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Civil & political rights

Our rights to protest, demonstrate and take part in political activities are recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR )and other covenants.

In Australia, these international human rights are seldom enforceable and any mechanisms that exist are slow and difficult. Although we have these rights and we can assert them as citizens and activists, we shouldn't expect them to be respected without question.

Australian law is based on the British common law system. Unlike most similar liberal democracies, Australia has no Bill of Rights to protect human rights in a single document. Therefore most ‘rights' in this system are in reality nothing more than those freedoms that are not prohibited. However some important rights may be found in the concept of the rule of law, the Australian Constitution, common law and legislation - Acts passed by the Commonwealth Parliament or State or Territory Parliaments.

According to the ‘Rule of Law', each person has equal rights under the law. It is meant to be a fair and impartial system. Australia is known as a ‘rule of law' state.

This means that:

  • The Government must not act arbitrarily. It must have proper reasons for its actions and must follow proper procedures.
  • The government is answerable to the people and the courts. Judges and the courts are independent of government, and they make their decisions impartially.
  • Every citizen is subject to the law. This makes arbitrary imprisonment illegal and means that all people, including senior politicians, police and military, have to obey the same laws.

Support for the 'rule of law' can at times reinforce important values (such as equality before the law) in Australia. However, legal rights (particularly in a system such as Australias, with few formal rights guarantees) often depart from the international consensus that is human rights, and so cannot serve as a proper basis for defining the tactics of 'rights activists' (Anderson, 2002). For example, following the success of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, special laws were passed to ban unauthorised tent settlements in the Australian Capital Territory. Aboriginal activists used this as an example to ridicule the liberal argument 'we don't mind if you protest, so long as you stay within the law' (see Cavadini 1972).