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UNAA National Action Plan Forum

Rights Rights and Freedoms

“Young People and Their Awareness of Human Rights”

Address by Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM, Human Rights Commissioner, UNAA National Action Plan Forum, Hobart 4 November 2005


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

I make this statement at any function where I speak in order to:

  • pay my respects to the oldest continuous culture in the world;
  • stress that Australia is a diverse society and that the First Australians are an important part of this diversity; and
  • to demonstrate that we aspire to a just and fair Australia for all.

Pym Trueman, Lisa Singh, Justice Pierre Slicer, David Fanning, Sarah Bolt, Patricia Thompson, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.


As my 5 year period as Human Rights Commissioner draws to a close it is fitting that book-ending my stewardship have been projects involving Australia’s young people. It is of course a truism to say that the future of human rights in this country depends on the next generation; but that doesn’t mean it is not worth repeating. And I can reliably report that, paraphrasing Mark Twain, reports of the death of human rights amongst our young people are much exaggerated.

One of my final human rights’ projects has been the Young People and Human Rights Dialogue, which has taken me to many different locations around this great nation of ours. I talked to groups of young people, usually around twelve at a time, about their knowledge of human rights and their commitment to ‘values’. These young people variously described human rights as a range of things, from laws and religious principles, to family and community ideals, while also demonstrating a keen sense of social responsibility. They recognised that the enjoyment of rights creates a social contract, which reciprocally requires others’ rights to be respected.

I was encouraged to find that young people were eager to share their observations on discrimination, equality, tolerance, vilification and many other topics. Overwhelmingly, their views embody some of the best characteristics of the Australian ‘fair go’ ethos: tolerance, egalitarianism, respect and celebration of difference. Despite their relative lack of human rights knowledge ‘from above’ (as per Prof Jim Ife), that is our Constitution, domestic laws, UN conventions et al, their knowledge from below was good. Their vision of the future gave me much cause for optimism.

Our young people are not without their fears and concerns. Effective community education measures are part of a necessary toolkit designed to tackle some of the negative experiences our young people face: social isolation; mental health problems; bullying; racism; homophobia. ‘Holistic’ education is not only about teaching in the school environment, but also about encouraging the active involvement of youth with communities and voluntary organisations – experiences which also add to their HR learning curve.

Of course I also began my term with a series of youth consultations in preparation for the UN Special Session on Children held in New York City in 2002. This special emphasis reflects my responsibility within the Commission for oversight of the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and on that score 2005 has an added significance with regard to Australia’s children and young people.


In September, the United Nations reviewed Australia’s report on its implementation of the CRC. While significant progress has been made in many areas, there is still much we can all do, both policy-wise and practically, to ensure that all young persons living in Australia have the opportunity to enjoy the CRC’s benefits. In that regard it is interesting to note that the Committee’s concluding remarks gave support to the notion that Australia’s youth would benefit from the creation of a Federal Commissioner for Children and Young People.


2005 also marks the first year in the UN World Programme for Human Rights Education, the first phase of which (2005-2007) focuses on education in schools. HREOC will be seeking ways to stay actively involved in the World Programme, and of finding ways to assist the implementation of the associated Plan of Action. Informing and educating young people about what their rights and responsibilities are can be empowering. It provides them with options, inspiring them to pursue their aspirations with a keen sense of their place in the broader community. But more on that later.


Of course some of my work involving children in Australia has been less uplifting. Consuming two and a half years of my five year term and finding serious breaches of the human rights of children in immigration detention, as measured against the standards of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ‘A last resort?’ reserved its most serious observations for the effects of long-term immigration detention on the mental health of children.

Fortunately, we have since witnessed some softening of the policy, as it relates to the detention of children and their families. Firstly we had the partial release of children that had been the subject of my Inquiry after parliamentary tabling of ‘A last resort?’ This was followed by the Petro Georgiuo inspired amendments to the Migration Act that received parliamentary approval in late June 2005. These amendments have resulted in the removal from ‘razor-wire’ style immigration detention, of all children and their immediate families into community based detention.

These changes constitute the first ‘pro refugee’ amendments since 1992 and so represent an important first step. The report of the Palmer Inquiry has also prompted the government to announce substantial senior management changes to the Immigration Department in an effort to effect cultural change. It is hoped these changes will ensure the compliance section of the Department implements government policy in a manner that also acknowledges the human dignity of its clients.

So I think ‘civil society’, including many of you present here today, can take a bow for a job well done. Not finished yet perhaps but very satisfactory progress.


The mental health issues uncovered in A last resort? prompted me to examine what sorts of treatment are available, and a whole new picture of human rights concerns emerged from the shadows, especially with regards to young people. The report of my community consultations conducted with the MHCA and the Brain and Mind Research Institute titled: ‘Not for Service’ was launched recently.

The story that it unveils with regard to young people is not a pretty one.   The people consulted make two main points.   One, that there is increasing evidence that widespread use of common drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines, alcohol and ecstasy is contributing to an increased rate of mental illness among young people. In addition they are making those young people even more disturbed when they finally present for care.

And two, that in treatment of mental illness, it is the State government services that are failing in the delivery of proper care. It is often a tragic tale of medical neglect and community indifference.   Those with a mental illness are still being blamed for being sick.

In fact the reports that emerged from the consultations were horrifying and affect all Australians – not just refugees or children of refugees.   Mental illness affects veterans from distant battlefields, it affects prominent Australians. It affects those who care after the ill in every State and Territory.   And, tragically, it affects the young.

I listened to many, many first hand accounts where alcohol and drugs were linked to schizophrenia and depression.   Stories about violent behaviour, suicide attempts and endless bouts of hospitalisation or imprisonment.    It makes young people “thrash around on the wings of madness” – to use Jo Buchanan words, while the authorities seem unable to stem the tide.

You see, there are almost no services available to deal with both drug addiction and mental illness.   Medical policy dictates that drug addiction be treated first, before the mental illness is tackled. And this may lead to at least 20 years of life expectancy being lost. Suicide rates in teenagers and young adults remain historically high.   We were told a great many stories of preventable suicides of young people.

Hopefully the release of ‘Not for Service’, as well as the many other recent critiques of mental health services in Australia, will prompt State and Federal agencies to start seriously addressing this system failure. For young people this process cannot commence soon enough.


In concluding let me return briefly to the project I commenced my talk with, ascertaining what young people in this country know about human rights. You will have to await release of ‘Rights of Passage’ in a few weeks to get the full picture, but on HR education I can say this.

As many of you are aware, no education curriculum at either the state or territory, upper primary or high school level, contains a stand-alone subject entitled ‘Human Rights’. Consequently HREOC’s materials (as with other bodies’ texts) are designed to try and fill this gap, by encouraging teachers and by implication their students, to access a broad range of human rights materials that may be used in a wide range of different subject streams. While this may be beneficial, it is no substitute for the kind of hard knowledge about human rights – in terms of knowledge about international conventions and UN treaties – that can only be inculcated by teaching a ‘stand alone’ subject.

However, whilst the Commission has previously advocated for the formal inclusion of ‘Human Rights’ as a discrete area of study, such a significant shift is unlikely to occur for some time, if at all, assuming that education policy makers and curriculum experts are able to be convinced of the need for such a programme. For this reason, the best use of Commission resources (and others) in the immediate future is the continued expansion of the current suite of education materials which are designed to complement the existing upper primary and secondary curricula. In addressing the specific knowledge gaps identified in this study, the Commission has already developed resources which introduce young people to these topics. This knowledge ‘gap’ therefore may best be addressed by continuing the promotion of these existing materials (specifically the Bringing them home education module and Youth Challenge – Unit 1: Human Rights in the Classroom).


One of the key findings of the survey was the observable link between human rights knowledge, attitudes and behaviours. The implication here is that a positive increase in any one aspect may influence the others, so that young people actively engaged in civic and political projects are more likely to develop an interest in, understanding of and sympathy for human rights values and practices.

This reflects the finding described in the literature which shows that traditional ‘talk-and-chalk’ classroom techniques are usefully supplemented by activities both inside and outside the school. Activity-based learning programmes are also more appropriate for younger students, students who speak English as a second or additional language, and students with learning or literacy difficulties.

Finally, the data shows that young people currently learn much about human rights concepts from popular media. Education initiatives need to be mindful of this in order to engage with a young audience, in that measures which are more likely to be successful need to take into account their experiences and point of view. Given the predominance of US content across the various media, educators may find this knowledge useful in informing a ‘starting point’ for the introduction of rights-related concepts – for example, pointing out how Australian laws differ from those of other countries.

Finally informing and educating young people about what their rights and responsibilities are can be empowering. It provides them with options, inspiring them to pursue their aspirations with a keen sense of their place in the broader community.

As Graham Greene, the famous English novelist wrote in his best-selling book:  “The Power and the Glory”

‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in’

While we are not in a position to open that door to civil society for today’s young people – by encouraging them to learn about human rights, we can perhaps indicate where it is!!

Specific information on the Commission’s ‘Curriculum Links’ documents can be found at

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