says thinking about how a new policy or legislation would impact on human rights is effective in outlining and implementing the purpose behind the measure, and “bringing the community with us”. 

Moulds says the delegates were strongly supportive of a South Australian Human Rights Act, which would require government officials to consider human rights when making decisions. It would also require state parliament to report on whether proposed legislation impacted on or breached the Act.

Additionally, it would mean the courts have some role in ensuring people who have had their rights breached were allowed a remedy. This process, known as “procedural fairness”, lets individuals challenge a decision that violates their human rights.

But, Moulds says, the delegates were also supportive of non-legislative actions that the state could take “as soon as possible” without having to pass a Human Rights Act.

Some of these include strengthening parliamentary committee scrutiny of proposed and existing laws, human rights training for government officials, and improving communication and consultation between the government and community members.

Moulds says while there was good reason for it during the pandemic, transferring the law-making role from state parliament to executive officers – like the police commissioner and chief health officer – posed risks.

“Those individuals can’t do that work of balancing the impact of the law across the community, only parliament can do that – and the right scrutiny helps parliament to do that,” she says.

Moulds says the human rights framework wouldn’t hinder parliament in passing necessary legislation during an emergency, but would ensure that various social impacts were carefully considered.

“I think we are at the point in the pandemic now that it’s absolutely essential that we do that,” she says.

“If we don’t, what we see is people in our community feeling so disconnected from the democratic process that they are looking elsewhere to express their frustration.

“And that can create long-term problems for our democracy.”

In his address at last year’s event, the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) CEO Ross Wemberly cautioned against “letting the framework become another document on the shelf”.

“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,” Wemberly said. “We need to call those with power and resources to account.”

This year’s online forum followed on from discussions during last year’s event titled, “Time for a human rights framework for South Australia?”

The 2020 RRNSA report on the event outlined the issues discussed, including LGBTQIA+ rights, disability rights, and the disproportionate over-incarceration of Aboriginal people.

The report said the results of the discussion around age of criminality and Aboriginal over-incarceration were “alarming”, and that the criminal justice system is biased against Indigenous people.

While the human rights framework may offer opportunities to safeguard against and challenge some discriminatory practices, Indigenous scholars, lawyers, journalists and other community members have been outlining the systemic colonial violence and racism enacted by the criminal justice system for decades, indicating there is a broader issue to tackle as well.

Gomeroi legal researcher Alison Whittaker says while the silence and complicity surrounding Aboriginal deaths in custody is bolstered by certain legal structures, “the basis of the silence itself is colonisation and white supremacy”.

“The settler Australian public simply does not see Indigenous deaths in custody as an act of violence, but as a co-morbidity,” Whittaker says.

“When we do hear about the Indigenous lives lost in custody, it is undoubtedly because of the persistence, expertise and courage of their families and communities who mourn them.”

University of Sydney PhD candidate and Aboriginal and Māori, Takatāpui person Latoya Aroha Rule said legislative and procedural reform is needed to protect those impacted by the carceral system, but that “it is just as critical, if not more so, to acknowledge that decolonisation must stand at the heart of the movement”.

“The abolition of policing and prisons, systemic violence and brutality is one step toward supporting and sustaining the lives of Aboriginal people,” they said.

Rule and their family led the campaign that resulted in the recent legislation to ban the use of spit hoods in South Australian prisons, mental health settings and police custody.

RRNSA Director Sarah Moulds says whether it’s a local issue like wait times at the local GP or a broader issue like racial equality, reaching out to elected representatives via email or government consultation portals like YourSay is crucial.

“The more that we do this, the more that we remind our elected representatives that we are watching what they’re doing, that we care about what they’re doing, the more incentive we give them to consult with us,” she says. “And I’m hoping we can start a conversation about using a human rights framework to do this.

 “Hopefully, the upcoming state election will focus the minds of parliament on what the community cares about.”

A final report on the 2021 online forum will be available on the RRNSA website before the South Australian state election in March.

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