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Human Rights: Universal and Inalienable

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Human Rights: Universal and Inalienable

Annual State Youth Conference of the United Nations Youth Association of NSW

The Collaroy Centre, Homestead Avenue, Collaroy Beach

Saturday 29 March, 3pm - 4pm


I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Guringai people of the Eora Nation.

I'm very pleased to be speaking to you today. I'm especially encouraged that so many young people have put aside a weekend to think about, and talk about, human rights.

Now, I want to start with a quick three question quiz.

What was the simple word used by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently to highlight an important indigenous human rights issue?
Answer: SORRY
There are roughly 100,000 homeless Australians. What percentage of people experiencing homelessness are under the age of 25?
Answer: Roughly half, the exact figure is 46%
What is happening today, the 29 of March, in Zimbabwe?
Answer: Presidential and parliamentary elections.

These are all important human rights issues.

Something else that is happening today is Earth Hour. Started last year by the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald, Earth Hour is going international this year, with participation from Canada, Denmark, England, Fiji, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America.

I'm excited by this for 2 reasons: Firstly, although climate change is an environmental issue, it is also a really important human rights issue. The impacts of climate change threaten fundamental human rights, including the right to life, the right to adequate food, the right to water, and the right to health. So I'm pleased that more and more people are beginning to think about climate change, and the impact it will have on our lives. In dealing with climate change, we need to make sure that human rights questions are taken into account.

The second reason I'm excited by this is because Earth Hour started as an Australian initiative, and has now spread worldwide. I'm always pleased to see Australians involved in leading important social causes. We have a proud history of this, which needs to be continued.

I hope today to encourage you all to continue to contribute to the human rights culture in Australia. This might be through looking at climate change, gay and lesbian equality, refugee issues, empowering victims of domestic violence, or addressing discrimination in our society. I’m going to talk for just under 30 minutes, and then I'm happy to answer any questions you may have on human rights issues. My colleague, Sarah Winter, a policy officer with the Commission, might help me out with the hard ones. I also want to keep 10 minutes at the end so I can get you to fill in a short survey - this will really help us at the Commission to plan our future human rights projects.

But first let's go back to basics. What are human rights?

Most of you probably know about the various international agreements that identify human rights, including:

  •  the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  •  the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  •  the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  •  the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
  •  the Convention Against Torture
  •  the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and most importantly
  •  the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I say most importantly because the Convention on the Rights of the Child covers not only young children, but also teenagers and young people as they mature to 18 years of age. So the Convention on the Rights of the Child is your convention. If you've never had a read of the Convention, google it.

It's easy enough to find out what the international agreements say about human rights. But do we notice human rights issues in our everyday lives? As Human Rights Commissioner, my job is to promote and protect human rights, here, in Australia.

It's sometimes easy to judge Australia's human rights record by comparing it to other nations around the world. If we look at what's going on at the moment in places like Tibet, or Dafur, we might think that, by comparison, Australia is doing okay, and is a great champion of human rights.

In relative terms, that's true. But unfortunately, the human rights of many people in Australia are not adequately protected.

Human rights are for everyone, everywhere, everyday. So when I think of human rights, I think of individuals - individuals whose rights are violated, and individuals who work to protect human rights. Let me tell you about some of the people I've met through my work:

  • Gay and lesbian couples, from retirees to young mums and dads, who - simply because of who they love - do not receive the same financial benefits in welfare, tax, and superannuation, as opposite-sex couples.
  • Asylum seekers who are put into immigration detention while waiting for their application for refugee status to be decided.
  • People with disabilities who are excluded from education, employment and community activities because many of our schools, buildings, transport, and communication systems are not accessible.

That's just three examples of situations where human rights are threatened.

Sometimes, however, human rights issues are not so easy to spot. One issue that comes to mind is the increasing use of a high pitched alarm known as the mosquito, that is used to discourage young people from hanging around shopping centres and similar places. You may have read about it in the newspaper recently. It's not clear whether this is a breach of human rights- I tend to think that it is. However, our job as human rights advocates is to look at issues like this, and think about the human rights implications.

My second list of individuals is more positive; it includes some great individuals who inspire by protecting human rights:

  • Jeremy Jones who won the human rights medal last year for his work with Indigenous, Jewish and Muslim communities.
  • Bin Bakar, otherwise known as Mary G - Queen of the Kimberley, who was runner up. Bin Bakar uses humour and radio to get out important messages about drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and health care.
  • And what about Tania Major, the Aboriginal advocate, who was also the Young Australian of the Year in 2007. Tania has worked to remove domestic violence in her community. She was the first person from her community to complete not only Year 12, but also a university degree.
  • And Maurice Corcoran, a man who has campaigned for more than 20 years to improve access to public transport and buildings for people with disabilities.

These people are human rights heroes. But I also include all of you here today in that list. Because, as I said at the start, giving up your weekend to share your passion about human rights is inspiring!

My main responsibility as Commissioner is to promote the understanding, acceptance and public discussion of human rights in Australia; which is not an easy task I can tell you. To do this, we conduct education programs, national inquiries, research into human rights issues, as well as make submissions and recommendations to government.  We also receive complaints, and attempt to conciliate them.

One of the main challenges we face at the Australian Human Rights Commission is having our voice heard, in a world where people are bombarded with messages and information.  It makes it even harder when our message is not always the favoured message of governments, business or certain sections of the community.

It's a problem that I face, and I imagine it's a challenge that you all face as young people, wanting to talk about human rights. 

I want to talk with you now about the human rights of children and young people - your rights.

In November 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. There are only two countries which have not joined up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Does anyone want to name those countries?
Answer: the United States of America, and Somalia.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child incorporates the whole spectrum of human rights - civil, political, economic, social and cultural - and sets out the specific ways these rights should be ensured for children and young people. The Convention recognises that the degree to which children can exercise these rights independently is influenced by their evolving maturity. It also emphasises the rights and responsibilities of parents where applicable.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child has four core principles:

  • the right to survival and development;
  • respect for the best interests of the child as a primary consideration;
  • the right of all children to express their views freely on all matters affecting them; and
  • the right of all children to enjoy all the rights of the Convention without discrimination of any kind.

I want to go through each of these core principles in a little more detail.

Firstly, the right to survival and development. This means that children and young people have a right to life. They should be protected from violence and exploitation. Parents, families and governments have a role to play in supporting children and young people as they develop. But we need to think broadly about what we mean by survival and development. For example, if a child cannot easily receive basic health care, their right to survival and development is threatened.

The second core principle is respect for the best interests of the child as a primary consideration. Now, this is a tricky one. Who should decide what the best interests of a child are? Should it be the government, should it be parents, or should it be children and young people themselves? there's no clear answer. That's because in different situations the answer will be different. The best interests principle asks us to consider all the rights in the Convention in determining a child’s best interest.

The third principle is the right of all children to express their view freely on all matters affecting them. Straight away we can see how this right works in conjunction with the best interests principle. Basically, children and young people should be encouraged to participate, they should be seen and heard! Children and young people should have a say in decisions that affect them.

The fourth and final core principle of the Convention is about non-discrimination. All children have a right to enjoy the rights in the Convention without discrimination. This right emphasises that it's not only boys who have these rights, or young people who are Christian, or young people who speak English or who are straight. Instead, these rights apply to every child and young person, everywhere, everyday.

These four principles sum up the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I'm sure you'll agree that the Convention establishes a great framework for looking at issues affecting youth.

I now want to give you an overview of some of the work that HREOC has done to protect and promote the rights of children and young people.

Last year in July, we published the final report of our year long National Inquiry into discrimination against people in same-sex families in the area of financial benefits. We called the inquiry - Same-Sex: Same Entitlements. Our inquiry found that there were 58 Commonwealth laws that discriminated against same-sex couples and their children. The solution to this is simple. We recommended that the government amend the law so that opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples are treated equally.

During the inquiry, we heard from many gay and lesbian couples, several who were raising children. These laws not only discriminate against the parents, they also discriminate against the children.

Let me give you an example. In Australia, when a woman gives birth, her male spouse is entitled to parental leave under the law. This is great for the whole family. Advances in technology mean that more lesbian and gay couples are now able to have children. However, when a lesbian woman gives birth, the law does not entitle the co-mother, or gay co-parents of a child, to parental leave. This is a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. If you deny financial benefits to same-sex parents; you inevitably compromise the best interests of a child being raised by the couple. All children should have the benefit of both parents being at home for a time after birth.

In 2004, we published a report about children in immigration detention, A last resort?. Until 2005, anyone who arrived in Australia without a visa was placed in immigration detention. This included families and children - even when they were asylum seekers asking Australia to recognise them as refugees. Some of these children, your age and younger, spent several years in immigration detention, waiting for decisions about their visa applications. The principle of non-discrimination means that these children have the same rights as any other child in Australia.

The conditions of detention were often harsh. Detention centres were an unsafe environment. Children's health - particularly mental health - were often compromised, they often did not receive adequate education or recreation facilities, and children with disabilities were not adequately supported. We found that the right to survival and development was consistently breached, and that detaining children was fundamentally against their best interests.

Children and young people under 18 are now usually not held in immigration detention centres - they live in the community while they wait for decisions about their visa applications. Although children are not held in immigration detention, many other people still are. You may have heard of Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, here in Sydney. Every year we visit all immigration detention centres in Australia to monitor whether the conditions of detention meet human rights standards - where I find that they don't I make recommendations for change to the government.

At the Human Rights Commission, we also spend a lot of energy creating education programs. We try to provide comprehensive resources for young people, to inform them about human rights.

A few years ago, we realised that we actually knew very little about what young people thought about human rights; what they understood; what they felt; and what their values were as Australians. We realised we were guilty of failing to communicate and engage with young people.

Of course, all of us know young people personally - I have a ten year old daughter who makes her opinions very clear to me. I know, for example, that she thinks it's highly inconvenient that I travel so much for work, and that therefore it's necessary that I bring her home a present every time I come back.

We also have a pretty good impression of how young people are sometimes portrayed in popular culture; particularly in current affairs programs, newspapers and magazines. If I was not suspicious about the reliability of this information, then I'd probably view young people as materialistic, obsessed with technology, disengaged, disinterested and apathetic.

However, through our work we've found that young people are anything but. They are passionate about human rights.

A few years ago, we found out what young people really thought and felt about issues which affect their lives, and of human rights. We called the study - Rights of Passage. As part of this study, we spoke to young people across NSW, QLD, SA and the ACT, conducted a national survey, and a literature review.

Far from the image of today's young people as a disengaged and apathetic generation, we found that young people had distinct and considered views about current human rights issues. They were eager to share their observations on such topics as discrimination, equality, tolerance and vilification. 

We found that young people totally reject discrimination, especially on the basis of sex or race. We also found that young Australians felt that Australia's first inhabitants, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, were being left behind, and more could be done to further their equality.

However, we also found that young people had limited knowledge about legal protection for human rights - either through knowledge of the United Nations and its international agreements, or by familiarity with domestic legal and constitutional protections.

Most significantly, our study found that young people want a greater say on those issues which directly concern them.  Which seems fair enough to me!

For example, just recently, there's been a lot of media coverage about teenage binge drinking. But most of the conversation has occurred between adults. This seems strange to me. If we want to talk about teenage binge drinking, society needs to listen to what teenagers say about it. And when we come to question time, I'd like to hear your views. Young people have the right to have their views respected, and to participate in society. These rights are found in the freedom of expression principle that we talked about before.

And I'm pleased to see that the new federal government is showing a commitment to listen to Australia's young people. Firstly, they have appointed a Minister for Youth, who can be a spokesperson within government for young people. I intend to meet with her, to talk about her plans for young people in Australia, and how she plans to involve young people in those plans, and to promote their human rights.

Secondly, in a few weeks time, the government is holding a large meeting in Canberra called the 2020 Summit. The purpose of the Summit is to bring people together from the community to share ideas on the future of Australia. Usually, these sorts of meetings totally exclude young people. But not this time - there is a Youth 2020 Summit that is happening alongside the general Summit. The 100 participants for the Youth 2020 Summit were announced just last week. However, there is still time for any young person to contribute their ideas online by next Friday 2 April. I encourage you to do so, and I hope that many of you have a say about the role of human rights in Australia.

I hope that I've inspired you to continue learning about human rights, to work towards creating a human rights culture in Australia. All of you have the chance to play the hero roles I described. But only you can make it happen. To quote from that great Australian pioneer and businesswoman Sarah Henderson, ‘don't wait for the light at the end of the tunnel. Stride down there and turn on the bloody thing yourself'.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

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