Human Rights


Human rights are fundamental rights that are universally recognised and guaranteed to all because of their inherent nature as human beings. Universal human rights are based on the principles of equality, dignity, justice and fairness. There is no exhaustible list of human rights but among the most fundamental of them are the rights to life, liberty, security of the person, the right to freedom of conscience, expression and religion, and the right to be free from torture, arbitrary detention and enslavement. Most situations of injustice in the world are caused by a violation of human rights. In the Catholic tradition, human rights are inextricably linked to protecting the life and dignity of the human person which is the fundamental principle of Catholic Social Teaching.

The Development of Human Rights

While this page is focused on human rights in Australia, it will discuss the development of human rights primarily from a Judeo-Christian tradition and the English legal system and European treaties. However elements of many internationally recognised human rights today have been found in a number of different societies and religious traditions from around the world.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has recognised that the scriptures of the ancient Israelites (from which Jews and Christians derive many of their edicts) which include the Ten Commandments mandate a respect for human life and the idea that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Christianity taught the principle that all are equal before God.

In England, the Magna Carta, as early as 1215 granted certain rights to the nobility, free from the interference of the King. A key right of the Magna Carta which has been preserved through the centuries is the right for citizens not to be punished or imprisoned except as provided for in law. In 1628 the English Parliament issued the Petition of Right which prohibited arbitrary arrest or imprisonment. The English Bill of Rights of 1689 included some individual rights such as the right not to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.

In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia treaty allowed the ruler of each state to choose the religion for that state but also provided for a limited right to freedom of religion for other Christians within that state. The peace treaties with various defeated nations signed at the end of World War I included clauses guaranteeing the protection of minorities, which also became a condition for admittance to the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations). The declarations of rights associated with the French and American Revolutions of the 18th Century also contained rights, many of which formed the basis of our modern international human rights framework.

International Human Rights

The starting point for modern international human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed on 10 December 1948 in Paris. In thirty articles it sets out, for the first time, fundamental, inalienable, human rights to be universally protected by all nations. It has been translated into more than 500 languages (the most translated international agreement in the world).

There are numerous other international human rights conventions, but the major ones which Australia has agreed to be bound to are:

Human Rights and Social Justice

The protection of all human rights is essential in trying to secure social justice in any society. For more information on each of the following human rights and the related social justice issues please click on the link to be directed to the relevant page on our website:

  • Protection of human life as listed under article three of the UDHR which says “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
  • Modern slavery and human trafficking which is prohibited under article four of the UDHR which says “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
  • Incarceration in Australia, which under article five of the UDHR requires that “No one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
  • Homelessness and Housing and Poverty in Australia, Domestic and Family Violence, Ageing in Australia, Living with Disability all of which relate to rights under article 25 of the UDHR “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself, and of his family including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age … or other circumstances beyond his control.”
  • Fair and Dignified Working Conditions which relates to article 23 of the UDHR which states that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable working conditions and to protection against unemployment and the right to equal pay for equal work. It also relates to article 24 which states that everyone has the right to rest and leisure.
  • People Seeking Asylum and Refugees which relates to article 14 of the UDHR which states that “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

Human Rights in Australia

Australia is party to most of the major international human rights instruments listed above and several human rights are protected within Australian law. However for a country proclaiming to be a free and democratic society, committed to protecting human rights, Australia’s protection of certain human rights is nonexistent or inadequate. For example, two fundamental human rights which have inadequate protection in Australia today are freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

Freedom of Expression

The right to freedom of expression (as protected by Article 19 of the ICCPR) is generally regarded as one of the cornerstones of a democratic society and a precondition necessary for protecting human rights. Australia is an exception in terms of modern democracies in that it does not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression but only a limited right to “implied freedom of political communication” as defined by  a majority of the High Court in  Nationwide News Pty Ltd v Wills (1992) 177 CLR 1 and Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v the Commonwealth (1992) 177 CLR 106. In Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1997) 189 CLR 520 the High Court unanimously asserted that the implied freedom of political communication does not confer any personal rights to freedom of speech, but operates as a constraint of legislative and executive power.”


Freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief


The broad and absolute right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is protected by Article 18 of the ICCPR which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience or religion and that no one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his or her freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of their choice. Article 18 also recognises that the ability to manifest one’s religion or belief may be limited but only by law to protect public safety, order, health and the morals or the fundamental rights of freedoms of others. Article 18 protects not only the ‘traditional’ religious beliefs of the major religions, but also non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.



Constitutional law

While there is some protection given to religious freedom in the Australian Constitution, it is far from comprehensive. Section 116 of the Constitution of Australia prohibits the Commonwealth Parliament from enacting legislation that would prohibit the free exercise of religion or establish a religion. The High Court’s interpretation of s 116 by  has in most respects been restrictive and limiting.

Rejection of proposals for a Bill of Rights to give effect to Australia’s obligations under the ICCPR, and of the proposal by the Australian Human Rights Commission for specific Religious Freedom legislation, means that  there is no comprehensive Commonwealth legislation that protects religious freedom or prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.

To find out what the Catholic Church teaches about human rights, click here.

For further information and how to get involved, click here.