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Balancing life and liberty – Human Rights Week: 1-10 December 2021

The Queensland Human Rights Commission yesterday launched its 2021 Human Rights Week campaign with the tabling of its 2nd annual report in State Parliament.

The commission’s 2020-21 annual report – entitled ‘Balancing life and liberty’ – highlights the impacts the global COVID-19 pandemic has had, and continues to have, on people in the community and is identified as the largest single cause of human rights complaints.

Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall said the impact of the coronavirus on everyday Queenslanders’ human rights became a major feature of the commission’s work within months of its establishment in January 2020.

“The impact of COVID-19 and the associated government response can be clearly seen throughout the report, from complaint statistics through to case studies demonstrating the Act’s application,” Mr McDougall said.

“COVID-19 and the ensuing restrictions swept into place less than three months after the operational provisions of Queensland’s new Human Rights Act had come into effect, and the influence on human rights culture and understanding, both at a community and political level, has been immense.”

The report found COVID-19 was the subject of one in four human rights complaints and one in six enquiries to the commission in 2020-21.

Around 80% of complaints about health services were COVID-related, with most complaints being levelled at public entities such as the health sector and Queensland Police Service as a result of the imposition of restrictions.

Under the Human Rights Act 2019, the commissioner must prepare an annual report about the operation of the Act.

‘Balancing life and liberty’ is the first annual report by the commission to contain a full year’s data on human rights complaints, after the Act came into full operation on 1 January 2020.

“This report outlines the work done across Queensland in implementing the Act over the 2020-21 financial year measured against key indicators of developing human rights culture in parliament and across the public sector,” Mr McDougall said.

While the report also found that many public entities have been willing to engage in human rights dialogue when issues and complaints are raised with them, the commission says it has observed the utilisation of the Human Rights Act by Parliament has been slower to develop.

Under the Act, Parliament must consider new legislation for compatibility with human rights. This is done through statements of compatibility with human rights and the work of the portfolio committees in examining proposed Bills.

The commission has developed indicators to measure the impact of human rights on the development of legislation and the extent of robust human rights debate in Parliament.

“There are promising signs in some respects and some clear challenges in others, including the fact that COVID and other legislation continues to be declared urgent and therefore not subject to any human rights scrutiny by committees,” Mr McDougall said.

“Committees expressing concerns about the human rights compatibility of some Bills is a positive, but it is very disappointing that this hasn’t yet translated to meaningful change through the legislative process.”

Today, 1 December, marks the start of Human Rights Week, which will include opportunities to learn about equality through webinars and info sessions on Queensland’s anti-discrimination and human rights laws. The ‘week’ will conclude on 10 December, which is the United Nations’ International Human Rights Day.

A variety of opportunities and resources are now available from the Human Rights Commission by subscribing the commission’s news bulletin.

You can read the annual report, or a special report by Sean Costello, a Principal Lawyer with the commission. See also an article by Dan Rogers on restricted prisoner declarations.

More articles with a human rights focus will be posted on QLS Proctor in coming days.

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