You may have heard talk recently about the possibility of a Human Rights Act in South Australia. Late last year, a parliamentary inquiry on this issue was announced – exactly one year after a group of more than 150 organisations and individuals endorsed a statement calling for the inquiry.
This is an exciting step for South Australia, and our office strongly supports the introduction of a Human Rights Act. But we understand that, while human rights get talked about a lot, it’s not always clear what they actually mean for our day-to-day lives. Sometimes children and young people tell us that talking about rights is frustrating, when adults don’t actually follow them or it doesn’t lead to change in their lives.
To help breakdown what a Human Rights Act could mean for children and young people, we’ve put together some information about the inquiry, as well as some common questions that come up when talking about rights.
What are human rights?
Human rights are about the standards that we can expect to be treated by people around us, and our government. They do not have to be earned, and they cannot be lost. These rights belong to us, just because we are human.
Human rights are based on what we need to live good, healthy and safe lives. We all have a need to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect. We need to be free from violence and abuse, and to have the things that keep us alive, like access to food, water, medical treatment, shelter and clothing.
There are lots of thing we have in common, but we can also have different needs depending on how old we are, where we live and the things that make us who we are as individuals. This is why children have special rights because of their age and stage of development – like protecting their right to live with family wherever possible, rights to education and being treated with extra care in the criminal justice system.
Importantly, children and young people also have a right for their best interests be the primary consideration whenever decisions are made for, with or about them.
Are children’s rights already protected in law?
There are already some laws in place that can help make sure children and young people’s human rights are respected and protected. For example:
- there are protections against discrimination at places like schools and work
- there might be compensation for children who are hurt in institutional settings
- there is a Charter of Rights for children and young people in care and detention – and people in government have to take those rights into account when making decisions.
But protections for these rights are spread across a lot of different laws, and working out what to do if rights are breached can be complicated. Another issue is that laws often focus on what happens when a right has been breached – but might not set clear processes to make sure rights are respected and followed in the first place.
Why is it important to have a Human Rights Act?
A Human Rights Act is a chance for our community to look at our values, what rights we think are important, and design the best way to protect those rights.
Having one clear document that sets out our human rights equips us with the tools we need to:
- Understand and advocate for our own and others’ rights
- Understand the processes to make sure rights are met – and keep government accountable for following those processes
- Make decisions that protect and respect other people’s human rights.
What does the inquiry want to know?
One of the big questions the inquiry is looking at is whether we need a Human Rights Act in South Australia – which means it is important to understand where human rights standards aren’t being met in our community, including for children and young people in care and detention. This helps to understand how current laws are working and find the gaps.
The next question is what rights should be protected? A Human Rights Act is for all people in South Australia, and it’s important to make sure that children’s rights get special attention. Because children and young people under the age of 18 years don’t have the right to vote and are excluded from many political processes, adults have a responsibility to help promote their voices, experiences and rights for inclusion in this process.
The final important point is how the laws should protect human rights. Different ways include:
- Making Parliament write a statement about how new laws protect (or impact) human rights
- Making departments and government workers show how they have considered human rights in decisions which affect individuals and communities, and
- Giving people the right to go to court if they think a government decision, policy or law breaches human rights.
How can I make a submission?
If you – or a young person you know – wants to have your say on these kinds of questions, submissions are open until 16 February 2024. You can download a copy of the terms of reference and details for how to make a submission on the Parliament of South Australia website.
If you or the young person needs help with how to make a submission, we’re happy to talk you through it – you can call or email our policy team about their tips and what you need to do.
Tip: If writing isn’t something that’s easy for you (or a young person you know), you can ask to give your submission another way. Sometimes submissions can be given by video or talking over the phone instead.
Remember – you don’t have to be a lawyer to have your say on what a Human Rights Act could mean for children and young people, and what rights matter!