Ombudsman's Quarterly Update | December 2023

Date posted:

As we approach the end of 2023 – and as I approach the end of my 10-year term – I could reflect on my recent report into the alleged politicisation of the public sector. But I think I’ll let that report speak for itself – you can read it here .

Instead, I want to talk about human rights.

On 10 December we celebrated 75 years since the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of international human rights law, and it is as vital as ever as we face existential risks from war and climate change.

Human rights have a long history, from the concept of natural law in Ancient Greece and Rome, the Magna Carta in England, to the Enlightenment and the revolutions in France and America. The 19th century saw the abolition of slavery and the rise of the women’s rights movement. The Holocaust was a major catalyst for the creation of the UN and the Universal Declaration in 1948.

Reflecting on that brief history it’s important to note that human rights were not given freely but were fought for and gained through struggles and sacrifices over centuries.

In 2006, Victoria became the first Australian state to enshrine human rights into law. The Ombudsman was given the function to deal with human rights complaints and investigate breaches. So I am the State’s human rights investigator.

Human rights are about the relationship between the individual and the state. And as it happens, the Ombudsman is here to redress the power imbalance between the two. This year, my office celebrated its 50th anniversary – quite a milestone – and I’m proud to be the 5th incumbent (and first woman) to do the job.

Human rights issues can crop up every day, for every one of us. The cases we deal with show the rights of everyday Victorians. They show us the importance and impact of human rights in our society, and the need for public agencies to make fair and reasonable decisions. They reveal that small decisions can have big consequences.

Human rights are not absolute. This has been starkly borne out by the pandemic, which exposed some uncomfortable truths about freedoms we used to take for granted. But human rights must always be considered – they are never expendable to the emergency. Societies weaken themselves when they demean human rights.

So, what can I do about this, you may ask.

You too have power. Power to make better decisions and to challenge bad decisions. To demand transparency and accountability in public administration, to insist that integrity and human rights matter. To challenge any narrative that degrades or diminishes human rights.

Together, we can promote a better understanding of what human rights are and why they matter. We can’t all table reports in Parliament, but we can all speak truth to power.

Human rights are a lived reality we must nurture and cherish. That we diminish at our peril. And sometimes, we must fight for on scales large and small.

In the immortal words of Eleanor Roosevelt "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home."

Deborah Glass

Victorian ombudsman

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