04/08/2016 3:01 PM AEST | Updated 04/08/2016 6:28 PM AEST

Gillian Triggs Says Something Has Gone 'Terribly Wrong' For Australia's Human Rights

'Australia has faltered in its commitment to our freedoms and rights.'

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs says Australia has failed to protect basic human rights in the past decade, citing the treatment of asylum seekers, indigenous Australians and the promised marriage equality plebiscite as examples of Parliament's "faltered" commitment.

Delivering her Sir Anthony Mason lecture in Melbourne on Thursday night, Triggs said Parliament began ignoring commitments to global human rights treaties to protect national security and counter terrorism following the Twin Towers attacks in 2001.

"Something went terribly wrong. Since the start of the new millennium, Australia has faltered in its commitment to our freedoms and rights," Triggs said.

"We have been in retreat from the human rights obligations in the treaties developed in the last century. Indeed, Parliament, that former bastion of support for fundamental freedoms, has adopted laws that explicitly violate common law rights that are as old as the Magna Carta itself."

The legalisation of the restraint chair for prisoners in the Northern Territory and introduction of paperless arrests for up to four hours have "added to the culture and punishment and cruelty of indigenous people" and exemplify Parliamentary neglect for human rights, said the AHRC President.

"The laws have the effect of increasing the arrest rate of indigenous Australians and creating a risk of death in custody and of further injury to their physical and mental health," Triggs said, citing the death of an indigenous man, who had heart failure while under paperless arrest for drinking in a public place in 2015.

"My criticism, with respect, of the High Court is of their failure to consider how their decisions work in practice or to ensure that common law rights have an independent and intrinsic weight of their own."

The number of indigenous people in detention has doubled since the 1995 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Triggs said it was "shameful" that more than 300 recommendations of the Commission were not adopted.

The AHRC President also criticised Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's promise to deliver a marriage equality plebiscite within the next year, labelling it an example of Parliament's failure to protect fundamental human rights.

"Why do we hold an expensive, potentially divisive, compulsory but non-binding national vote on the right to equality before the law -- a long recognised common law principle?" Triggs said.

Triggs also called the political responses to an asylum seeker's High Court case "opportunistic".

In 2015, an asylum seeker -- who returned to Australia to give birth to a child -- challenged the legality of Australia's offshore detention program in Nauru.

Louie Douvis
Gillian Triggs calls out Parliament's failure to uphold fundamental human rights in the Sir Anthony Mason speech on Thursday night.

The Australian Government respectively authorised offshore processing to the Nauru Government, who then changed detention rules, allowing detainees to leave the centre and move around Nauru before the High Court ruled in favour.

"Both actions were opportunistic in ensuring that the High Court would reject the plaintiff's claims," Triggs said.

"There is no power however to do so if the detention is not reasonably necessary to achieve the purpose of processing the claims to refugee status.

"We should be alert and alarmed by the failure of our legal system to protect fundamental rights; by the failure of our courts and Parliament to protect the rights and freedoms that have evolved over millennia.

"Serious consideration should yet again be given to the need for a federal legislated Bill of Rights so that our courts can constrain the excesses of indefinite detention and cruel treatment."