Should a Charter of Human Rights include public health principles?

 Alley Miller – PHAA policy intern



Australia is currently the only western country in the world without a charter or Bill of Human Rights.

The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) is drafting a proposal for an Australian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, with the intention to protect in law the fundamental human rights outlined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

HRLC’s proposed Charter includes a legislated set of economic, social, civil and political rights that benefit the whole community. The Centre’s submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s ‘Free and Equal’ Consultation sets out 10 principles for a Charter, including:

  1. Provide guiding principles to the Australian Government on the human rights that Australians agree should be protected, and which our Government must uphold in its actions.
  2. Create a fairer Australia by addressing systemic disadvantage, ensuring all people’s human rights are equally protected and that our laws reflect shared values like fairness, compassion and respect.
  3. Build a human rights culture in our communities, parliament and the public service by educating people about their rights and responsibilities.
  4. Address gaps in existing legal protections by enshrining comprehensive coverage and consistency.
  5. Provide people with an enforceable cause of action to hold the Australian Government to account when their human rights have been violated, and ensure people can access remedies to recover from human rights abuses.
  6. Ensure that the Australian Parliament takes human rights into account when preparing new laws and policies, including how to balance competing rights.
  7. Ensure that courts respect human rights, by interpreting and applying legislation compatibly with human rights and take into account international and comparative human rights jurisprudence.
  8. Bring rights home, by enshrining the international treaties Australia has ratified into domestic law, and allowing complaints about human rights to be heard in Australia.
  9. Improve human rights scrutiny, transparency and accountability of law-making, government actions and the actions of public authorities.
  10. Promote Australia’s reputation as an equal country and a responsible international citizen.

Such a Charter would help prevent human rights violations, provide a powerful tool to challenge injustice, and build broader and deeper understanding and respect for human rights – including in government and how it legislates and operates.

The implementation of a Charter of Human Rights would work to protect these through two avenues. Firstly, through ensuring that parliaments and governments consider individual’s human rights when creating new laws and policies. Secondly, by providing people with an avenue to take action if their rights are violated.

How is this relevant to public health? While living in Australia most of us are lucky enough to access very high levels of health care, significant and unacceptable health inequalities do still exist throughout the nation.

Major public health instruments – sometimes called ‘cartels’ – such as the Alma-Ata Declaration on Primary Health Care (1978) and the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (1986) have outlined international health rights for nearly half a century. But the do not have any domestic legal force. Drawing on these instruments in the formulation of a legally effective charter of Human Rights for Australia would play a significant role in addressing these inequalities.

One obvious possible inclusion in an Australian human right charter would be to draw on the Ottawa Charter’s statement that “The protection of natural and built environments and the conservation of natural resources must be addressed in any health promotion strategy.” Australia is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Our national government’s lack of action on climate change leaves future and current generations highly vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change.

Health impacts are expected to include increased heat-related mortality and morbidity, increase transmission of infectious diseases due to vector movement, increase waterborne diseases, create food shortages, and have signification mental health impacts from extreme weather events. Including health rights within a future Australian Charter of Human Rights would help influence future policy decisions and in doing so help to protect the health of all Australians.

Another possible inclusion in a Human Rights Charter would be to draw on the Alma Ata Declaration statement that ‘governments have a responsibility for the health of their people through the provision of adequate socially and economically productive life’ and ‘inequality of health status between the developed and developing countries and termed it as politically and socially unacceptable.’ Australia is a developed country with relatively high levels of health inequalities.

Significantly the gap in the level of health between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Non-Indigenous Australian’s and the treatment of refugees has been identified as a human rights concern by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee. Other vulnerable groups include individual’s living in rural areas, refugees, young people. Recognising the government’s responsibility to provide socially and economically productive lives to ensuring the health of all these groups is vital. By including this in the Australian Charter of Human Rights these disadvantaged groups living within Australia will have their right to health protected.

A third possible inclusion might be based on the Ottawa Charters principles of ‘Building Healthy Public Policy’ and a ‘Reorientation of health services towards the prevention of illness and promotion of health.’ The current health system takes an overwhelmingly treatment-focused approach missing opportunities to improve the health of all Australians through health promotion and health prevention strategies. Australia has an increasingly ageing population and increasing rates of chronic diseases.

Currently under 2% of government expenditure goes towards health promotion and disease prevention, while 32% of the country’s disease burden can be attributed to modifiable behaviours such as smoking, alcohol abuse, physical inactivity, high blood pressure and blood cholesterol, low consumption of fruit and vegetables and overweight and obesity. To maintain high levels of health and healthcare in Australia this balance will need to be addressed.

A multi-sector approach would be vital to achieving a prevention investment goal. Policy sectors such as agriculture, education, the environment, fiscal areas, housing, and transport all play a role in dictating the health of the community. By targeting these areas, we can improve population health and reduce the economic burden of chronic disease. As such to ensure a continued right to health for all people living within Australia this inclusion is vital.

In our current system governments are not systematically required to make decisions that uphold human rights. Political or economic justifications can easily override human rights. There are also minimal protections in place to ensure that the government considers our human rights as part of everyday law and policymaking and takes steps to prevent breaches before they occur.

Drawing on the above recommendations, Australia could move towards a future where the right to health is prioritised and protected for all Australians.

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