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Developing a culture of human rights: AIESEC Initiate the Future Conference

Race Race Discrimination

Developing a culture of human rights: AIESEC Initiate the Future Conference

Graeme Innes
Race and Disability Discrimination Commissioner

University of Queensland, Brisbane
Queensland, 1 July 2011


1. Acknowledgement and thank you

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land. These days it's becoming a more common practice to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the traditional owners, as I just did - particularly at conferences where people come to meet and discuss important social issues. As you know, not too long ago, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not even counted as people in the census, let alone acknowledged as Australia's traditional owners.

This demonstrates how as a society, we change, we reconsider, we develop, we become more respectful, and we think of new ways to improve ourselves. It's these changes that drive innovation, and ultimately a better future for everyone. It's in this changing culture that social views and values are improved upon, and outdated ones exchanged for better ones. When I was your age, it was thought best for me - a person with a disability - to go to a 'special' school; today I would go to school with you. Your grandmother's were forced to leave the workforce when they married; today, women can choose to continue their career.

This is a fitting way to start this discussion today, because I'll be talking about how we develop a culture of human rights in Australia, and highlighting the exciting and crucial role that innovation plays in creating solutions to human rights issues, and bringing people closer together.

2. Innovation and building a human rights culture

When I think of innovation in my lifetime; there are two major areas where I've seen positive, powerful changes - human rights, and technology. In the last few decades, we've seen views and values becoming more respecting of human rights. We've also seen great technological changes, which have brought people closer together, and assisted in promotion of human rights. Rapid changes in technology have meant that people now reach each other, get access to information, and participate in ways that we only dreamed about in the past.

As you can see, I'm using computer technology, which enables me to read my notes through a series of raised dots. Whilst braille was invented in the early 19th  century, the computer technology that I'm using came about in around the 1980s, and vastly expanded the information that blind people could access.

But it's not just that innovation can increase our access to information that improves human rights. It is the way that innovation - especially technological innovation - enables previous barriers to equality to be overcome, and participation to be promoted. For example, 2007 was the first time in my life that I was able to truly participate in a political election. As you know, Australia is proud of its democratic tradition, which involves people over the voting age casting a vote for their representatives in secret. However, because I could not read the hard copy ballot, and mark my vote on it, I was unable to vote in secret. In 2007, a system of electronic voting was introduced. Instead of a hard copy voting paper, I was able to read an electronic version of the candidates, make my vote electronically, and exercise my right to a secret ballot.

That's why I see the importance of developing a culture of human rights, through innovative ideas and processes. At the Commission, we talk a lot about developing a culture of human rights in Australia. But what does that really mean? Since 'culture' is essentially about collective human behaviour, quite simply, a culture of human rights defines a society where everyone's rights are respected, everywhere, every day.

And yet, even though past prejudices are now looked upon with disdain, we know that there is still a long way to go in terms of everyone's rights being respected.  The question is, how we work to build a culture of human rights in Australia. Since all cultures rely on shared values, a human rights culture in Australia requires human rights to be understood, and owned by everyone.

3. Popular understanding and ownership of human rights

In general terms, Australians - regardless of how long we've been here - support values that are essentially human rights values. After all, who can argue against things like a 'fair go', dignity, freedom and respect? But how these relate to everyday lives, and what we need to do to further improve dignity, freedom and respect in our community, is not so clear cut. In order to further understanding in these areas, we need to engage with as many Australians as possible about human rights.

I used the word 'engage' deliberately, because I want to stress that when I talk about increasing understanding of human rights, I think about it in terms of innovation, and not as a stagnant concept. Human rights principles in themselves are a positive demonstration of changing views in society. And although human rights gain their power because they are legal obligations, it is how these legal principles are embedded in the way we think, and act, that creates real change. How we think and act as a society changes over time. Therefore, the practice of human rights, and our collective behaviour, is constantly changing and evolving. Since the development of a culture of human rights is based on collective behaviour, commitment to devising new and better ways to respect human rights is required by everyone in the community.

Some interesting research has been undertaken, in both Australia and the United Kingdom, that demonstrates the role of communities in creating a human rights culture. This research found that communities support the role of human rights driving social behaviour. In other words, communities are more interested in the practice, not the law, of human rights. Echoing these sentiments, both the Victorian and Western Australian consultations on human rights, found that a human rights culture was identified as a top priority by community members.

The role of community members in developing a culture of human rights is a focus for the Commission. We're excited by the possibilities of bringing together innovative views and ideas about human rights, by using innovative technologies. We know that innovation inspires and motivates, and that after a while, changes are no longer new, but common place. It's true that past discriminatory views look ridiculous in today's light. We no longer segregate men and women in pubs, or take aboriginal children from their families. In the same way, we have forgotten how to cope without our mobile phones. Therefore, by focusing on the processes of change, innovative solutions to human rights issues will be found in our community. It will be leaders, like yourselves, who will propel these new ideas forward, and remain committed to ensure they become a common and shared culture.

4. Social media and developing a culture of human rights

The future of Australia's human rights culture, therefore, lies in the community. Innovative technologies have enabled an enhanced role for the community. For example, social media, by its very nature, is community-based, and enables community members to generate their own content, and make networks on a scale that has not been previously possible.

I know that I better be careful in what I say now, because I know that I am talking to a group of social media experts, who could up-stage me at any moment! You're probably tweeting about me as I speak. So if you are, follow me at graemeinnes.

I see the enormous potential of new technologies through my daughter. Rachel, who is thirteen, is as connected as can be. When I come home from work, she is often to be found doing her homework via Skype, facebook and wikipedia. Google is her answer to everything. In human rights terms, her right to education is enhanced by the way that she can connect with others, and broaden her educational experience in this way. And I know that she's not alone.

Australian research found that social media is used by 97% of people in the 18 to 30 age range, 81% for 31 to 50, and 56% for over 50. So at least more than half of my dinosaur group are engaging! The take-up and success of social media as an innovative technology comes down to a key point - social media enables story-telling. Personal views and experiences can be easily published and disseminated. This, of course, is more compelling in some cases than others!

I know sometimes I wish certain celebrities would keep their tweets to themselves, but I also know the power that a personal story holds in changing views, and enabling people to understand the lived experiences of those in our community who have had their rights violated. I've been moved, over and over, by listening to stories from people with disabilities, who are regularly discriminated against because of assumptions about what they can't do, not what they can do. I've heard stories from gay and lesbian Australians, who have been stopped from visiting their partners in hospitals because their relationships were not recognised. I've listened to asylum seekers detained in immigration detention centres speak of immense mental anguish, that only freedom can remedy. And every time I hear the stories of these everyday people, I know that change will occur when those stories are heard by everyone.

The Commission recently undertook some research, to work out how Australians might use social media to understand human rights - and the role of story-telling was central. The participants in our research noted that social media gives them the opportunity to connect with real people, and to hear real stories about human rights, rather than relying on traditional media sources. The research also demonstrates that social media users feel that new technology enables them to take action on human rights that was not possible via other means.

This research has been used by the Commission to design a social media project, that uses innovative technologies to provide an experience where people can guide change, and take action on human rights, to support the development of a human rights culture in Australia. I see you all playing an important role in this social media experience on human rights, and encourage you to demonstrate your leadership when we launch the experience in December this year.

5. Conclusion

Albert Einstein said that 'it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity'. Today, I haven't focused on how innovation can sometimes be used to commit great human rights violations of the type that Albert Einstein was referring to. But I think his words are an important reminder that humanity is within our control, and that when communities use innovative solutions to create positive change, technology can be a force for inspiration and motivation.

In the same way, a human rights culture must be developed from within the community. I know that you all have a key role to play. I am truly excited, when I think of the changes that you will see in your lifetimes, the social views and behaviours that will change for the better, and the new ideas about human rights which will become so common place that it is hard to remember a time when greater respect for human rights was needed. This is the future I imagine for you- use technology to make it a reality.