Human Rights are a fundamental part of a just society: Federation response to Ombudsman lockdown report

December 17, 2020 |

The Victorian Ombudsman’s findings into the lockdown of the Flemington and North Melbourne public towers is an important reminder of the vital role of human rights, respect and community engagement in any emergency response, Federation of Community Legal Centres CEO Serina McDuff said today.

Responding to the release of the report, Ms McDuff said the report showed human rights, including respect, equality and fairness for all community members needed to be at the forefront of any decisions, particularly those made during state and national emergencies.

“We recognise this was an incredibly difficult time for all, particularly front line and government staff who were trying to contain the spread of a global pandemic and keep all people safe,” she said.

“However, this report reminds us that human rights considerations must be at the forefront of any decision making and that these principles should not be compromised because of the immediacy of a situation.

“Imagine what it must have been like for the residents in those towers, to suddenly have their homes surrounded by police officers, to find that they could no longer walk outside for fresh air, could not replace the food in their cupboards or get access to any medication they might need. This is the reality the people in those towers faced on that day in July.

“Many of those residents had experienced extreme trauma. Some had fled war or family violence, some had battled or continue to battle mental or physical health issues.

“Every one of those residents deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. Those are the basic human rights principles that we as a society should constantly be striving for.”

The report, which was tabled in Parliament today, found the timing of the lockdowns was not based on healthcare advice.

Ms McDuff said basic human rights were a vital foundation for any law and government response within a developed, democratic society.

“We use the term human rights often, but what we mean by that is access to the everyday freedoms we have come to expect in our community,” she said.

“Every Victorian, every Australian expects that our basic human rights will be protected – that we will be treated with respect, will be able to access fresh air and food, that we can visit the doctor if we are sick or get medication if we need it.

“These principles of human rights are not an ‘add-on’ to the law, not something we can pick and choose how or when to apply, they are a fundamental part of a fair and equitable community.

“Human rights can provide the framework for ensuring all rights are protected and the community is kept safe in the time of a pandemic. We understand that at times governments need to take drastic action to ensure community safety, however that action should be undertaken in partnership with the effected community.

Ms McDuff said the investigation provided important learnings for future state and national emergency responses to ensure human rights principles provided the framework for community protection.

She also noted that the government responded to community concerns throughout the lockdown period to better support tower residents, effectively enacting some of the recommendations identified in the Ombudsman’s report and improving response procedures throughout the pandemic.

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