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Human Rights Day


“As Christians, we understand freedom, justice and peace to be founded on God-in-Christ – themes which resonate particularly strongly during Advent,” says The Rev’d Prof Rodney Wolff on Human Rights Day, which is marked annually on 10 December

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“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

So commences the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as Resolution 217A.

The 30 articles of the UDHR were drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world. The articles uphold freedom and equality in dignity and rights; fairness of treatment under the law; protections against discrimination; rights to citizenship and movement; freedom of thought, opinion, and faith; rights to participation in association and government; fair conditions of employment and rest; rights to education; and, rights to, and obligations in, an ordered society.

The 1948 Lambeth Conference – the assembly of Bishops of the Anglican Communion – resolved to endorse the then proposed UDHR in terms of full religious freedoms. Its caveat was that any limitations should be “internationally recognised as necessary to protect…the rights and freedoms of others.” Breaches of these rights and freedoms are at the heart of concerns over the Religious Freedoms Bills, presently before our Federal Parliament.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s submission to the Attorney-General says as much.  Not only does it warn that the Bills contravene Federal, state, and territory anti-discrimination laws, but also that they add layered protection of discrimination by being too broad in defining who may be a victim of religious discrimination, and too narrow in defining who may occasion it. The Public Affairs Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia also made a submission: in the context of human rights, likewise identifying how the Bills weaken and compromise existing anti-discrimination measures. This view was also reflected in the submission by The Anglican Diocese of Newcastle.

Human rights become legally binding on nations through treaties. Australia is party to the seven core treaties, such as on civil and political rights; anti-discrimination rights; rights against torture and degrading punishment; and, the rights of the child. Australia supports the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but not as legally binding. This is pertinent while the 2017 Statement from the Heart’s call for a national Indigenous voice enshrined in the Constitution remains unanswered.

Elements of Australia’s human rights record are significantly lacking. In late September, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child advocated for an urgent Australian response to the protection of children from violence; mental health risks; climate change; inadequate asylum, refugee and migration policy; and, misadministration of justice [9]. The Committee also addressed issues specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The Committee further observed that climate change, care for the environment, and disaster risk management have strong potential for adverse impact on human rights, not least on those of the child.

This is not the only UN criticism of Australia’s human rights records in recent years. Yet, in delivering the 2019 Lowy Lecture [10], the Prime Minister appeared to label the UN as an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy,” owing to its scrutiny of the country’s human rights mechanisms and its naming failures of the same.

Regrettably, this stance distances Australia from its obligation to uphold the universal rights which it helped forge over 70 years ago.

Human rights are Godly. They are not merely a bureaucratic provision. The UDHR asserts human rights comprise the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace.” As Christians, we understand freedom, justice and peace to be founded on God-in-Christ – themes which resonate particularly strongly during Advent. How, then, does our faith inform our understanding of human rights? God made humankind in God’s image; God blessed humankind; and, God saw that humankind (and all creation) was very good (Genesis 1.26-28,31).

Human dignity flows from our relationship with God. It is a divine character of our created selves. It is not somehow earned or externally awarded. It rests on our affirmation of God as source of all being: human freedom to respond to relationship with God upholds human dignity.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) elicited the fundamental nature of human rights and freedoms as stemming from our capability to discern God and to love God freely. Our rights and freedom are grounded and exercised in community.

The life and ministry of Jesus are suffused with concern for and upholding of human dignity. In Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers (Luke 17.11-17), outcasts were restored to dignity amid the harsh standards of purity and acceptability exercised by community leaders. Jesus broke with racial and gender discriminatory practices in his companionship with the woman of Samaria (John 4.1-42).  Jesus always upheld the inherent God-given dignity of the people he encountered.

The Collins English Dictionary defines social justice as the principle that all members of society have equal rights and opportunities.  Breaches of human dignity are manifestations of social injustice.

When we promise in our Baptism to reject selfish living and all that is false and unjust, we commit before God to uphold and work for the dignity and rights of all people, and thus honour the foundation of God’s freedom, God’s justice, and God’s peace in the world.

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