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Human rights terms

Disability Royal Commission hearings sometimes use terms that most Australians aren’t very familiar with. We’re keeping a list of these and trying to explain them in plain language. Please feel free to email us at if you have suggestions for words that should be included. This list of human rights terms is partly based on the Royal Commission’s glossary for Hearing 18, which also contains some more terms and acronyms from that hearing.

Because the CRPD covers so many of the issues that the Royal Commission is looking into, we have already defined some related terms in other sections of the Jargon Buster, such as:

International law: Rules and agreements between different countries, like when they sign treaties. International law can be about wars and international trade, but it can also be about things that happen inside a country – human rights treaties often cover both. Even though an international law makes rules about how things should be inside Australia, and the government agrees to it, it isn’t part of Australian law until the government passes Australian legislation about it. Until then, you can’t apply it in an Australian court, and it mostly just affects our international reputation. However, it can be used politically, and as an example of the way things should be.

Ratification: The formal word for a government officially agreeing to follow the rules in an international treaty. Australia ratified the CRPD in July 2008. Signing the treaty is something our diplomats do before the government ratifies it to confirm that they agree. We often informally say “sign” to refer to the whole process, because more people understand that word and the difference is only important during the time between signing and ratification.

UN Committee: A group of independent experts that keeps an eye on a particular treaty and how different countries are implementing it.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD): An international law about the human rights of people with disability. It doesn’t create new rights, but it does go into detail about the areas in which our human rights are often ignored, and says what governments should do about it. Find out more at our human rights hearing page.

Optional Protocol: An extra treaty that builds on an existing UN treaty, often by creating specific pathways or protocols that describe how people can formally tell the relevant UN Committee about human rights violations. Not all the countries that sign the original treaty have to sign an optional protocol.

Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT): The Convention Against Torture (and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) says how you can and can’t treat people who are being detained. Signing the Optional Protocol to it as well means a country agrees to create an independent National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), which can inspect all places of detention and closed environments. Find out more at our human rights hearing page.

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (OPCRPD): When Australia signed this, we agreed that the CRPD Committee can investigate complaints that people or groups from Australia make about violations of the human rights of people with disability.

Interpretative declaration: When a country signs a UN treaty, but disagrees about some of the details, they can write a document called an interpretative declaration (also sometimes called an interpretive declaration). This document looks at an article of the treaty that people could interpret in different ways, and says what the country signing it believes that article means. This is not the same as a reservation, which actively rejects part of the treaty. A reservation says “no,” while an interpretative declaration says “yes, but.”

An example of a reservation: Many countries have signed the CRPD with a reservation against Article 27, saying they will give certain jobs an exemption from employment discrimination rules. Most of these refer to the armed forces.

An example of an interpretative declaration: Australia has said it interprets the CRPD to allow substitute decision-making “as a last resort” and with safeguards, even though many people interpret Article 12 to mean there shouldn’t be any substitute decision-making at all. That means Australia hasn’t committed to phasing it out everywhere and replacing it with supported decision-making, and our government believes there is no conflict between this and the CRPD. Find out more about supported vs substitute decision-making in our Capacity & Guardianship Jargon Buster.

You can find the text of all reservations and declarations on the UN CRPD website, under the list of countries that have signed the treaty.

Margin of appreciation: Each country can decide for itself what the best way to support human rights in that country is. When international law experts talk about the margin of appreciation, they mean that the UN Committee isn’t going to tell us off for doing something different to another country when we put the CRPD or another treaty into practice. However, this is not meant to be an excuse for not doing anything, or for doing something that clearly doesn’t work.

Progressive realisation: Some parts of the CRPD (or another treaty) can apply straight away – like changing a law to make sure everyone is allowed to vote. Fulfilling other human rights can take time and resources – like making sure there is enough accessible housing for everyone. Progressive realisation means the government should do whatever it can do as soon as it signs the treaty, and then make plans to improve everything else gradually. Again, this is not an excuse to dawdle – especially for a country as rich as Australia. We have more resources than many other countries that sign human rights treaties, and our progress is judged accordingly. Find out more in this human rights FAQ from the United Nations.

Civil society shadow report: Each country that agrees to a UN Convention sends the UN Committee a periodic report on their work implementing it. Non-government organisations, also known as civil society, usually present their own report at the same time, explaining how they think the government is doing. The non-government report is called a shadow report, a bit like a politician from the non-majority party being a shadow minister. It provides another point of view. You can find the latest civil society shadow report on the CRPD at the DPO Australia website.

General Comment: A document with more context and explanations for a particular treaty. It goes into more detail about what different parts of the treaty are supposed to do and mean, how the whole thing is meant to work and what the UN Committee expects countries to do with it. Signing the treaty doesn’t mean a country agrees to follow everything in the General Comment, but it is a useful resource when deciding what specific things a country should do to implement the treaty. You can find the CRPD Committee’s General Comments at the UN CRPD website.

Legitimate differential treatment: Not every case of treating people differently is discrimination. The Australian Government’s background paper on the CRPD gives the example of parking spots reserved for people with disability.

It’s considered legitimate to treat people differently if:

  • You are trying to achieve a legitimate goal, and
  • What you’re doing is in proportion to that goal, and
  • You have “reasonable and objective” criteria, meaning a way to decide which people to treat one way and which people to treat another way.

This means that disagreements about whether something legally counts as discrimination or not often hinge on deciding what kind of goal is legitimate and proportional, and whether someone is sorting people into groups in a “reasonable and objective” way.

For example, Australia’s interpretive declaration says article 18 of the CRPD (which says people with disability have the same right to migrate and change their nationality as anyone else) doesn’t “impact on Australia’s health requirements for non-nationals seeking to enter or remain in Australia, where these requirements are based on legitimate, objective and reasonable criteria.” The Australian government claims that not letting many disabled people travel to Australia because, essentially, their medical care and disability support might turn out to be expensive, is legitimate and reasonable (and that their method for deciding how much money someone’s care and support will cost is objective).

This is the same framing of people with disability as “a burden” that people use to justify abuse, neglect, exploitation and even violence against us in other contexts. Nobody thinks it would be reasonable to stop families from migrating with children just because those children might go to a government-funded public school, but ableism is so widespread that the disability support equivalent is considered a legitimate debate. Find out more from the Welcoming Disability campaign.