By Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Senior Researcher, Public Interest, APS National Office

In December 2008 the National Human Rights Consultation was launched by the Attorney-General, the Hon Robert McClelland MP. The Consultation aimed to seek a range of views from across Australia about the protection and promotion of human rights. The key consultation questions were: Which human rights and responsibilities should be protected and promoted? Are human rights sufficiently protected and promoted? How could Australia better protect and promote human rights and responsibilities? The views and ideas offered by the Australian community during the consultation process will be documented in a report to the Government and considered to assist in the development of future human rights policy for Australia.

In June 2009, the APS made a submission to the Consultation and supported the strengthening of the human rights culture and legal framework in Australia. It was deemed important to provide comment to the Consultation in recognition of the vital relationship between social and environmental factors such as the upholding of human rights and mental health and wellbeing. Indeed, the APS Code of Ethics is built on three general ethical principles, which are expressions of, and strengthened by, a human rights framework. These principles are: respect for the rights and dignity of people and peoples, propriety, and integrity. Psychologists regard people as intrinsically valuable and respect their rights, including the right to autonomy and justice. Psychologists engage in conduct which promotes equity and the protection of people's human, legal and moral rights (APS, 2007).

It is psychology's ethical and social responsibility to advocate for the promotion and protection of human rights, and it is in using existing psychological knowledge to enhance individual and community wellbeing that psychologists have something to offer this human rights debate.

The information presented below summarises the APS submission to the National Human Rights Consultation.

The importance of human rights to individual and community wellbeing

Wellbeing is a multi-factorial concept that is based on the satisfaction of material, physical, affective and psychological needs. It includes physical and mental health, but also security - of food, of income, of identity (personal and collective) - and is predicated on the presence of a healthy and just society that affords people opportunities for growth and development (Albee, 1986).

Human rights promote human happiness and wellbeing because they protect people's vital needs and fundamental interests. The protection of these basic rights further enables people to pursue those things they find enjoyable and worthwhile. This right is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care" (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25).

Scientific knowledge of the determinants of health, including mental health, is accumulating rapidly. There is a large body of knowledge about the determinants of good mental health in children, and the effects of this on their mental health and wellbeing in adult life (Prior, Smart, Sanson & Oberklaid, 2000). Important determinants include children's emotional, behavioural, social, cognitive and physical development, parenting practices and parent-child relationships, and family and community connectedness.

The social and economic conditions that affect whether people become ill and whether they develop mental health problems are also well known, and point to the importance of human rights provisions that protect the rights of people to live in conditions that adequately meet their basic needs. Poor social and economic circumstances affect health throughout life.

Social and community psychology have long demonstrated the interrelatedness of mental health or inner happiness and the external world or social context. Research, for example, has pointed to the detrimental impact of racism, discrimination and poverty (as examples of the failure to protect human rights) on the psychological health and wellbeing of individuals and the community. Individuals who have experienced racism are more likely to suffer poor physical and psychological health (VicHealth, 2007), while those living in poverty struggle to meet their material needs (such as food and shelter), which impacts directly on psychological health, individual life satisfaction and the ability to participate more broadly in society. Psychological research has highlighted the impact of failure to protect the economic rights of one of society's most vulnerable groups, single parents, on the emotional and social health of families, pointing to the detrimental effects of poverty on social and emotional wellbeing (Barth & Gridley, 2008).

Central to individual and community wellbeing is the concept of self-determination. A person's right to determine their own destiny impacts directly on happiness and health. For example, if people do not have equal employment rights and opportunities due to legislation which diminishes the rights of employees, or are not afforded equal treatment in the employment process (e.g., due to living with a disability), vulnerable individuals and groups are disadvantaged, disempowered and less able to make decisions (such as to participate in society through paid employment) that optimise their wellbeing.

Which human rights are most important?

In line with psychological best practice, and to promote community wellbeing, the APS supported the principles set out by the Human Rights Consultation Committee that underlie a human rights framework, including freedom, respect, equality and dignity. In addition, the principles of inclusion and accessibility are important to ensure that human rights are protected among more vulnerable groups (such as those living with a disability, or newly arrived migrants and refugees).

The following human rights were indentified as being of key importance:

  • The dignity of persons and respect for society's most vulnerable
    • the poor, ethnic minorities, refugees and asylum seekers, people with physical and mental disabilities, and people with mental illness.
  • The right to health cannot be effectively protected without respect for the principle of non-discrimination. Societal discrimination and stigma directly affect the health status of the population, in particular vulnerable groups who already bear an undue proportion of health problems.
  • As the challenges of environmental threats and climate change become more urgent, and the consequences of climate change on the health and wellbeing of billions of people around the globe become more dire (Costello et al., 2009), two important and emerging human rights are:
    • The right of people to a healthy environment
    • The right of future generations to a healthy environment.

How Australia could better protect and promote human rights

The APS recommended the following initiatives to further strengthen Australia's human rights framework and optimise community wellbeing.

  1. Strengthen the legal framework for protecting human rights by introducing a Human Rights Act
  2. Strengthen mechanisms for complaint and appeal
  3. Strengthen public health policy and intervention
  4. Provide a ‘national' approach to human rights to ensure the same protections are afforded to all Australians
  5. Promote community responsibility for human rights
  6. Improve data collection and evaluation processes on human rights issues


Australian Psychological Society. (2007). Code of Ethics. Melbourne: Author.

Albee, G.W. (1986). Toward a just society: Lessons from observations on the primary prevention of psychopathology. The American Psychologist, 41, 891-897.

Barth, M., & Gridley, H. (2008). Families living in poverty in Broadmeadows: Challenges, survival strategies and support services. Australian Community Psychologist, 20, 36-46.

Costello, A., Abbas, M., Allen, A., Ball, S., Bell, S., Bellamy, R., Friel, S. et al. (2009). Managing the health effects of climate change. The Lancet, 373, 1693-1733.

Prior, M., Sanson, A., Smart, D., & Oberklaid, F. (2000). Pathways from infancy to adolescence: Australian Temperament Project 1983-2000. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved 10 June 2009 from

VicHealth (2007). More than Tolerance: Embracing diversity for health. Melbourne: Author.

InPsych October 2009