Introduction - National Human Rights Consultation

1. This paper has been prepared as a submission to the National Human Rights Consultation.

2. This submission focuses on developing a compelling case for some human rights that are not currently observed, or not observed to the extent they ought to be, in Australia and the world. In particular, the submission focuses on those individual rights that are generally opposed by most religious leaders. This submission helps the Consultation Committee meet its objectives by providing arguments for the observation of some specific human rights.

3. I am a scientist and ethicist who approaches issues, including human rights issues, with objectivity and who makes decisions on significant issues based on evidence. I do not believe in any gods or deities and am not religious. I contend that in a democracy an individual’s rights are paramount, and that all people should be equal in rights and dignity.

4. According to the Consultation’s discussion paper and website, ‘Human rights are about equality and dignity for everyone in Australia. Human rights are important to Australia’s democracy’. Human rights can be considered as basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. Most people would agree on those general definitions. However, religious influence has ensured that human rights are not respected in Australia.

This submission

5. This submission focuses specifically on fundamental individual rights that are contentious, the subject of debate on ethical grounds and not currently observed in Australia. If individuals have equal rights, then a compelling case can be made that there are some rights that must be observed, including

  • the right to freedom of belief and non-belief,
  • the right to freedom of choice in belief,
  • the right to die with dignity and live with dignity,
  • the right to freedom of speech, and
  • the right to equality (including the right not to be discriminated against by others).

6. This submission focuses on the lack of equality in Australian society on matters directly relevant to the well-being of individuals and on the widespread discrimination in Australian society that affects Australia’s political, legal, social and cultural environments. This submission focuses on the abuses of human rights that occur as a result of most religious observances and discrimination.

7. Some of this submission’s more significant points are the following.

7.1 Religions are belief systems usually based around stories in primitive and ancient religious texts. Most mainstream religions have a terrible history and reputation of being imposed on others, discrimination, violence, and oppression; in addition, they are scientifically flawed and reflect the ethical standards of primitive peoples. Nevertheless, they continue to survive mainly through childhood indoctrination.

7.2 Australians must have the right to freedom of belief, non-belief and religion. Australians can believe what they will, but under no circumstances should they be permitted to discriminate against other people, including women, homosexuals and non-believers, or impose their values on others, as these deny fundamental rights protected under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Discrimination is abhorrent, and if it remains a feature in religions, it will continue to deny Australians fundamental rights and have a divisive effect in Australian culture.

7.3 Australians should be encouraged to think critically about issues and question their beliefs so they can freely determine how they should live their lives. Not only should religions not be imposed on Australians by physical, emotional or legislative means, Australians must have choice in determining their beliefs, and not have religions forced on them, especially at school. People should have the right to freedom of choice in belief, because to impose, especially upon children, a belief system, without providing choice, is not freedom of belief. If we have no right to choose, we have no freedom. Under no circumstances should religions or any one religion be tax-exempt or favoured. Australia must be a secular state with full separation of church and state if there is to be a right to freedom of belief, non-belief and religion.

7.4 Australians cannot, as a civilised society, continue to let people suffer when they are in the most desperate of situations. We must not let people live without dignity, suffer or vomit faecal matter if they are in the terminal stages of cancer, and they have chosen not to suffer. The large majority of Australians are dissatisfied with governments’ denial of the right to die with dignity. Properly regulated voluntary euthanasia must be permitted. The continued intransigence and reluctance of many politicians to support terminally ill Australians in their desire to obtain information about voluntary euthanasia and end of life options is to be deplored, as it effectively is imposing politicians’ religious beliefs on others.

7.5 Good government policy should not be about denying the right to freedom of speech for elderly Australians. Acting under religious influence, the Federal Government has banned information, if transmitted electronically, that predominately elderly Australians would use to make informed end-of-life decisions about their own lives. This effectively forces undesirable religious values on people who want this information, denying them equality and the right to determine their own lives consistent with their own belief systems. It is discriminatory and unjust for religious people, who do not want voluntary euthanasia, and who might want to die with pain, suffering and indignity, to impose their views on people not of their religion.

7.6 People should never be able to deny other Australians the right to choose. That would be arrogant, and that denial of rights through imposing one’s religions beliefs on others is a policy that even Barack Obama (using abortion as an example) has deplored: ‘if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all’. The same argument applies to voluntary euthanasia.

7.7 Nobody wants to be or deserves to be discriminated against, because they will be denied equality. If beliefs or religions discriminate against others or are imposed on others, then these belief systems are unacceptable because they would hypocritically deny equality by doing unto others what people don’t want done unto themselves.

8. The arguments in this submission stand on their own if they are considered with an open mind, objectively and devoid of cultural or particularly religious bias. The consequence of this is that the Committee should recommend that substantial changes be made to the rights that must be observed in Australia to ensure that all Australians are afforded the same rights. If these changes occur, there is great promise that Australia can grow to be a more prosperous, egalitarian, tolerant and inclusive society worthy of the title of ‘civilised’, and lead the world in the acknowledgement and protection of human rights.

9. I would be happy to expand on my paper if required.

The Consultation Committee and process

10. It is interesting to note that the Consultation Committee overseeing the consultation is chaired by Father Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest. While he may be impartial in his deliberations, and I am not casting aspersions on his integrity, the perception must be that a leader in a church that discriminates against women, homosexuals and non-believers, that opposes euthanasia, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and the use of condoms to restrict the spread of diseases such as AIDS, that indoctrinates children from an early age in beliefs that are not scientifically or otherwise credible, and that receives substantial tax benefits from the Australian government, is unlikely to make recommendations to support rights that have implications contrary to the beliefs he holds dear. Unfortunately, any conclusions that the Committee recommends that are consistent with his Catholic beliefs must necessarily be tainted with this perception of bias.

11. Interestingly, while voluntary euthanasia received widespread applause at the Canberra Community Roundtable meeting and has 70-80% popular support, the right to die with dignity has been omitted as a major category on the consultation’s website.

12. I would hope that the integrity of the consultation process is not compromised. I am pleased that a consultation process is being undertaken and I wish the Committee well in its deliberations.

Individual rights

13. Australia recognised too late that denying women the right to vote (150 years ago), the white Australia policy (60 years ago), and the policies that discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (even until recently), were unethical and wrong. Today these policies are rightly seen as a violation of human rights. These policies, just as that of slavery in early nineteenth century America, were considered acceptable at the time because they had popular appeal at the time. However, all of them violated the fundamental rights of an individual—nobody would like to be discriminated against, yet societies discriminated against certain groups of people.

14. Why didn’t objective argument reveal these problems at the time? One reason is the prevailing religious influence that retarded social progress and muted objective discussion. This religious influence still pervades a more secular Australian society today. Objective argument can be used today to find those human rights that should be, but are not being, observed.

15. Responsible individuals must have rights over their own lives and the right to believe what they will, only if they do not discriminate against others or impose (unethically and hypocritically) their views on others through physical, emotional, legislative or other means, or otherwise oppress or deny other people their rights or freedom of choice. My analysis in this submission has been developed in support of this philosophy.


David Swanton