Human Rights and Social Justice: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the quiet revolution in international law

Penny Weller


On the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights (UDHR) the Commonwealth Attorney General announced a national public consultation concerning the need for better human rights protection in Australia and the viability of a federal human rights charter. Whether or not the anticipated Charter includes social, economic and cultural rights is directly relevant to questions of social justice in Australia. This paper argues that the legislative acknowledgment of civil and political rights alone will not adequately address the human rights problems that are experienced in Australia. The reluctance to include economic, social and cultural rights in human rights legislation stems from the historical construction of an artificial distinction between civil and political rights, and economic social and cultural rights. This distinction was articulated and embedded in law with the translation of the UDHR into binding international law. It has been accepted and replicated in judicial consideration of the application on human rights legislation at the domestic level. The distinction between the two forms of rights underpins a general ambivalence about the capacity of human rights legislation to deliver social justice and echoes a critical tradition in legal philosophy that cautions against the reification of law. Coming into force early in the 21st century, the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities illustrates the effort of the international community to recognize and eschew the burden of the false dichotomy between civil and political and economic, social and cultural rights. Acknowledging the indivisible, interdependent and indissociable nature of human rights in Australia is a crucial step toward achieving human rights based social justice.

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