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Embedding human rights during COVID-19

COVID iconAs the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved, we have seen a broad range of impacts on the lives and human rights of Victorians – an increase in racism directed towards people from Asian backgrounds, changes to work arrangements that exacerbate existing inequalities, restrictions on Victorians’ ability to move freely throughout the state, and changes to justice and corrections, including new processes and limitations on access to facilities like prisons.

Emerging issues

For the Victorian Government and other public authorities, navigating these emerging issues while at the same time upholding human rights requires a delicate balance. In a state of emergency, some limitation of human rights may be necessary, but any such limitation must be necessary, justifiable, proportionate and time-bound.

As Victoria entered a state of emergency, the Victorian Government implemented a range of social distancing measures that limited the number of people who could socialise together. These directions were given according to powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008. The enforcement of these social distancing measures by Victoria Police is an issue that has attracted significant scrutiny. To ensure the fairness and rigour of fines being issued, we called for Victoria Police to collect demographic data and for the information to be released to an independent oversight body.

On 24 April 2020, the Victorian Parliament passed the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020, which introduced a wide-ranging package of temporary reforms as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The reforms included a legislative override provision that would enable emergency regulations to be put in place to override justice-related laws without parliament having to sit. There are also more flexible remand arrangements, judge-only trials and greater use of audio-visual technology in the criminal justice system, new processes to safeguard prisons, and isolation provisions for youth justice facilities.

While many of these emergency measures play an important role in safeguarding public health, it’s vital that the government and public authorities closely monitor and manage any potential human rights impacts.

What the law says

In Victoria, the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities sets out the basic rights, freedoms and responsibilities of all people in Victoria. During a state of emergency, the Charter continues to apply – in fact, it’s more vital than at any other time. 

When making new laws, the Victorian government must report on how the proposed law iscompatible with the rights protected by the Charter – the ‘statement of compatibility’ that accompanies a new law must explain how any restrictions on the human rights protected by the Charter are reasonable and justified.

Public authorities – including all staff who work in state government departments, agencies and local government – also have to properly consider and act compatibly with human rights when carrying out their work. This includes when they deliver services, develop policies and projects, manage risks, make decisions and manage complaints.

The Commission closely monitors the steps taken by the government and other public authorities to meet their responsibilities under the Charter. We know that during the COVID-19 crisis, the government may place limits on human rights and must navigate the delicate balance between protecting our health and safeguarding our vital freedoms and individual needs. 

Critically, however, the Charter requires any restrictions on our human rights to be justified, proportionate and necessary. During a state of emergency, restrictions should be time bound. Restrictions must also be underpinned by authoritative medical advice. There must be safeguards for vulnerable people whose rights are impacted and decisions must remain be open to scrutiny.

How we’re addressing the issues

During this period, we’re working closely with government and other stakeholders to ensure a continued focus on human rights, particularly where emergency measures may impose limits on individuals’ rights.

How we can help

If you have a question about discrimination, sexual harassment or vilification or would like more information about how Victoria’s Charter protects your human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re here to help.

Our enquiries team can help you understand Victoria’s anti-discrimination laws and how you can make a complaint if you choose to. And if we can’t answer your question, we’ll try to help you find someone who can.

If you wish to make a complaint in relation to the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, find out more about your options.

Further reading

Here are selected news stories, research and reflections, from here and abroad, highlighting key human rights issues in responses to COVID-19.

Human rights

Women and equality

Disability

Policing and enforcement

Read more about our response to COVID-19

Reducing racism during COVID-19

Improving workplace equality during COVID-19

Protecting human rights in closed environments during COVID-19

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