Launch of Rights of Passage: A Dialogue with Young Australians about Human Rights

Speech by Dr Sev Ozdowski, Human Rights Commissioner, Sydney 29 November 2005

My name is Sev Ozdowski, Human Rights Commissioner.

I would like to welcome everybody to the launch of Rights of Passage: A Dialogue with Young Australians about Human Rights. I thank you all for coming.


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.

I would like to thank our guest speakers Dorothy Hoddinott from Holroyd High School, and Eva Cheng and Fabienne Trevere from North Sydney Girls" High School, who we will be hearing from shortly.

I would also like to thank the President of the Commission, the Honourable John von Doussa QC, for joining us this afternoon.

Finally, I would like to thank Dr Stephen Bochner and his wife, Dr Sandra Bochner, for their tireless work providing specialist consultancy advice on the project, in particular collating the findings from the national survey.

Overview of term as Human Rights Commissioner

But first, I would like to provide a bit of background to the Young People and Human Rights Dialogue, the project which resulted in the document Rights of Passage, and its relevance to other projects I have conducted in recent years.

As my 5 year period as Human Rights Commissioner draws to a close, I naturally find myself reflecting on what has occurred and what has been achieved in this time. Projects involving Australia"s children and young people have been an ongoing feature of my work at the Commission.

My first task as Human Rights Commissioner was another Australia-wide dialogue with children, in preparation for my New York attendance at the UN Special Session on Children. The intervening years included an inquiry into the treatment of children and young people in immigration detention facilities, as well as research into the experiences of young people suffering from mental illness - two projects which highlighted the degree to which we cannot afford to be complacent, even in a "lucky" country such as ours.

So it seems appropriate that I would conclude my term with a project about the attitudes of young people towards human rights. Thankfully, this is a much more positive note to end on compared to some of these previous projects.

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. This year, conducting the Dialogue, I travelled to many different locations around the nation. I talked to groups of young people, usually around twelve at a time, about their knowledge of human rights and their commitment to civic values.

Description of Youth Dialogue methodology

The Young People and Human Rights Dialogue consisted of four phases:

  • First, there was a national survey, which we distributed to over 1000 young people at 23 high schools, youth clubs and other centres across the country
  • Second, focus groups were conducted in sixteen schools and youth centres in NSW, SA, QLD and the ACT, with participants between 11 and 19 years of age
  • Third, a review of the relevant academic literature was undertaken by the project consultant Dr Stephen Bochner. You will find this review included as an Appendix to Rights of Passage, and
  • Lastly, the "Human Writes" personal essay competition and the "Rights in Perspective" art competition, which sought to include the attitudes of young people with artistic leanings in the Dialogue. As part of the proceedings this afternoon, I will also be announcing the winners of the two competitions.

These four phases of the project were designed to complement each other in discovering general trends in young people"s knowledge regarding a range of human rights-related issues. The end result of this research is the publication I am launching today: Rights of Passage.

Major findings

In talking to young people for this project, we found there were a number of consistent findings in their knowledge and attitudes towards human rights which I"d like to share with you.

First and foremost, however, was the very important finding that young Australians regard human rights as fundamentally important to their lives. Furthermore, they acknowledge that their rights are well protected here compared to other countries, and place a very high value on fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech and the right to practice religion. Quite simply, they value the rights they enjoy as Australian citizens without taking them for granted.

The findings we made "in the field" were backed up by those in the national survey. In addition, the rights-related topics of most interest to the survey and focus group participants were also those picked up by the entrants in the essay and art competitions. Because of the consistency of opinion across the various methods, and because ultimately the Dialogue considered the views of young people in all states and territories, it would be reasonable to suggest that the overall findings discussed in Rights of Passage are a reliable snapshot of the views of Australian youth on the topic of human rights.

And I am pleased to report that contrary to media-driven, stereotypical views of youth, as self-absorbed and dismissive of anything surplus to their own needs, the reality is quite different.

In the groups I listened to, I found young people who were eager to share their observations on contemporary topics such as discrimination and equality, tolerance and vilification.

While their formal knowledge about human rights structures and conventions may be quite limited, indeed the findings show that young people currently get most of their human rights knowledge from popular media, they nevertheless demonstrate a good understanding of civilising values.

One of the clearest findings of this project was the sense of egalitarianism expressed by these young Australians. They see their communities overwhelmingly characterised by the age-old principle of the "fair go". Multicultural society is the norm, and they totally reject the idea that discrimination, especially on the basis of race or sex, has any place in the civilised society they inhabit.

Another consistent refrain, sure to surprise parents Australia-wide, was that of young people nominating "the right to family" as one of the most important rights to uphold. Many young people lament they do not have equal access to both parents, especially fathers, and feel that their views should be more strongly taken into account when important family decisions are being made.

And all groups demonstrated a sensitivity about the individual rights of others, no matter what their background or orientation. They understand "individual" rights to be inalienable, to the extent that cultures and communities may need to curb practices that have the potential to undermine the rights of the individual.

Most importantly, these young Australians were engaged and interested in learning more about their place in civil society, including their responsibilities towards the universal principles of human rights. I find myself increasingly optimistic about the kind of world young people will be striving to mould, in human rights terms, when they find themselves in control of the levers of power and influence.

Human rights education

One of the chief aims of this project was to isolate information about youth knowledge and appreciation of human rights issues which may inform future education initiatives, especially for young people in the school environment.

The findings indicate that human rights knowledge depends on the experiences of the individual and varies with demographic differences. As a general principle therefore, human rights education programmes should be tailored to the developmental and personal characteristics of the target audience. This will require more resources than a one-size-fits-all approach, but is also likely to be more effective.

One of the key findings of the survey was the observable link between human rights knowledge, attitudes and behaviours. 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. Also, it appears that human rights knowledge learnt in the classroom may assist young people to develop into citizens who are more socially and politically aware and active in later life.

Young people experience difficulty in navigating the wealth of information on human rights-related topics, and require greater guidance at the school level. Activity-based education programmes, such as "hands-on" anti-bullying strategies, allow the culture or the "values" espoused by the school to filter from the top down. Young people are much more likely to respond to the "do as I do" approach. This highlights the need for human rights education programmes targeting youth to additionally provide support to the educators as well.

The participants" lack of knowledge about some key human rights issues in Australia (such as the way in which domestic legislation protects rights, or of social issues such as Indigenous disadvantage) suggests that additional human rights education campaigns are needed.

HREOC will continue to expand its current suite of education materials with these findings in mind. You will find in Rights of Passage a list of five key recommendations which outline the ways in which the Commission will stay engaged and committed to the ongoing promotion of human rights education. I will be happy to discuss these ideas with you in greater detail shortly.

Introduce guest speakers

But before I announce the competition winners and officially launch Rights of Passage, I would like to introduce our guest speakers.

First, Ms Dorothy Hoddinott, principal of Holroyd High School. Holroyd is a unique school which we had the pleasure of travelling to during the focus group phase of our research. It is a fine example of a learning environment which is characterised by mutual respect and tolerance. Ms Hoddinott will share with us some of her ideas about the importance of teaching human rights concepts to young people.

Second, Eva Cheng from North Sydney Girls" High School, whose wonderful essay Child Labour has been shortlisted for the Junior section of the Human Writes essay competition. She will be reading her essay for us today.

And finally, Fabienne Trevere, also from North Sydney Girls" High, who is a highly active member of the in-school Amnesty International group. She"ll be sharing with us her ideas about why human rights are important to her.

Without further ado, I would now like to present Ms Dorothy Hoddinott, principal of Holroyd High School.

[Guest speakers 12 mins]

Announcement of winners in the essay and art competitions

Thankyou again to Dorothy, Eva and Fabienne for sharing their thoughts with us today.

It is now my pleasure to announce the winners of the Human Writes essay competition and the Rights in Perspective art competition.

Each of the competitions asked young people to interpret "human rights" in a creative way, and prompted them to choose between dealing with the subject in a general sense or by focussing on a specific event or issue.

Both were open to young people aged between 11 and 18 years currently living in Australia. A total of 113 essays and 30 artworks were received, with works submitted from every state and territory. While we were thrilled at having entries submitted from so far afield, unfortunately it means that it was not practical for the winners to travel here today.

First, the winners of the art competition which are on display to my left, at the side of the room.

The winner in the Senior category is Tim Hanna for his inventive collage, Off to School , depicting the path taken by two school students as a road flanked by soldiers and tanks.

First runner up is Sam Shepherd for his two works; Minifridge Boy and A Broken Home, A New Home. Sam"s vibrant watercolour paintings display considerable imagination and craft while tackling the difficult topics of domestic violence and bullying.

Second runner up is Taleena Boulton for her vibrant minimalist cartoon, Fear of Loss.

The winner in the Junior category is Sarah Hollick for Child Soldiers - Stolen Innocence, a charcoal and pastel drawing about the plight of child soldiers around the world.

Runner up in the Junior category is Jessica Vickery for her painting Surreal, which explores the vulnerability of some people to human rights abuses.

Next, to the essay competition winners.

The winner in the Senior category is Marissa Santikarn for A rude awakening, an optimistic essay that charts the development of Marissa"s social consciousness after reading about genocide in Rwanda.

Runner up is Jane Rich for her essay Eradicating global poverty.This essay brings together images from Jane"s visit to Malawi. Her vivid recollections of the people that she met put a personal face to a public struggle.

Winner in the Junior category is Jessica Bloom with her essay The Sins of the Father, a realistic and considered look at the divides that remain after apartheid has ended in South Africa.

And, finally, runner up in the Junior section is Eva Cheng for Child Labour which, I"m sure you"ll agree, is an intelligent and well-crafted example of the personal essay form. I"d like to invite Eva back up here for a moment to accept her prize. Congratulations.

Launch of Rights of Passage and conclude

It is now my pleasure to launch Rights of Passage, which will, I hope, will be of interest to educators, parents, youth workers and policy makers.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the young Australians and their mentors who took part in the research, as well as many others who assisted us in completing this project, many of whom are here today.