Skip to main content

Challenges for National Human Rights Institutions

Race Race Discrimination

Asia Pacific Forum of National
Human Rights Institutions -

Regional Workshop on National
Human Rights Institutions,
Human Rights Education, Media and Racism

Challenges for National Human
Rights Institutions: human rights education, media and racism

Opening address by Dr William
Jonas AM,
Race Discrimination Commissioner and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner,
Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

15 July 2002

Senator Marise Payne,
Mr Brian Burdekin - the Special Adviser on National Human Rights Institutions
to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Representatives of members of the Asia Pacific Forum,
Representatives from other National Human Rights Institutions both within
the Asian region (from Korea, Malaysia and Thailand) as well as from South
Africa and Uganda,
Our distinguished visitors from overseas and
Distinguished guests.

I would like to commence
by acknowledging the Gadigal clan of the Eora nation, the traditional
custodians of the land where we are meeting today. And thank you Alan
Madden for your welcome to country.

I am the Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Race Discrimination
Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
The President of the Commission, Professor Alice Tay, is unable to be
with us for this workshop due to overseas commitments, and so it is my
task to welcome you to this workshop on behalf of the Australian Commission.

This workshop has
been organised by the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions,
with the support of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights and the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
Commission. Funding for participants and speakers has also been provided
by the Australian government through AusAid and for our African guests
by the British Council. I would like to thank these organisations for
their contributions to this workshop, which would not have occurred without
their support.

It is my great pleasure
to welcome our international guests to Australia and to welcome everybody
to this important workshop. I congratulate the Asia Pacific Forum for
having the foresight to organise this workshop on the topic of 'Human
Rights Education, Media and Racism - the Challenges for National Human
Rights Institutions'.

As anyone who attended
the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa last year will know,
issues relating to racism in all its forms are complex and difficult.
They present great challenges for all of us, wherever we are situated.
These difficulties were certainly reflected in the negotiation process
for the World Conference as well as in the debates on the conference outcomes
at ECOSOC and the General Assembly that followed.

Yet despite these
difficulties, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action [1]
produced by the World Conference were still able to identify contemporary
manifestations of racism and related intolerance and the key sectors in
which reforms are needed so that racism can be tackled successfully. Particular
emphasis was placed on precisely those sectors that are the subject of
this workshop - education, media and national institutions.

Education and awareness-raising
were seen as integral, if not central, components of strategies to overcome
and prevent racism at the international, regional and national levels.
The Conference recognised that 'education at all levels and all ages…
in particular human rights education, is a key to changing attitudes and
behaviour based on racism… and to promoting tolerance and respect
for diversity in societies'. [2]

The Conference noted
'with regret' that "certain media, by promoting false images and
negative stereotypes of vulnerable individuals or groups of individuals,
particularly of migrants and refugees, have contributed to the spread
of xenophobic and racist sentiments among the public and in some cases
have encouraged violence by racist individuals and groups".[3]
At the same time, the Conference also welcomed the positive contribution
which could be made by the media and by new information and communications
technologies such as the internet, drawing attention to its potential
to create educational and awareness-raising networks against racism. [4]

The important role
of national human rights institutions in education and public awareness
activities to combat racism was also emphasised. [5]
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also recently
recognised the importance of this role for national institutions in its
latest General Recommendation, Number 28, on follow-up to the World Conference.

Just prior to the
World Conference, representatives of approximately 70 national human rights
institutions, regional bodies and other relevant specialised institutions
met in Johannesburg to prepare a joint statement to the World Conference
Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related intolerance.

In this statement,
which I think was the first common position adopted by national institutions
at the international level, we made a number of commitments relating to
our role in combating racism and racial discrimination. These included
that national human rights institutions, established and operating in
compliance with the Paris Principles,

will pay special
attention to preventing racism and work with the appropriate institutions
to ensure that educational authorities and other relevant institutions
integrate human rights, anti-racism, tolerance, diversity and respect
for others into their work and institutions…; and

will work with
media, including journalists, to ensure the development and implementation
of public information campaigns in plain and accessible language, enhance
diversity of ownership, encourage the media to avoid 'ethnic profiling'
or the stereotyping of any group, whether an ethnic, racial, national,
cultural, religious or linguistic group and to stress the value of cultural
diversity and a gender perspective. [7]

This workshop gives
the representatives of national human rights institutions participating
here an invaluable opportunity to engage in a dialogue with representatives
of media, as well as to undertake skills development training, in order
to enhance our capacity to undertake these important roles.

And we should be
frank over the next two days in acknowledging the scope of the challenges
that we face as national human rights institutions in undertaking education
and awareness raising programs, as well as engaging in a constructive
relationship with the media about issues related to racism. For it is
a challenging task.

National institutions
perform a wide range of roles. We investigate and perhaps mediate or adjudicate
on complaints and may provide reparations for victims of human rights
violations. We monitor and evaluate the actions of our own governments
on behalf of citizens and residents. We disseminate information about
human rights and advise on their implementation in domestic law and policy.
We educate the public about their human rights and how to enforce them.
So we need to be multi-skilled and strategic in the approaches that we
choose to deploy on particular issues. This is a constant challenge for
national institutions, as we continually re-evaluate how to deliver our
message in the most effective or efficient way.

National institutions
also often face significant resource constraints, both financial and human.
Yet educational and awareness raising activities are generally very expensive.
Perhaps the main challenge we face is having to target scant resources
to make the widest impact. I will shortly give some examples of approaches
that the Australian Commission has undertaken to this end.

One of the complications
we face in Australia is the fact of our federal system of government.
Frequently the government whose human rights performance we need to criticise
will be one of the States or even a local, municipal, government. Monitoring
them all in a comprehensive fashion is beyond our capacity, but we must
address significant concerns whenever they arise. The federal system also
presents a barrier when we try to influence school education. Each State
and Territory has its own school education system and there is no one
national curriculum.

We have also found
that our message about international human rights standards and their
domestic interpretation can be perceived as too legalistic or not of sufficient
interest of itself for media, unless there is a conflict angle. This is
particularly the case in Australia in the reporting of Indigenous and
ethnic minority issues.

Media is also, increasingly,
a commercial venture with a narrow ownership base. With the expansion
of access to new technologies, national borders are also rapidly dissolving
as they relate to media. An increasing proportion of Australian programming,
for example, is imported from the United States and from Britain.

I am delighted that
Dr Mohamedou is participating in this workshop and will be able to discuss
in some detail the outcomes of research conducted by the International
Council on Human Rights Policy in recent years into human rights reporting
by the media. That report, titled Journalism, media and the challenge
of human rights reporting
, notes that:

  • In the last decade
    human rights issues have taken on increased prominence in the media,
    with the mass media making reference to human rights more often and
    more systematically;
  • But that many
    human rights issues remain under-reported by the media, with much reporting
    focusing on conflicts rather than human rights issues that are less
    visible or slower processes; and
  • That the media
    do not explain or contextualise human rights information as well as
    they might. [8]

The report argues
that 'international (and also regional and local) journalists and editors
are under a professional (rather than moral) duty to report and
explain human rights issues as precisely as they report in other domains
- give the facts, avoid bias, provide context. At present this is not
done well enough and, as a result, audiences that rely on the media to
inform them are not in a position to understand or judge properly the
actions or policies of governments and other authorities.' [9]

This is certainly
an issue in Australia with a relatively poor understanding of human rights
and the international human rights system demonstrated by media outlets
on a regular basis.

To give an example,
Australia appeared before four UN human rights treaty committees two years
ago. The concluding observations of those committees, particularly the
CERD and the Human Rights Committee, were met with great hostility by
the government and by many commentators in the media. Unfortunately, much
of this hostility was reflected in grossly inaccurate reporting and descriptions
of the human rights system. Basic issues such as the capacity in which
members of the various committees undertook their role; to the nature
and purpose of the periodic reporting process and the concluding observations
of the committees were incorrectly reported - often fuelled by statements
by government ministers. These often basic misconceptions were by and
large not identified by the media or their veracity tested.

And last year in
my capacity as Race Discrimination Commissioner I held forums on racism
across Australia in the lead up to the World Conference. One of the constant
issues raised was the importance of the media in influencing public opinion,
and the concern that there was a need for further measures to be undertaken
to ensure that the media address racism rather than fostering it. This
is a generalisation of course and there was much acknowledgement by people
of the positive role played by the media as well.

Nevertheless, these
examples illustrate that national human rights institutions have a valuable
role to play in assisting media to meet the challenges that they face
in reporting stories raising human rights issues. One thing we can do
is to provide factual, accurate and easy to understand material about
human rights and racism.

One of the most successful
educational projects that the Australian Commission has undertaken is
a booklet aimed largely at the media, school students and the general
community titled Face the Facts. This publication, currently in
its second edition, takes a number of common misconceptions relating to
Indigenous people, migrants and refugees and provides factual information
which shows that often the public perception or understanding is quite
different from the actual situation. For example, comparative statistics
clearly demonstrate that Australia is not being "swamped by refugees".
Other statistics clearly demonstrate the extent of Indigenous disadvantage
in this country. National policies of multiculturalism and affirmative
action for Indigenous people are simply explained.

This booklet has
been widely distributed among community groups, public libraries and schools,
as well as being accessible on the internet.

The Commission has
also undertaken larger scale projects, such as conducting national inquiries.
Brian Burdekin will speak about the mechanics of these later in the workshop
so I'll just give a brief example of a national inquiry and their potential
to influence public debate and educate the general community. In 1997,
the Commission published the report of its national inquiry into the separation
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families,
titled Bringing them home. The inquiry had been conducted over
a two year period with extensive public and private hearings. The inquiry
was established to examine the impact of laws and policies over the course
of much of the twentieth century which saw Indigenous children of mixed
ancestry forcibly removed from their families and communities.

The publication of
the report, a lengthy and complex document which included numerous recommendations,
was accompanied by a community guide to the key findings of the report,
a video, and website materials including the answers to frequently asked
questions about the policies of removal, their impact and the report's
recommendations for addressing the resultant harm. There was also significant
contact with media and advocacy groups to bring the findings of the report
to the attention of the general community.

The coverage of the
report's findings was perhaps unprecedented and it can legitimately be
claimed that the report has led to a much greater understanding in the
Australian community about the treatment of Indigenous Australians and
the historical antecedents to the situation currently faced by many Indigenous
people. In fact, over five years after the publication of the report it
remains a matter of national significance and discussion.

The special value
of a national inquiry is that it puts personal individual experiences
of discrimination or other rights violation on the public stage; it enables
the public to hear and understand the harm which has been done and it
names that harm as a human rights violation thus making concrete
an otherwise abstract concept; and it makes recommendations for remedies
and avoiding repetition, thus resolving a story with justice, telling
the public how a human rights solution will work.

The Commission is
currently conducting another national inquiry, this time examining the
treatment of children in immigration detention centres, Most of these
children are asylum seekers. This inquiry too is receiving extensive publicity
as public hearings proceed across the country. Hearings are being held
this week in Sydney and you will no doubt read about it in the newspapers
in the coming days.

There are many other
examples of education programs about human rights and racism that have
been developed by the Commission over the past sixteen years or so; and
no doubt there are also many examples of programs that have been developed
by other national institutions participating in this workshop. I very
much look forward to the discussions about these different approaches
over the course of the workshop so that we can all learn from each other's

Through the various
sessions over the next two days we will be exposed to a number of different
approaches to the challenges faced by national human rights institutions.
The issues to be discussed range from the use of public inquiries as an
education tool; the role of the internet; relationships with non-governmental
organisations and community based media. A substantial component of the
workshop is also devoted to media training.

The analytical and
promotional tools at our disposal are wide-ranging. The workshop should
contribute to the expertise with which we utilise these tools, and assist
us in deciding strategically which option we should take in a particular
context in order to best communicate our message and to get maximum benefit
from our limited resources.

Once again, on behalf
of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission of Australia, welcome
to the workshop and I look forward to our deliberations over the next
two days.

Thank you.


2. Durban Declaration, para 95.
3. Durban Declaration, para 89.
4. Programme of Action, paras 140-141.
5. Programme of Action, para 90.
6. UN Doc: A/CONF.189/Misc.1
7. Paras 7 and 9.
8. International Council on Human Rights Policy, Journalism,
media and the challenge of human rights reporting, Summary.
9. Ibid.

updated 19 September 2002