Date: 
Friday 7 December 2001

Author

Former.Commissioners
Area : Education

Youth Challenge Online - Teaching Human Rights and Responsibilities

Launching Speech by Professor Alice Tay
7th December 2001

 

May I begin by welcoming you all here today, including Senator Marise Payne who is representing the Commonwealth Attorney General, Professor Gordon Stanley, President of the NSW Board of Studies, Mr Duncan McGuiness from the NSW Parents Council and Mr Roger O'Sullivan from the Council of Catholic School Parents and Mr Kevin Bradburn from the NSW Department of Education. I also welcome the 30-odd students who have been selected to participate in this event and their teachers, and our guest speakers Mr Richard Shearman, Ms Sue Simpson and Ms Beverly Baker.

Professor Alice Tay - President, HREOC with Senator Marise Payne at the launch of Youth ChallengeLast month marked the 12th anniversary of a Convention very important to all societies, especially those with a high young population, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention places children's rights on the world's agenda. It is no surprise that it was the most widely ratified treaty in the world. Amongst the raft of important rights protected in that agreement, States agreed that the education of children shall be directed to the development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.[1] The premise for such a clarion call is that a common understanding of human rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realisation of such liberties.

One of the statutory functions of this Commission is to undertake educational programs for the purpose of promoting human rights. [2] It is a vital function of the Commission especially given the absence of leadership on human rights in recent Australian political debate. Human rights - contrary to what some would have us believe - are not in conflict with a strong, stable and prosperous society: they are an integral part of it. This is a message which needs to be discussed and dissected in the classroom with all the vigour one might analyse Shakespeare or ponder mathematical formulae. Human rights, like Shakespeare and Pythagoras, are often misunderstood.

Rights are not abstract concepts that float invisibly in the stifling atmosphere of the vast UN chambers: they are acutely personal and carve freedoms and protections for us in the daily enjoyment of our lives.

Human rights are about human potential. Rights themselves take place within the self, within the realm of human consciousness, ideology and philosophies. Rights are therefore not deduced from the nature or governance of the universe, but from a developing concept of what it is to be human, to lead a human life, to become a person. Far from being the foundation of morality in a historical sense, rights follow from our experience with moralities. In other words, it is not rights that shape our moralities, but our moralities, our perception of ourselves as humans, that shape and fashion the rights we want. It is from here that they may or may not be transformed into other kinds of rights - legal and actual - defined by obligations.

Human rights include, but are not limited to, enforceable or legal rights. Human rights must have moral content by our very nature of being. Human wants often exceed human rights. Milan Kundera, an East European author and journalist, warns us about confusing and trivialising rights. He has written about this conundrum, in his book Immortality:

I don't know a single politician who doesn't mention ten times a day the fight for human rights or violation of human rights. But because people in the West are not threatened by concentration camps and are free to say and write what they want, the more the fight for human rights gains in popularity, the more it loses any concrete content, becoming a kind of universal stance of everyone towards everything, a kind of energy that turns all human desires into rights. The world has become man's (sic) rights and everything in it has become a right; the desire for love the right to love; the desire for rest the right to rest; the desire for friendship the right to friendship; the desire to exceed the speed limit the right to exceed the speed limit; the desire for happiness the right to happiness...

Human rights are first and foremost moral rights. To talk about rights without a moral foundation is to devalue the currency of human rights. At a conference I attended earlier this year, a Canberra bureaucrat trumpeted after my speech: 'I'd like to see a human right to obtain the best possible product at the cheapest possible price'. That is a want, not of natural necessity and therefore not belonging to proper human rights discourse. But it is indicative of the systemic misunderstanding of human rights and the unnecessary threat to their legitimacy. Such misunderstanding places all the more gravitas on the education function of the human rights commission.

Such moral rights may become legal rights when national legislatures make laws that give them enforceability. In such situation, when we say we have a (legal) right, we are saying 1) there is someone or some agency which has a duty to protect or secure that right for us and 2) that we can go to a court or tribunal to assert that claim. This is the best position to be in. When we claim a moral right which has not been made into a legal right, we are merely saying that, from the values we hold, we are justified in behaving in a certain way and expecting others who share the same values to agree with us and behave according. Is this good enough? I don't believe that all rights, including human rights, should be enforceable. I prefer a society in which the majority can be expected to respond to moral claims spontaneously, while. recognising that they are not enforceable. We should not do things simply because we are obliged by law to do so.

I would now like to deal with another aspect of our Commission's education function, the more technological aspect:

The internet has presented the Human Rights Commission, like so many others, with new opportunities to share our resources and to meet such challenges. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that the Internet was accessed by 1.2 million children during or outside of school hours in the 12 months ending April 2000. Of children who accessed the Internet in that time, 67% accessed the Internet at school. [3]

Our Commission's website too boasts some impressive numbers: we had approximately 18 million hits on the server during the 2000-01 financial year. That's a daily average of over 50,000 hits per day. This translates to more than two and a half million web pages viewed on the site during the 2000-01 financial year.

Of course two challenges for online human rights education confront the Commission. First, the internet must be accessible to all school children. This is particularly a problem when resources themselves are allocated in a discriminatory fashion. Secondly, the information on the internet must be accurate, accessible, challenging and creative. While HREOC is beholden to federal and state governments to meet the first challenge, the second is wholly within our capabilities. The HREOC website is accessible to users with a range of disabilities including people with visual and hearing impairments, as well as being accessible in terms of content.

Youth Challenge Online had its genesis in Youth Challenge - a program run by HREOC for school students across Australia since 1998. That program brought students together in different regions of Australia for a one day event that explored how human rights affected the daily lives of students and their local communities. Building on its success, the Commission decided to bring the program to students, rather than vice versa, using online technology.

Youth Challenge Online consists of three units. First, 'Human Rights in the Classroom' introduces students to the origins of what we now call human rights, and explains their relevance to our daily lives. The Second unit 'But what about Doug's rights?' helps students to understand the nature of rights and their corresponding obligations by providing a case study about disability discrimination. The third unit is called 'Young People and the Workplace' and aims to assist young people in their transition from school to work and deal with workplace discrimination issues. I should mention that we have Youth Challenge packs available here for teachers and students and copies of the Youth Challenge video should anyone wish to acquire it.

 Mr Richard Shearman, Ms Beverly Baker and Ms Sue SimpsonLet me now introduce our speakers who will talk in more details about Youth Challenge Online. First, I am pleased to have Senator Marise Payne, representing the Commonwealth Attorney General, co-launch this initiative with me today. A federal Senator since 1997, Senator Payne has long demonstrated an interest in human rights and youth affairs. Currently a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Senator Payne is also the first female Chair of its Human Rights Sub-Committee. The Senator is also involved in the Parliamentary Group of Amnesty International and is President of the Parliamentary Association for UNICEF.

Our second speaker, Mr Richard Shearman, is currently the Federal President of the Independent Education Union of Australia and General Secretary of the NSW/ACT Independent Education Union. The Independent Education Union represents 21,500 teaching and non-teaching staff employed in catholic and independent schools and other non-government education institutions.

Richard will be followed by Ms Beverly Baker, President, Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of NSW.

Finally we will hear from Ms Sue Simpson who for 14 years has worked for the NSW Teachers Federation, including the last four years as its President. Sue was an English and History teacher for 11 years and firmly believes that teaching offers limitless opportunities to teach about human rights and respect for others.


1. Art 29(1)(b).

2. HREOCA, s 11(1)(h).

3. ABS 'Children's Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities' (provided by Victoria Smith, Public Affairs Section).