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Australia and the Birth of the International Bill of Human Rights

Australia and the Birth of the International Bill of Human Rights


By Annemarie Devereux

Australia and the Birth of the International Bill of Human Rights provides the first in depth examination of Australia’s first reactions to ‘international human rights’ during the negotiations for the International Bill of Rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR and ICESCR.

It follows Australian policy from 1946, the first year in which the United Nations began discussing a Bill of Rights until 1966 when the twin Covenants were finalized. The book looks at what successive Australian Governments understood by ‘human rights’ and how they responded to discussion of sensitive domestic topics such as:
  • immigration policies
  • self-determination for inhabitants of trust territories
  • equal pay for men and women and balancing human rights and national security.
As well as considering Australian policies towards substantive rights, the book looks at Australian policies towards international schemes for protecting rights including early proposals for an International Court of Human Rights and its later support for more modest, technical expertise based assistance for States, debates often taking place against the background of highly politicised issues such as the Cold War and the fight against apartheid.

In looking at this 20 year period, the book demonstrates the way in which Australian policy changed substantially over time: as between Labor and Liberal administrations, between Ministers and bureaucrats and as between decision makers with markedly distinct visions of the ideal relationship between citizens and a State, and the individual State and the international community.

In highlighting the diversity of views about human rights, this book thus challenges the notion that Australia has historically supported a universally understood set of human rights norms and underlines the number of variables which may be affecting ongoing implementation of human rights standards.



Situating this research
Structure, scope and sources
Setting the scene: The international and domestic setting 1946 – 1966

Part 1 - Defining Human Rights Guarantees

Economic and Social Rights
Civil and Political Rights
Minority Rights and the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination
Jurisprudence of Human Rights

Part 2 - Implementing Human Rights

Domestic Implementation of Human Rights
International Implementation of Human Rights
Human Rights and 'domestic Jurisdiction'

Appendix 1 Timeline
Appendix 2 The International Bill of Rights (excerpts)


It is fascinating both for the history and the law that it contains. I congratulate Federation for publishing the book and am very grateful to have it in my library.

Justice Michael Kirby, AC CMG, High Court of Australia

The author’s analysis … is an important contribution to the jurisprudence of human rights. … the study shows that the negative attitudes evinced by the Australian government in recent times towards the views of the supervisory treaty bodies have deep roots. This analysis is of special interest to those, like me, who regret Australia’s recent criticisms of the treaty body system, … [It] will help to put these and other current events into a longer perspective … It may help us to understand how these policies developed and to find more effective ways to influence future directions when times are more propitious.

The Hon Elizabeth Evatt AC, from the Foreword (in full below)

This book provides an important insight into Australia’s approach to human rights in the formative post war period when the International Bill of Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights were developed.
Devereux charts how, in the space of two decades of policy making, Australia’s approach to international human rights shifted from active support for the state’s role in protecting human rights, to a reluctance to institute government action to guarantee rights.
Drawing on extensive archival material, this well-documented study reveals the extent to which Australia’s policy responses to human rights issues were the product of the political values of Ministers, senior officers and diplomatic representatives.
Devereux’s book is a rich resource for scholars of human rights: readers will enjoy her account of Australia’s retreat from its initial enthusiasm for international enforcement of human rights, as well as the insight into the depth of Australia’s resistance to the rights of minorities and the rights of peoples to self-determination.
The concluding chapter, “Back to the Future”, powerfully observes the resonances between the policy shifts during the post war period and current debates about Australia’s interpretation and implementation of human rights obligations. The result is a challenge to the reader to consider the philosophical underpinnings of Australia’s approach to human rights, then and now.

Human Rights Law Bulletin, November 2005


Foreword by The Hon Elizabeth Evatt, AC


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Published 26 October 2005
Publisher The Federation Press
ISBN 9781862875623
Australian RRP $49.95
International Price $45.00
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Australian History / Studies
Government / Political Studies
Human Rights & Civil Liberties
Law - Human Rights

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