Young People and Human Rights Dialogue

Pre-Dinner Conference Address given by Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM, Human Rights Commissioner at the Youth Affairs Network Queensland (YANQ) Biennial State Youth Affairs Conference, Brisbane, Thursday 21 April 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.


At HREOC we have a particular interest in young people in Australia for two principle reasons

Firstly, HREOC is charged with: "promoting an understanding and acceptance of human rights in Australia". Young people obviously form a very, very important part of that task.

Secondly, within the Commission, I have a particular responsibility for the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This CRC (1989), the most widely ratified in the history of the UN, formally established children"s legal claim to special protection and assistance. Only two countries in the world did not ratify this convention so far. It deals with political, civil, social, economic and cultural rights.


The CRC is a very powerful tool, which is why I used it as the basis for my Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

Some of you here tonight may have heard, or even read, the report of that Inquiry entitled: "A last resort?"

Such is the scope of the CRC, that after an inquiry process that stretched over two and a half years, I was able to report to Federal Parliament amongst many other "findings" that:

" the mandatory detention system breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It failed, as required by the Convention, to make detention a measure of "last resort", for the "shortest appropriate period of time" and subject to independent review. Furthermore, the Government"s failure to implement repeated recommendations by mental health professionals to remove children with their parents from detention amounted to "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment".

A powerful tool indeed!

Mental Health Consultations

Talking about mental health leads onto my next subject. The tragic state of mental health services in Australia, especially with regard to young people; as I discovered in my Australia-wide, community mental health consultations in association with the Mental Health Council of Australia (MHCA) and the Brian and Mind Research Institute (BMI).

Amongst other things, these consultations awakened me to the fact that widespread use of common drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines, alcohol and ecstasy is contributing both to an increased rate of mental illness among young people, as well as making those young people more severely disturbed when they finally do present for care.

Suicide rates in teenagers and young adults remain historically high.

We were given many accounts of preventable suicides of young people.

One example will suffice for the moment:

  • A Central Coast teenager was admitted to a psychiatric unit because of attempted suicide.
  • He was prescribed valium and released next day with no follow up.
  • He died hours later after throwing himself in front of a moving train.
  • The Coroner found that he was inadequately assessed and discharged too early, because of staff anxiety over a perennial shortage of beds in the unit.

The most frequently mentioned gap in mental health services was the absence of early intervention services for young people. In all States I received reports of children and young people being admitted to inappropriate adult facilities.

This brings me back to human rights education. A good understanding of HR values is an important tool for empowering young people, into making appropriate choices about how they wish to lead their lives.

HREOC"S Teaching Resources

Accordingly, since 1998 the Commission has provided a comprehensive range of human rights education resources. They are delivered direct to over 5,000 teachers, Australia-wide, who subscribe to the mailing list.

Each of the resources are linked to a range of key learning areas, such as history or contemporary society, which allow teachers to address human rights issues effectively within an already crowded curriculum.

These human rights education resources are very popular and during the last year a total of 630,000 page views were accessed. The HREOC website itself recorded 5.4 million page views during this period which equates to 49 million hits. Not bad for Australia with its 20 million population.

A key technique of the HREOC teaching materials is bringing facts into tight focus through vivid story-telling.

I have already focused your attention in the mental health area by telling you about the tragic case of the suicidal young man in Central Coast NSW.

Within CIDI we used case studies like the Yousefi family to reinforce the facts. This is the case of a 13 year old child who had arrived in Australia by boat in 2001 and had been seriously mentally ill since May 2002.

This boy had regularly self-harmed. In February 2003 a psychiatrist examining the boy wrote the following:

"When I asked if there was anything I could do to help him, he told me that I could bring a razor or knife so that he could cut himself more effectively than with the plastic knives that are available."

There had been approximately 20 recommendations from mental health professionals saying that he should be released from detention with his family. Some said that removal from detention was a matter of urgency.

When finally released in mid-2004 (after 3 years detention, and 2 years after mental illness diagnosis) as refugees, following an RRT finding, into the Adelaide community, all members of the family were severely mentally traumatised; prescribed heavy, daily medication, too ill to work and requiring extensive community support and assistance.

These true stories bring the HREOC teaching resources alive: I commend them to all of you.

Young People and Human Rights Dialogue

Finally, with regard to young people, I am currently conducting research into the knowledge and attitudes young people have on a range of human rights issues, and "values".

By running focus groups in schools and youth centres around the country, in conjunction with a national survey, I hope to find out how young people today are able to negotiate the wealth of information provided to them, via the tech revolution, and the impact that has on the formation of their values.

Baby Boomer"s Rules

Arguably for people of my generation, and I"m speaking loosely here of those born before 1960, "values" as a concept was a lot easier to deal with because it was smaller and simpler.

The childhood model was generally pretty well defined: the family, school and church were key influences; the "rules" were pretty inelastic and breaches were "punishable"; cultural homogeneity was more the norm.

Current trends for Young People

However, the globalised world of today is very different. It is perhaps ironic that the speeding up of information and the narrowing of social and technological distance we know as "globalisation" can also be a barrier to communicating with our youth.

As a member of the "technophobic" generation, I am proud to say that I can send and receive emails, program the diary in my Palm Pilot, and use a number of the programs that were installed on my computer at work by someone else.

These are things which I have had to negotiate as they came into being. However, for the majority of school age children today, these technologies pre-existed their arrival.

In a recent speech in 2004, social researcher Hugh Mackay described young people in the 21st century as being intensely "tribal" and loyal to their social group. They increasingly rely on each other, as opposed to adults, for support and information, creating "surrogate families" from their peers, perhaps in response to the changing structure of the family unit.

Their support network is vast and only a text message away. This climate presents an additional problem of access to their world: of how to teach "values", when the opinions they value most are from each other.

One of the keys, lies I believe in - "Listening".

Active listening to somebody shows respect. Young people appreciate it when people older than themselves actively listen. It sounds simple, unless you appreciate there can be difficulty in understanding both the message and its means of communication if, like me, you were not born with a mouse in one hand and a mobile phone in the other.

What Has the Young People & HR Dialogue told us, so far, about their knowledge of secular values?

So far, we have spoken to young people in four schools, and conducted two non-school focus groups, including this afternoon"s.

And already we have had some fascinating feedback.

Though it"s too early to talk about trends, it is clear that youth - and I"m talking mostly about those in the 14 to 17 yr old age group - have very strong opinions on a range of challenging rights-related topics, such as racism, bullying, terrorism, Indigenous issues and civil liberties.

But what you do notice, is that there are some diverse and on occasions contradictory views held by people in this age group.

For example, I was told that choice and individual liberties take priority over cultural rights of minority cultures, that children have a right to on-going contact with both parents, even if they divorce, and that young people are very concerned about refugee rights in to-day"s Australia. There is also a clear understanding that any rights need to be balanced with responsibilities.

Young people also take participation in a civil society and their citizen"s rights very seriously. They want to participate in the electing of governments process as soon as they are 18. One young man we talked to the other day, said he had written to the Prime Minister about a policy he disagreed with, yet agreed with his friends that it probably wouldn"t be read or taken seriously. It was understood to be a purely symbolic gesture of no practical worth whatsoever.

Another example is that although they believe in the idea of voting, they are not overly-interested in the act of voting, largely espousing the idea that there is little between the two major parties with no serious political alternatives, or as one of our respondents succinctly put it: "They"re all the same anyway".

In addition to assisting youth in forming their own values, we have an equally important responsibility to encourage a positive outlook, to equip them with the "know-how" to participate effectively in civil society.

Although Australia is not without social problems, it is a robust democracy where civil engagement can effect change on many levels.

What I have learned so far, tells me that all of you in this room involved with young people in any kind of teaching/mentoring role, is that the results are pretty impressive.

One area for attention though, and this includes me, is encouraging engagement, by our young people with civil society:

  • Voting
  • Parliament
  • letter writing to Prime Minister"s OR
  • in their case "texting".

The robust civil society of the 21st century depends on them.

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 - we can perhaps indicate where it is!!