Today, 21 March, is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This is a day on which many workplaces and communities will be acknowledging efforts to improve harmony and unity, but it is also an important opportunity to remember that freedom from racial discrimination and hatred is a human right protected by international, Australian and Queensland law.
As well as the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) (Racial Discrimination Act), which applies nationally, in Queensland protections exist in both our Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld) (Anti-discrimination Act)and in the Human Rights Act 2019 (Qld) (Human Rights Act). It is unlawful to discriminate against people on the basis of race. Racial discrimination occurs when there is less favourable treatment because of race, and when there is a standard term or requirement that people cannot comply with because of their race.
The principle that discrimination can occur even when people are treated the same is a powerful tool in the fight against racial discrimination. This sort of discrimination can happen when a standard rule is unreasonably imposed and causes detriment to people from particular racial backgrounds. For example, a rule might require all men to have short hair. Generally Sikh people are unable to cut their hair. Some Pasifika peoples, including boys from some Cook Islands and Niuean boys, may be unable to cut their hair until they go through a cultural hair cutting ceremony. Other standards such as ‘no face tattoos’ and ‘no afro haircuts’ also impact people who have cultural tattoos (including moko kauae and mataora) or are of African descent, for example.
There are also legal protections in the Racial Discrimination Act and the Anti-Discrimination Act against offensive racist behaviour, racial vilification and other racist conduct if it occurs in public. It is unlawful to engage in public behaviour that is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group on the basis of their race (s 18C Racial Discrimination Act) and to engage in public acts that incite hatred towards, or severe ridicule of, a person or group on the basis of their race (s 124A Anti-discrimination Act).
In Queensland, there are further protections for cultural rights and freedom from discrimination in the Human Rights Act. There is also a specific protection for the distinct cultural rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that includes rights to cultural heritage, knowledge, language and expression, kinship ties and relationships (including economic) to land, water and other resources. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are further protected from forced assimilation and the destruction of culture.
You can find a lot more information about the legal protections that exist for racial discrimination and racial hatred in the Queensland Law Handbook and on the Queensland Human Rights Commission and Australian Human Rights Commission websites.
On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in the 75th year since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations is urging more action on racism. Although there is legal protection against racial discrimination and hatred in Australia with some powerful provisions in the law, major update are needed to fit with how we live today. Among other things, the coverage of the law into online spaces is complicated. There are not enough powers for regulators and police to take action and the legal processes are slow, complicated and sometimes very expensive.
In Queensland this year, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do just that. The Anti-Discrimination Act is under review. Working together we can bring that legislation into the 21st century with changes that will provide better protection against discrimination and hatred in the future.
For more information about the legal changes we believe are needed in this area please see: