Henry Parkes Primary Schools Citizenship Convention
Graeme Innes AM
Australian Human Rights Commissioner
10 November 2008
Thank you for having me to speak today. I would like to begin by
acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.
For those of you unfamiliar with Australia’s Human Rights Commission,
it’s an independent government body that protects and promotes human
rights. My role as Human Rights Commissioner is to check that human rights in
Australia are being respected including the human rights of children and young
Human rights are an important part of our lives. In fact, they are so much a
part of every day living that we can often take them for granted. Consider how
often you drink clean water; eat food; go to school; say or write what you
think; get treated by a doctor; or expect to be treated fairly by others.
All of these everyday activities depend on the protection of your human
rights, as well as those of others.
Now I want to use some familiar stories to explain to you about human rights
and in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year we are
celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights. This Declaration was agreed to by all countries who were members
of the United Nations at the time. It contains a lot of rights which are shared
by everyone around the world.
When you were younger you may have read Dr Seuss. A few years after the
Declaration was written, Dr Seuss wrote his famous book The Cat in the Hat. Did
you know that Dr Seuss used only 236 different words to write the Cat in the
Hat? Back in 1954, many American children could not read. This was thought to be
because books were boring. So, Dr Seuss wrote the Cat in the Hat. And it is
still popular today.
Well, many of Dr Seuss’s books are actually about human rights. Think
of Horton Hears a Who! This book is about everyone being equal – “A
person’s a person, no matter how small.” This is exactly what the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights is all about. All human beings are born
free and equal.
And what about Yertle the Turtle? This story is about an arrogant turtle king
who marvels at how wonderful he is and proclaims he is the ruler over everything
that he could see. Yertle orders other turtles to stand on each other’s
backs to form a higher throne for him, so that he can see and therefore rule
over more. He keeps ordering more and more turtles to add to his throne so that
he gets higher and higher and can see further and further. The whole time a
single turtle, Mack, on the bottom of the stack, keeps complaining that the
turtles are all in pain because of Yertle’s greed. Yertle repeatedly
silences Mack until Mack decides he’s had enough. A single burp by Mack
shakes Yertle of his throne, causing him to fall into the pond below. The story
ends with Yertle being “King of the mud,” because “that is all
he can see.” What this story shows is that people (and turtles) should
stand up for themselves and not allow their rights to be violated, no matter who
is violating them.
Yertle’s reign as king is toppled by a simple, innocent act committed
by the lowest turtle in the stack. “I know up on top you are seeing great
sights, but down at the bottom we too have rights. And the turtles of course,
all the turtles are free. As turtles, and maybe, all creatures should be.”
Dr Seuss teaches us that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and
expression. He tells us to speak up and have our voice heard: “Be who you
are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who
matter don't mind.” This is also in the Universal Declaration.
Dr Seuss also teaches us about diversity. In One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish,
Blue Fish he teaches us that no matter what our colour we are all equal.
Now the Sneetches are a group of yellow creatures who live on a beach. Some
Sneetches have a green star on their bellies. At the start of the story those
Sneetches with stars on their bellies are part of the “in crowd”,
while Sneetches without stars are unpopular.
In the story, a “fix-it-up chappie” named Sylvester McMonkey
McBean appears. He offers the Sneetches without stars a chance to get a star by
going through his Star-On machine, for three dollars. The machine is instantly
popular. But this upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches. They are worried
about losing their way of discriminating between classes of Sneetches. So McBean
tells the star-bellied Sneetches about his Star-Off machine, which costs ten
dollars. The Sneetches with stars pay McBean ten dollars to have their stars
removed in order to remain special.
McBean then allows the recently starred Sneetches through this Star-Off
machine as well. Ultimately this escalates, with the Sneetches running in a loop
from one machine to the next, “until neither the Plain nor the
Star-Bellies knew, whether this one was that one or that one was this one, or
which one was what one... or what one was who.”
This continues until the Sneetches are dead broke and McBean is filthy rich.
But the Sneetches learn from this - that neither plain-belly nor star-belly
Sneetches are superior. In the end, they are able to get along and become
friends. “I’m quite happy to say that the Sneetches got really smart
on that day. The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches. And no kind of
Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”
This idea that we are all equal is reflected in the Universal
In Australia some people are denied their basic rights, because of their
colour, their race, their sex, a disability or some other aspect of who they
are. They are discriminated against. We are all different in Australia, like the
fish in One Fish Two Fish. But we all have the same human rights to go to
school, to think and say what we think, and to be treated fairly.
Whether or not you have a star on your belly, your skin is a different
colour, you are a girl or a boy, we are all equal.
In Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Dr Seuss tells us that we each have the
potential to do whatever we choose. We have the right to life, the freedom to
think, the freedom to express our opinions, the freedom to move and live in
Australia, the freedom to leave Australia and to come back again. “Kids
you’ll move mountains.”
You have those rights and freedoms. So does the person next to you, in front
of you, your teachers, your parents, your brothers and sisters, the bus driver,
the train driver, everyone does.
Finally, in The Lorax, Dr Seuss teaches us about how to help the world.
“Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And
feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax
and all his friends can come back. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful
lot. Nothing is going to get better. Its not.”
So we all need to care about each other and about the world we live in. There
are literally hundreds of things you can do in your local area.
- read the newspaper and get up to speed with some of the issues in your
community, in Australia or overseas
- set up a human rights project or awareness campaign in your school or
- start a group on facebook to get your friends talking and thinking about
- talk to your teacher about issues your could study at school
- write to your school or local newspaper about an issue that concerns you
- join a human rights group, like Amnesty International
- raise money for an overseas aid program or a local human rights
Thank you for the time to speak to you all today.
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things
you can think up if only you try!”