Only by claiming our human rights can we prevent more crimes against our children

Sep 5, 2023
Kid's hand holding sculpture of themis, femida or justice goddess on green leaves natural bokeh background.

With the escalation of natural disasters in the last five years due to climate change it is now obvious – all too painfully obvious – that we have let our kids down, that we have robbed them of a decent future.

The world is on track in our lifetimes – even in the lifetimes of those already in their sixties – for at least 2 degrees of heating. As Maeve McGregor has pointed out, this would allow “the panoramic heatwaves, freak storms and flooding of 2023 to survive in their [the sexagenarians’] memories as among the milder of this age.” Two degrees warming, she notes “would see the world careen past at least nine climate tipping points, beyond which mass crop failures, epic if not permanent droughts, and the preludes to the coming ‘water wars’, ‘killing fields’ and global famine awaits. In all this, death and starvation would shadow at least half the world’s population and hundreds of millions would find themselves irrevocably displaced.”

As the planet heats, Australian parents and grandparents may choose to dig themselves deeper into denial about this. They may choose to believe that their kids and grandkids will not be in that wretched half of the world’s population that suffers the worst of it. From Australia’s relatively safe position of massive per capita resource wealth and its geographical distance from the countries that will suffer the most in displacement and economic collapse, denial that the worst could happen here and to our loved ones is likely to be the strategy many will choose, if only for the sake of their peace of mind.

And there is some sense in which they would be justified in that choice. After all, what can they do about it? In reality they have no control over this because they have no effective political influence. And most will not see how they could possibly muster influence sufficient to outrank the corporate lobbyists and donors who keep our two major parties of government in full and exclusive control of our choices and thereby diminish or perhaps eliminate – before our very eyes – our prospects of escaping the worst scenario for the future.

There are corporate lobbyists in Australia who have Parliament House passes. And there’s the rest of us. There are corporations who have fully captured the two major parties of government in Australia and they fully exclude the rest of us from an effective say in our own governance and in all the decisions that affect us. So it is little wonder that parents may lay awake at night worrying about the future of their kids. In their daylight hours they have witnessed governments denying the right of the young to a sustainable future in the face of climate change. In 2022, the federal minister for the environment, Sussan Ley, successfully appealed against a high-profile court decision that had found she had a duty of care to protect young people from the climate crisis when assessing fossil fuel developments. Such is the state of our laws that they allow these crimes against our young and allow environment ministers to deny responsibility for their decisions. And with the election of the Labor government we have been treated to displays of a willingness to extend policies which can have no other effect than to negate the public interest in mitigating and adapting to climate change. This is set to extinguish our last hope of a decent life for all.

The reality of the situation is that because of Australia’s political system it is now too late to avoid much of the impact of climate change. But the current generation of parents can perhaps redeem some of the situation if they can imbue their political system with something they currently don’t have. What Australians don’t have is human rights and until they have them in law they will not be able to overcome the shortcomings of their democracy. In other words, they will not have political agency sufficient to retrieve the situation even somewhat. They will be unable to bend governments to their will instead of the will of corporations.

Most Australians will pin their hopes on technology to stop global heating – or global boiling, as it has now been dubbed by UN chief Antonio Guterres. But while we have the technological capacity to head off some of the worst impacts of the boiling, we lack all capacity in both law and politics to drive governments to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy technologies. Citizens of democracies can only drive their governments to act in their interests if their political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights are enshrined securely in law, enforcing that duty of care to ourselves and our children which Susan Ley was enabled, legally, to avoid.

But this is a form of democracy Australia does not have. We have a democracy which is limited to (and by) elections. We do not have a democracy in which human rights are firmly and irrevocably acknowledged as the just, legal and inalienable entitlement of all. That necessary irrevocable acknowledgement can only be established if human rights are enshrined in our Constitution. And for as long as the Constitution remains almost entirely silent on human rights, we will not have a democracy which ensures laws made on our behalf will protect us from abuse or revocation of our rights by governments. We will not have a democracy in which we can determine our own future. Instead of self-determination we will have corporate determination.

While Australia is a signatory to all the core human rights treaties in international law, no federal government has yet seen fit to enshrine these rights securely in domestic law. They have legislated some rights in the Sex Discrimination and Racial Discrimination Acts but in such a way as to be able to take those rights away again at their will and for their political purposes, regardless of whether it is in the public interest. Some states and the ACT have legislated some human rights but again these Acts can be easily suspended, as we have seen recently in Queensland where the rights of children are being violated in detention centres in contravention of multiple international treaties to which Australia is a signatory. We also saw it in the Northern Territory, where the Howard government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act to allow for a military intervention into Indigenous communities.

The fact is that any action by a government to violate a human right is not in the public interest. Human rights are the public interest. As such, a legal system which does not faithfully enshrine them as law – and as law that may not be unjustifiably suspended – is one that neither articulates nor upholds the public interest. Instead, it sets the basis for crimes against the people, young and old. Until that is reversed, Australians have no hope whatsoever of rescuing their children from the ultimate crime of the destruction of the ecosystems that are essential to human existence.

The federal parliament is currently holding an Inquiry into Australia’s Human Rights Framework. Australians should clamour for enshrinement of their rights in law. We have waited for decades for rights that other nations enjoy. We have waited too long.

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