Human Rights Education - Education for Life


The Hon John von Doussa QC

President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC)


Address delivered at

Human Rights Education Conference

Melbourne University

16 February 2007


I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations, the traditional owners of the land on which Melbourne university stands.

Thank you for inviting me here today, to speak about a topic which in my view receives too little attention yet is one of critical importance not only to the way we live but to the kind of society we live in – the topic of human rights education.

Too often, human rights are perceived as abstract principles, remote from everyday life.  Today, I want to talk about the value of human rights education to family life, to workplaces, to community relations, to the very character of our society.  

Fundamentally, human rights education is about developing an understanding of what it means to treat other people with respect for their rights and dignity and about using this understanding to guide the way we see and act in society.

HREOC's role as a human rights educator

Human rights education is the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s (HREOC) core business. HREOC has a statutory function to promote understanding, awareness and public discussion of human rights in Australia.1

At a basic level, everything HREOC does is about human rights education. This includes:

  • engaging with the media;
  • maintaining up to date human rights information on our website;
  • intervening in court cases that raise human rights issues;
  • investigating and conciliating discrimination complaints
  •  making submissions on the human rights impact of new bills.
  • conducting national inquiries into human rights issues like children in immigration detention, the stolen generations and discrimination against same-sex couples.

HREOC produces human rights education resources, for schools, employers and employees. HREOC also offers an advisory role to federal, State and Territory education departments in their implementation of the World Program for Human Rights Education.

All these activities aim to improve understanding of human rights. With understanding, comes respect.  And this respect helps build strong communities, based on equality and tolerance in which everyone has an opportunity to contribute.

The challenge facing human rights educators: making rights real

HREOC knows from experience that there are many challenges facing human rights educators. But in my view, one overriding challenge is overcoming misconceptions about human rights.

Human rights suffer from what the professionals’ might term a “public relations” problem. Too often, human rights are conceptualised as abstract international law principles, remote from everyday life.  Worse, human rights are derided as anti-democratic, politically loaded values which indulge the rights of minorities at the expense of the majority.

Misconceptions about human rights principles have been particularly prominent in counter-terrorism debates, where human rights are sometimes cast as irrational indulgences that jeopardise our security, preserving high principle at the expense of common sense and safety.

The reality is that the human rights principles set out in the major international human rights instruments are basic minimum standards we must uphold in order respect the inherent dignity of human life and create a fair and just society.

Yet human rights can not simply be described as technical legal niceties. Human rights simultaneously articulate the basic minimum legal standards that all societies must meet and reflect a deeply moral vision of the type of world we want to live in.
The concept of human rights is based on a common recognition of the importance of fair treatment for all and the belief that people should be able to live free of violence, discrimination, vilification and hatred.

The challenge we face as human rights educators is making rights real. If all human rights education imparts is the ability to quote chapter and verse from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we will have failed. For human rights education to succeed we must find ways to show people how respecting human rights can make a real difference to their lives – at home, at school, at work – and to the kind of society we live in.

Human rights education throughout the life cycle

Human rights are relevant to every aspect of the lifecycle – from school, to university, to the workplace, to family life, to community relations, to caring for our ageing population. 

Human rights education in schools

Human rights principles may be the foundation stone of free and functioning democracies, but unfortunately they have not yet acquired that status in the school curriculum in all parts of Australia.

While there have been significant efforts to bring human rights into the classroom, these efforts largely have been ad hoc, and success has varied from State to State and from school to school – a problem which reflects, in part - the inconsistencies between school curriculums in different States.

While there are many subjects which can and do incorporate human rights education programs, human rights education is still not a compulsory part of school syllabuses for all students. However, there are opportunities to explicitly include human rights education in Commonwealth initiatives, such as civics and citizenship and values education.

To help fill the gaps, HREOC has produced human rights education modules for upper primary and secondary schools. These include Youth Challenge: Teaching Human Rights and Responsibilities and Voices of Australia resources and activities to help combat racism and promote a culture of respect and equality among young Australians;

But producing human rights education resources is the easy part. The hard part is getting these resources into the classrooms.

In a paper based on interviews with secondary school teachers, Ms Paula Gerber, the deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law,  talks about the five key barriers teachers identified to human rights education: the crowded curriculum, no government mandate, lack of resources, where and how to incorporate human rights education and lack of training.2

The lack of training for would-be human rights educators is a serious obstacle. But there are human rights education resources. Not only does HREOC produce them, we receive excellent feedback from teachers and schools who use them.

The challenge facing HREOC is to get as many teachers and schools as possible to use these materials, and to promote an understanding of human rights in the classroom. But realistically, this is a challenge we can not meet unless governments, at a state and federal level, provide the resources to train human rights educators and make human rights education a mandatory part of the curriculum.

Human rights education in the workplace

Human rights education shouldn’t stop when young people step out of the school system and into the workplace, universities and TAFEs. 

Different occupations bring different challenges, but unfortunately discrimination is a problem which is common to many workplaces.

Employment is the main area of complaint under all federal anti-discrimination legislation. In 2005-06 employment related complaints constituted:

  • 48 % of complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act;
  • 85 % of complaints under the Sex Discrimination Act;
  • 58 % of complaints under the Disability Discrimination Act; and
  • 74 % of complaints under the Age Discrimination Act.

In the same year there was an increase in the number of employment related complaints lodged under all of these Acts.   

In the new industrial relations landscape HREOC is seeking to educate employers and employees about their obligations and rights under federal discrimination law. 

Employers are encouraged to create a discrimination and harassment free environment through our 'Good practice, good business guide', while employees can access our 'Work out your rights' website.  

Human rights education in families

Educating employers and employees about the principles of equality and non-discrimination is important. But we need to remember that human rights start at home.

While Australians accept the ideal of equality in paid work and family responsibilities, many Australian families do not have the opportunity to make this ideal a reality. 

Over the last two years, as part of its Women, men, work and family project HREOC, has been talking to Australian men and women about the challenges they face combing paid work and family responsibilities. 

What we’ve heard is that discrimination in the workplace on the basis of family responsibilities is a serious problem; that parents and carers are frustrated by the daily struggle of trying to balance paid work and family responsibilities; and that both men and women want things to change.

Today, workplace, financial and cultural pressures still put the onus on men to be primary breadwinners and women to be the primary carers. Many women continue to carry the disproportionate burden of family and carer responsibilities.

Many men feel like they’re missing out on the chance to spend more time with their children, and serious questions arise whether the unequal division of carer responsibilities are in the best interests of children.

The unequal division of care is not a women’s issue or a men’s issue. It’s a family issue. At a personal level, relationships, children, health and happiness can all be the casualties of failing to strike the right balance between paid work and family life.
Governments, workplaces, communities, families and individual men and women all have a part to play in creating a fairer balance between paid work and family responsibilities. In March this year HREOC will launch It’s about time the final paper in the Women, men, work and family project.

Human rights education in communities

Promoting public understanding and acceptance of human rights creates a framework for valuing family relationships and, on a broader scale, improving community relations. The way we treat others reflects the way we have been taught to treat others. Misinformation and ignorance are the staple ingredients of stereotypes and prejudices.

A vital part of the HREOC’s work is conducting projects which break-down stereotypes and encourage human rights compliant behaviour. HREOC’s ‘Face the Facts’ publications dispel myths about refugees and Indigenous people and our ‘Voices of Australia’ resources encourages greater understanding between people of different racial backgrounds, cultures and religions through the sharing of their experiences.

Currently, fears and stereotypes about Arab and Muslim Australians are having a corrosive impact on community relations in Australia. In 2004, HREOC published the Isma report which revealed that post September 11 Arab and Muslim Australians were the targets of a disturbing level of discrimination, vilification and violence.
The Isma report found that in many cases people did not report instances of vilification or violence to police or other government authorities. The report recommended that in order to reduce the risk of further marginalisation of Arab and Muslim communities strategies should be developed to:

  • build better relationships between communities and law enforcement agencies; and
  • educate communities members about the legal remedies for discrimination.

In response, HREOC has recently undertaken a project funded by what is now the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIC) entitled Unlocking Doors: Muslim communities and police tackling racial and religious discrimination and abuse Project.
The Unlocking Doors Project facilitated a dialogue between Muslim communities and Police to help build police capacity to respond to incidents of racial or religious abuse and to improve Muslim communities understanding of the legal remedies which are available for religious and racial abuse.

Human rights education in the public service

The Unlocking Door Project illustrates the importance of government agencies – like the police – engaging with human rights issues. In creating a list of key targets for human rights education we need to recognise that government departments and statutory agencies have a crucial role to play in making sure they implement public policy, administer laws and manage public resources in ways that protect and promote human rights principles.

As the Palmer Report into the wrongful detention of Cornelia Rau showed, one of the first casualties of poor governance is human rights. Conversely, the key characteristic of "good" governance is human rights compliance.3

Human rights education in law and policy making

Ultimately, protecting human rights depends on having laws and policies which comply with human rights standards. By requiring Parliament to expressly consider the human rights impact of new bills, the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities requires the legislature and the executive to undertake a kind of human rights self-education program. 

Under the Charter:

  • submissions to Cabinet about proposed laws and policies that will have a significant impact on human rights must be accompanied by a Human Rights Impact Statement.
  • Bills must be accompanied by a human rights compatibility statement;
  • a parliamentary scrutiny committee must assess the compatibility of the Bill with human rights; and
  • parliament must publicly explain its actions in the event that it decides to enact or maintain legislation that is inconsistent with human rights principles.

These provisions make sure that human rights principles do not fall off the radar in law and policy making and explicitly recognise the role and responsibility of parliament in safeguarding human rights.

Making human rights an integral part of the law and policy making process puts human rights firmly on the political and media agenda.  Public scrutiny of the human rights impact of legislation requires parliamentarians to improve their understanding of human rights issues, while media coverage of debates about the human rights impact of new bills promotes public understandings and discussion of human rights.

How does human rights education change the way we see and act in society?

I have focused on relevance of human rights to everyday life, to families, to workplaces, to community relations. 

I have not spoken about blatant violations of human rights –about indefinite and arbitrary detention, about denying people the right to a fair trial – although such issues are a cause for grave concern. Instead, I have focused on the positive difference respecting human rights can make to schools, workplaces, families and community relations.

I have done so because I think that sometimes people over look their own capacity to stand up for human rights.  As employers, as employees, as students, as sportspeople, as teachers we can all take responsibility for living in a way that respects basic human rights principles. We can support family friendly working arrangements, counter stereotypes and speak out against discrimination. 

Paying attention to the human rights issues we encounter in our everyday lives does not mean we can ignore the big picture.  Some people might think it’s a cop out to suggest that to get people interested in the big picture you must first focus on the small picture.  But, as I said earlier, I believe human rights starts at home.  If you can foster a human rights consciousness in people’s daily lives, this consciousness will not only shape the way people interact with society, it will shape the way people see society.

The comparative strength of Australia’s human rights record does not excuse our failures. Today, Indigenous Australians still face entrenched deprivations. Same-sex couples are routinely denied benefits available to heterosexual couples. The conditions in immigration detention centres have improved but the system of mandatory detention continues. Every day the ongoing detention of David Hicks visibly undermines Australia’s commitment to the principle of the right to a fair trial and the rule of law.

The contribution of human rights charters to human rights education

 It is an oft-remarked fact that Australia is the last Western democracy without a bill of rights. Perhaps in the future this will change. In the meantime, we must rely on the common law, the limited protections in the constitution, federal discrimination laws, on parliamentary democracy and a free and fearless media.

What is left out of this equation is the need to educate people – including parliamentarians, judges and journalists - about what human rights mean and why they matter.

Human rights education does not depend on the introduction of a statutory charter of rights, but a charter of rights can help. 

Contrary to popular myth, the purpose of statutory charters is not to confer unbridled power on an unelected judiciary, but to improve parliamentary protection of human rights. The way statutory charters achieve this objective is by creating an educational conversation, a ‘human rights dialogue’, between the courts, the legislature and the executive. 

Both the ACT and the Victorian Charters are ordinary statutes which expressly preserve parliamentary sovereignty by denying the courts the power to strike down legislation which is inconsistent with human rights.

Instead, if the court makes a declaration that a law is inconsistent with Charter, it is up to Parliament to decide whether to amend the law or leave it in place. And it is up to the voters to decide whether this was the right decision.

The ACT and Victorian Charters are the statutory articulation of a desire for a more rigorous debate about the protection of human rights.  By promoting public discussion about the human rights impact of laws and policies, these Charters not only foster a parliamentary culture of human rights compliance, they promote public understanding about human rights protection.

Human rights education in the future

A Charter of Rights is one way of promoting human rights education.  But it is not the only way. 

We can create stronger pre-legislative processes to check whether laws and policies comply with human rights without a Charter of Rights. Equally, human rights education programs can – and do – exist outside the statutory framework of a Charter of Rights.

Regardless of what you think about the utility of a statutory charter of rights, we should all be able to see that human rights education is critical to the way we live today and the way we live in the future.

In the 21st century the world will face many problems ranging from climate change and dwindling water resources, to irregular migration and the exploitation of illegal workers, to terrorism, to the persistent problems of poverty and gender inequality.  These issues must be addressed in ways which protect and preserve human rights. 

To do this, we need to make sure that the young people of today - the decision-makers of tomorrow - are provided with the tools to protect human rights.  And the most fundamental tool is education. 


1. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 (Cth) s11(1)(g).

2. Gerber P, '4th R - Human Rights Education'. Paper presented at Castan Centre Annual Year in Review Conference, December 2006

3. Joint Standing Committee Report, 13 [para 2.16] quoting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, What is Good Governance? (2002).