It is easy to fall into the thinking that legislated human rights are merely symbolic, particularly in a country like Australia where we have a pretty good human rights record and, arguably, governments at all levels take reasonable action to address disadvantage.
Australia is party to seven major human rights treaties however it is the only liberal democracy in the world that does not have formalised human rights protections at the national level. Queensland is the most recent Australian state or territory to pass human rights legislation requiring the parliament, courts and tribunals, and public entities to act compatibly with 23 fundamental human rights. The Australian Capital Territory led the nation, passing human rights legislation in 2004, while Victoria passed legislation in 2006. The remaining states and territories are trailing behind to different extents.
There are countless examples of violations of civil and political rights which exist in modern, democratic societies. Despite Queensland having a Human Rights Act which protects freedom from forced work, the Queensland Government came under fire as recently as mid-2020 for the state’s New Generation Rollingstock (NGR) trains containing parts sourced from a company suspected of using slave labour factories in China. Even more recently, in the private sector, a raft of major Australian clothing retailers came under pressure to commit to paying living wages to garment workers in developing countries after a scathing report into their purchasing practices.
Is it the case that human rights legislation in Australia is based on a ‘dialogical’ or ‘weak-form’ model, or is there a lack of practical action by governments to ensure human rights are considered across the lifecycle of every project and initiative?1 It is increasingly evident that the public sector is failing to understand the impact of its decisions on human rights and its obligation to build a culture that respects and promotes them. Big data, combined with technological advances, used by governments have the capacity to intrude on people’s lives in unprecedented ways which may undermine the rights of potentially millions of citizens. Invasion of privacy enabled by technology can put every other human right at risk.
There is much more that can be done to prevent human rights violations and ensure that any human right is only limited to the extent that is reasonable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom. It is imperative that governments lead the way through a consistent and systematic approach to identifying, predicting and preparing to respond to potential or actual impacts to human rights resulting from projects and initiatives which involve the collection, management or use of data and information.
We recommend that public sector projects that are collecting and managing personal data incorporate a Human Rights Impact Assessment as an integral part of project planning. The assessment should be repeated and re-evaluated at regular intervals to determine the extent and intensity of any negatively impacted human rights which result from data collection and use. This provides the public sector with the ability to implement mitigations to address human rights impacts and set a standard for the private sector moving forward.
To learn more about minimising your exposure to the risk of breaching human rights in your data centric projects, contact us.