Developing a Culture of Human Rights: Education, Public Awareness and Active Citizenship
Human Rights Commissioner
National Human Rights Consultation
Canberra, 3 July 2009
I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land.
The Australian Human Rights Commission supports a Human Rights Act for Australia. It would set out in a single document the human rights that all people in Australia are entitled to enjoy, and the responsibilities we have to respect the rights of others.
If we had a Human Rights Act, politicians, public servants and judges would all need to learn about human rights, because they would have to apply those principles in their decision-making.
But a Human Rights Act will not, alone, magically create a rights-aware, and a rights-respecting, culture. We'll need institutions such as the Human Rights Commission to play an active role in the promotion and protection of human rights. We'll also need a strong and ongoing national program of human rights education.
Much that the Commission does is about education--the development of teaching tools for schools, national inquiries finding systemic human rights breaches, annual social justice reports highlighting pressing indigenous rights issues, guidelines for employers on reducing sexual harassment, submissions to parliament about amending laws to ensure human rights compliance, media comments on human rights--to name just a few.
Your Committee asked questions about whether the government should enhance the Commissions role:
Should the jurisdiction of the Commission be expanded to inquire into, and conciliate, a broader range of human rights complaints?
Our answer: Yes.
Should the Commission have a greater role in scrutinising legislation for human rights compatibility?
Our answer: Yes.
How should the Government respond to the Commissions recommendations, such as those contained in Commission reports that are tabled in Parliament?
Our answer: Formally and promptly.
So how do these answers relate to human rights education, and creating a human rights culture?
One of the Commissions important functions is to investigate and conciliate complaints of discrimination and human rights breaches. This process can lead to broad community education about human rights. For example, an employer the subject of a disability discrimination complaint might initially be irritated by a complaint about wheelchair access of their workplace. But our research shows that many employers (and complainants) learn much about providing access, and the benefits it can bring (for example, an employee can come back to work after a skiing
accident weeks earlier because their wheelchair can get in the door). So an individual complaint has a broad reaching impact.
Currently, the Commission's human rights jurisdiction is defined quite narrowly. We can't investigate human rights complaints under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention Against Torture, or the
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Extending our jurisdiction to economic, social and cultural rights would be particularly important if these human rights were excluded from a Human Rights Act. The Commission could investigate and conciliate complaints, the outcomes of which could have a far reaching positive impact for ordinary Australians.
And I thank Jim Wallace for his support of a self-initiation function- you are right Jim, disadvantaged and marginalised people do find it hard to complain.
Human rights breaches can be prevented from occurring, if bills are examined to make sure they comply with human rights before they are passed! The Commission could use its substantial expertise in examining bills for their human rights compatibility. But for this to be most useful, we would need the power to initiate examinations.
Currently, we can only examine bills at the request of a Minister--a request that has never been made to my knowledge. And if examination occurs, the government is not required to do anything about it. So, any law giving us a power to scrutinise bills should require the tabling of the Commission's findings, and the government response, within a specified time period.
That segues to your third question, how the government should respond to the reports we make, about:
individual human rights complaints
inquiries into systemic human rights issues (such as A last resort?, the report into Children in Immigration Detention)
the annual Social Justice Report and Native Title Report.
The Government should have to tell the Australian community how it will address recommendations we make. Let me be clear, we're not suggesting that we should have power to compel government to comply with our recommendations. But the effectiveness of our work is diminished if the government can just ignore it. Requiring a public response creates a public dialogue about these issues. That's another part of human rights education. Our submission outlines other areas where we could contribute more to a human rights culture. The power to intervene, as of
right, in cases that raise significant human rights issues could assist courts. Investment in a national human rights education programme could increase the impact of our education work.
Finally, we highlight our decreasing funding. If our work is to increase, we will need adequate resources. A Human Rights Act would create greater public awareness of the importance of human rights to the lives of all of us. Whether or not we get one, human rights education should be significantly enhanced. Education of the broader community, federal public servants, administrative decision makers, and schools and universities.
The Commission could play an important role in making this happen. Our resources for secondary schools could, with adequate funding, be expanded, and distributed more widely.
Human rights in Australia will be better protected and promoted by a strong human rights commission, and comprehensive human rights education. I hope these, along with a human rights act, will result from this consultation. We need to bring human