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‘Free and Equal’: Making Human Rights Education a Priority

Rights Rights and Freedoms

National FutureSchools Expo and Conferences
21 March 2019


I pay my respects to the Wurudjeri peoples of the Kulin nation who are the traditional custodians of this land—to their elders, past and present, and to the future generations, the children and young people that look to us as educators.

I also extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who are attending today.

It is a privilege to be here today at the National Future Schools Conference and Expo to talk with you all about the future of human rights education.

The promotion of understanding about human rights is part of the core mission of the Australian Human Rights Commission, of which I am President. As an educator myself—particularly as an academic in one of my past lives for over two decades—I have embraced this aspect of our role, to talk about human rights and the longstanding and broad-reaching contributions that the Commission makes.

And this year is one in which I am leading a National Conversation on Human Rights with an ambitious plan. One goal is to identify how we can build community understanding to realise human rights and freedoms. Educational outreach is essential.  And the Commission is already contributing greatly, as I will talk about today. But there is also much more we can do together.

I am asking big questions: what kind of Australia do we want to live in, not just for ourselves, but for our children and our children’s children?

Understanding about our human rights is part of that answer.

At the end of November last year, at the 9th International Conference on Human Rights Education, at Parramatta, one of the keynote speakers was Dr MMantsetsa Marope, the Director of the International Bureau of Education. In her opening address, she spoke of the importance of the ‘intergenerational transfer of human rights’. She said, ‘If you don’t know your human rights, how can you exercise them?’ This is where education comes in: to foster that intergenerational transfer to our young people through education.

And, as the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, once said;
‘Human rights education is much more than a lesson in schools or a theme for a day; it is a process to equip people with the tools they need to live lives of security and dignity.’

Today I will build on these ideas and explore how we can keep human rights education relevant for young people in the 21st century.

Education as a human right
As educators, we acknowledge the fundamental right to education. We understand the power it can have to help individuals and communities to reach their full potential.

The right to education is asserted in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It is also captured in five international treaties which Australia has committed to honour, the main two being the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989.

They say that, regardless of who you are and where you live, whatever your age, race or sex, you have the right to an education. Education must be available, accessible and appropriate and provided without discrimination.

Because education opens doors: it is vital to addressing challenges in relation to health, well-being and socio economic status. Education is an enabler of other human rights.

It opens doors to full participation in society; gives agency to step into spaces of decision making; and it empowers people to speak up for themselves and others when things aren’t right. 

To make the most of all this potential, people must know what rights they are entitled to—you must know about them to exercise them (Dr Marope). As Eleanor Roosevelt told us, documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘carry no weight—unless the people know them, unless the people understand them, unless the people demand that they be lived’.

So how can we help young people to learn about and understand their human rights, so they can live them?

Here are some ways; and the role the Commission plays in them—
—We can explore the development of our human rights through history and contextualise this within our present
—We can integrate an understanding of human rights into the school curriculum
—And we can help in embedding a culture of ‘rights-mindedness’ into everything that we do.

Let me tease these out a little.

Learning through history
There is a human rights story behind each day.

Let’s take today for instance.

Today we are marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, or as we know it in Australia—Harmony Day.

Why do we mark this day?

On this day, in 1960, police in South Africa opened fire on anti-apartheid protesters in the township of Sharpeville, killing 69 people. Since 1966, the international community has marked this day by renewing its commitment to eliminating racial discrimination.

We use this day to recognise the struggle many peoples have endured and continue to face against racial discrimination, and we reflect on how we can use education, respect and acceptance to fight racism.

This history is not disconnected from us. We were all shocked by the devastating attack in Christchurch last week. This was an incident of violence that terrorised Muslim people of all ages, from 3 to 71, worshipping in their sacred places. In our sister nations, that strive to uphold human rights, no one should be fearful that they will experience violence based on their race or religion.

So, on this day we are reminded that knowing our history is vital to protecting and realising our human rights.

In Australia, we use this day to reflect on the importance of multiculturalism. With the atrocity in New Zealand, it is now more important than ever to reaffirm the strength that exists in respecting cultural diversity. We stand together with our New Zealand neighbours, all faiths and in particular our own Muslim community. We must continue to work to foster cohesive and inclusive communities.

To do this, there is still a need for our nation to reconcile our diverse heritages and our relationship with the First Peoples of this country, which is also something we mark today, for it is also National Close the Gap Day. It takes place every year on the third Thursday in March, so today it is has aligned with Harmony Day. The Close the Gap Campaign has been running for over ten years and aims to achieve health equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by 2030.

On this day, events are held around the country to raise awareness of the campaign and its goals and to remind governments that they have committed to action to close the gap. It is part of showing how individuals and communities are using human rights as tools to enact change.

In this we realise that history is not only in the past, we are making history now.

I am a legal historian so one project that I initiated at the Commission reflects this historical lens. It has come to fruition as an online calendar.

And so I am delighted to launch the Rights and Freedoms Calendar officially today. The calendar is a new platform through which students and teachers—and the general public—can explore significant milestones in the global and local story of human rights, like today, and examine them in depth. The past and the present come together to form a cohesive story with events, characters and movements—through the lens of a calendar.

This platform connects visitors to curriculum-mapped classroom resources, developed both by the Commission, and others, that can be used to explore human rights related issues and events in greater detail.

The Commission’s role in the promotion of human rights
The Calendar is a good example of how we—as the national human rights institution—promote understanding of human rights to the general public and to schools. It builds upon the excellent resources that we have produced that are linked to the school curriculum—from a song for pre-schoolers about the ‘colours of Australia’, with the repeated line ‘let’s join hands and show we care’, to the new resources recently released for years 7–10, called ‘The Story of Our Rights and Freedoms’.

This suite of resources includes lesson plans, factsheets and a number of animated videos, mapped to the History and Civics and Citizenship curriculum and to a range of different subjects and year level. The Story of Our Rights and Freedoms resources are designed to teach students about the key role that rights and freedoms, and the responsibilities that sit alongside them, play in Australian democracy. They do this in a way that is engaging, inclusive, participatory and, we hope, empowers students and teachers to act in ways that promote and protect their own human rights, and the rights of others. By knowing their rights, they may learn how to exercise them, for themselves and for others.

To complement these classroom resources, we produced a series of five videos, each of which is integrated into various lesson plans. However, these videos can be accessed by anyone—they are freely available on our website and on our YouTube channel. I’d like to play a video for you now which is a fun introductory lesson about Australian democracy and our rights and responsibilities.

Building active citizens
Our hope is that these resources, and human rights education activities in general, will help to build citizens who are active participants in all facets of society—who understand their rights and the responsibilities that sit alongside them.
Through our education work, we hope to build both ‘global’ and ‘local’ citizens—young people who empathise with the crises we see unfolding around the world and who understand that human rights are also relevant in their own communities. By knowing their rights they can play a role in continuing to make the world and their country fairer for everyone.

These aren’t just skills young people will need for the future. Many want to participate now. Many are already making themselves heard and are taking active steps to involve themselves in discussions about decisions that do or will affect them.

This desire to be heard can be seen for example through the work of our National Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell. Last year, Megan conducted an online poll in partnership with the University of Melbourne and ABC’s Behind the News. The poll questions were co-developed by children. Megan wanted to hear from as many children as possible around Australia about which of their rights are most important to them, and whether they think that Australia is meeting its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And just under 23,000 children aged 6–17 years completed the poll. That’s a staggering number and Megan has recently communicated their messages to the United Nations in Geneva.

The rights that children ranked as most important were: being safe; having a home and being cared for; and having a clean environment. Older children ranked getting an education in their top three rights. The majority of children felt that their rights were being met most of the time.

However, the poll also revealed that access to accurate information, being treated fairly, and being able to participate in decisions that affect them were the rights least likely to be met. These findings were most pronounced among children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

This reminds us that not all children are doing so well. And reiterates that human rights education is important, not just for those who already have many of the skills and support needed to make their voices heard, it is important for everyone, particularly those belonging to communities still actively fighting for human rights many of us take for granted.

Embedding Human Rights thinking in the ways that we teach and learn
Finally, how do we build a proactive culture that actively considers human rights, founded on concepts like respect and dignity, upfront, and uses this thinking to guide our actions and our relationships—to make human rights part of the vernacular? It is what I call building ‘rights-mindedness’.

This is where the National Conversation comes in.

Part of the challenge of building a community culture of rights-mindedness is the way that human rights are framed in Australia. Our set of federal discrimination laws represent one way of meeting our international human rights obligations, but they are framed in the negative—in terms of what you can’t do—and they rely on a dispute before offering a solution.

They are focused on protecting and striving for the full realisation of human rights of the whole community.

As I said in December when I launched the National Conversation, I want to see human rights and freedoms embedded in our national psyche—and not just as an afterthought.

As educators we have a significant, and proud, responsibility to the young people in our charge and, through valuing the contribution of education about human rights we are providing people, as Kofi Annan said, ‘with the tools they need to live lives of security and dignity’.
Let us work together towards that goal and to make human rights about everyone, everywhere, everyday.

Rosalind Croucher AM, President