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Does blocking VAD laws in the Territories contravene human rights?

The NT Attorney General and ACT Human Rights Minister warn federal politicians that Territories' inability to legislate on voluntary assisted dying could violate international human rights obligations. 


In 1995, the Northern Territory became the first place in the world to legalise voluntary euthanasia. However, by 1997 the federal parliament had voted to overturn the law - and withdrawn the Territories' power to ever pass such a law again.

Since then, Territorians have watched voluntary assisted dying laws pass in Victoria and WA, and soon in Tasmania, with VAD legislation to be debated in every remaining state this year - while their own MPs are unable to even debate the issue.

The letter

Last week, the NT Attorney General Selena Uibo and ACT's Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne (pictured) wrote an open letter to federal politicians drawing attention to this inequality and suggesting it may be a violation of international human rights obligations.

The letter draws attention to Australia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil Rights and Political Rights which guarantees citizens the right to take part in the conduct of political affairs and to enjoy these rights without distinction or discrimination - which would include any distinctions as what part of Australia they are living.

The letter continues:

'Regardless of one's views on voluntary assisted dying, there should not be any controversy in allowing the ACT and NT to decide for themselves whether to introduce such legislation, and to allow citizens of the ACT and NT an equal opportunity to legislate on this matter if their communities desire.'

The community desire is certainly there. The NT branch on Council on the Ageing (COTA) recently launched a petition to restore the Territories' rights to legislate on VAD, which you can sign here:

This has tied in with concerted support from the NT News newspaper and The Canberra Times.


Human rights

Supporters of VAD often talk about a 'right to die', although no such right is enshrined in law.

However, the assertion that the existing ban on Territories legislating on VAD breaks human rights obligations is a new and distinct argument - that has never before been tested

It may well be that the ability for the Territories to have VAD laws debated in their Legislative Assemblies interferes with citizens' human rights. However, since it is inherent in Australia's federal structure that States and Territories have differing status it could be seen as a Constitutional issue - and it may be a leap for a court to decide Australia's underlying constitutional structure to be inconsistent with international law.

That said, the pressure that is exerted by accusations of human rights violations - and the potential of initiating an international human rights complaint - should not be underestimated. These are powerful levers and will have succeeded in capturing the attention of the federal politicians.

What's more, it pulls the conversation away from "Should we have VAD laws?" back towards the issue at hand: The rights of Territorians to make their own laws, just like every other Australian. 

What next?

We are yet to see what response, if any, the letter will get from the federal Attorney General (who has dismissed similar complaints in the past) nor the Deputy PM.

However, this letter is a new and meaningful contribution to the fight to restore Territory rights.

The law can and must be changed.

To show your support, please sign the COTA NT petition:

and Tara Cheyne's online petition  

You can also listen to a radio interview with Tara Cheyne MLP here:


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