How does the Australian Human Rights Commission promote the rights of children and young people?
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- What is the Commission’s role?
- What are the human rights of children and young people?
- How does the Commission promote public awareness on children’s rights?
- What complaints can children and young people make?
- How does the Commission promote children’s rights in Australian courts?
- How does the Commission promote children’s rights at the United Nations?
- How does the Commission influence policy and legislative development of children’s rights?
The Australian Human Rights Commission (the Commission) has an official role to protect and promote human rights in Australia, including the rights of children and young people.
The Commission protects and promotes the rights of children and young people through:
- education and public awareness;
- discrimination and human rights complaints;
- human rights compliance in the Australian courts and at the United Nations; and
- policy and legislative development.
There is no specific children’s rights Commissioner at the federal level. At a state level, Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania have specific children’s Commissioners that promote the safety, welfare and wellbeing of all children and young people in those states. South Australia also has a Guardian that promotes the best interests of children and young people who are under the care of the state.
Human rights are the rights of all people, including children and young people. For example, the five main human rights international treaties all apply to children and young people:
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR);
- Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD);
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); and
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).
When the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities comes in force it will also apply to children and young people.
There is also a specific Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which seeks to protect the special interests and vulnerability of children and young people under the age of 18 years.
The CRC covers issues like:
- the right to life and development;
- the right to education;
- the right to freedom of expression;
- the right to privacy;
- the right not to be discriminated against; and
- ensures that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration in any decisions relating to children.
3. How does the Commission promote public awareness on children’s rights?
One of the rights in the CRC is the right to education. That right requires education so children and young people develop a respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The CRC also requires that the rights in the CRC are publicised widely.
The Commission assists in realising these goals by providing information for individuals, students, teachers, lawyers and community groups. The Commission also creates partnerships with communities to promote human rights.
The Commission has developed a youth friendly website with information explaining human rights. This information assists students in answering school assignments. The site also contains links to ways for youth to further engage with human rights and access materials.
The Commission’s human rights education program includes a range of interactive, web-based learning modules and lesson plans for use in the classroom for students aged from 12 – 17.
Some of the Commission’s popular resources include:
- Bringing Them Home education module – This resource module has been updated with additional activities that complement the Bringing Them Home report and the publication Us Taken-Away Kids, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report.
- The Youth Challenge Program which focuses on real life issues such as sex, race and disability discrimination, sexual harassment and rights in the workplace.
- Voices of Australia: Education Module allows for the different stories of Australian people to be heard and celebrated in the classroom.
- Face the facts is a teaching resource with activities about refugees, migrants and Indigenous peoples.
- Celebrating human rights day provides a basic introduction to the themes and terminology of human rights.
The Commission has explained several key juvenile justice issues with regard to the Convention on the Rights of the Child including:
The Commission conducts research and prepares reports and on particular issues relating to children and young people.
Some of our research includes:
- In 2001, the Commission commissioned a report on The Sterilisation of Girls and Young Women in Australia: issues and progress. The Commission has continued to advocate for the prevention of unlawful or unnecessary sterilising procedures being performed on people, particularly girls and young women, with disabilities.
- Age Matters: a report on age discrimination, which looks at the discrimination that older and younger people face at work, in obtaining goods, services and accommodation. The Commissioner responsible for age discrimination continues to monitor discrimination that children and young people face on the basis of their age and through complaints made under the Age Discrimination Act 2004.
- What’s the Score? is a survey of cultural diversity and racism in Australian sport. The report looks at the experience of children and young people in sport.
- Unlocking Doors brought Muslim communities and police together to discuss and respond to incidents of racial and religious discrimination and abuse and has culminated in a forum, audit and report. The Unlocking Doors project identified the particular experience of youth.
Also see the section about the Commission’s national inquiries into children’s rights.
In 2007, the Commission established a new program focusing on community partnerships in promoting protecting human rights. The program builds on the Commission’s previous work with Muslim communities.
The program aims to decrease the discrimination of Muslims, especially young Muslims, and aims to empower Muslim communities to increase participation and inclusion in Australian society.
Some projects that are aimed specifically for youth include:
- Community Policing Partnership Project, which will provide grants of up to $10,000 for joint community and police initiatives that build trust and encourage respect and inclusion;
- Community Language Schools Human Rights Curriculum Resource and Campaign Project, which will develop classroom material on discrimination, human rights and complaints processes for community school students aged between 10-14; and
- Community Cultural Development Arts Initiative, which will coordinate local arts-based projects that build participation and understanding through artistic and cultural expression.
The Commission is currently developing a training program aimed at preventing family violence in Indigenous communities. In March and April of 2008, the Commission will deliver the training program to Community Legal Education workers as part of their preparation for employment in family violence prevention.
The Community Legal Educations will raise awareness of the relationship between Australian law, customary law and human rights as it intersects with family violence. They will work with Indigenous community members; particularly elders, women and youth, to speak out about family violence and to recognise that violence is inconsistent with customary law, the Australian legal system and human rights.
The training also aims to develop and support Indigenous women, men and youth to empower Indigenous women to become positive role models for other women and girls in Indigenous communities.
Children and young people have the right to a resolution when their rights have been breached. One way that young people can experience this right is through making complaints to the Commission about discriminatory treatment or other actions that breach human rights.
The Commission has prepared a specific page on our website dedicated to assisting young people to make complaints, ‘Help for young people: don’t cop discrimination’. The Commission also distributes fliers and postcards on how to make a complaint to cafes, libraries, community centres and other spaces where young people meet.
Click here for information on making a complaint to the Commission.
The Commission has also prepared a guide for young women who may be discriminated against because they are female, ‘Getting to know the Sex Discrimination Act’.
The Commission has the power to hear complaints by children and young people under the following federal acts:
- Age Discrimination Act 2004, which relates to the discrimination that children and young people might face in employment and in the provision of goods, education, services and accommodation on the basis of their age;
- Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which relates to discrimination on the basis of race, colour or ethnic origin;
- Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which relates to discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex; and
- Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which relates to discrimination on the basis of disability.
Click here for information on making a complaint to the Commission.
Click here to read more about age discrimination.
Click here to see examples of disability discrimination complaints in the area of education.
c. Complaints about a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights laws
The Commission can also investigate complaints against the Commonwealth government and its agencies about alleged breaches of human rights under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986(HREOC Act).
Under the HREOC Act human rights are defined in a very specific way. For an action to constitute a breach of a person's human rights, the action must breach or infringe a right in:
- Convention on the Rights of the Child;
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
- Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief;
- Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons; and
- Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons.
Complaints under the HREOC Act differ from the other federal discrimination acts because if the Commission cannot resolve a complaint under the HREOC Act successfully, the complaint cannot be heard in court. However, if conciliation is unsuccessful or inappropriate and the Commission finds that there has been a breach of human rights – then the Commission can prepare a report of the complaint for the Attorney-General. This report can include recommendations for action and must be tabled in Parliament.
For example in the matter of KJ, a complaint was made that during the riots at Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in March 2002, KJ’s son, MJ was assaulted with a baton. The Commission found that the assault was a breach of MJ’s human rights and recommended an apology from the government. Click here to read the report prepared for the Attorney-General.
Click here for more information on making complaints under the HREOC Act.
The Commission provides assistance to the Australian courts in our role as amicus curiae ('friend of the court') and through our ability to intervene in cases, with the permission of the court. Our role is to provide expert advice on human rights and discrimination issues.
Some important cases where the Commission has promoted the rights of children and young people include:
- Indirect discrimination in education concerning children who are deaf
- Tiahana Hurst v State of Queensland  FCAFC 100
- Catholic Education Office & Anor v Clarke  FCAFC 197
- Consent to surgical treatment by children
- Re Michael: John Briton, Acting Public Advocate (Victoria) v GP & KP and HREOC (1994) FLC 92-486
- Consent to medical treatment on behalf of a child
- Re Alex: Hormonal Treatment For Gender Identity Dysphoria  FamCA 297
- Sterilisation of young women with disabilities
- Re Katie (1996) FLC 92-659;
- P & P: In the matter of ; Legal Aid Commission of New South Wales, Unreported, Moore J, 23 Sept 1994
- P v P; re Lessli (1995) FLC 92-615;
- Secretary, Department of Health and Community Services v JWB and SMB (1992) 175 CLR 218 (Re Marion No 1)
- Re a Teenager (1988) 94 FLR 181;
- Proceedings involving child abduction cases
- Relocation of children and the Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Guardianship of unaccompanied children
- Odhiambo v Minister for Immigration & Multicultural Affairs and Martizi v Minister for Immigration & Multicultural Affairs  FCAFC 194 (20 June 2002)
- Aboriginal customary law and human rights obligations
Part of Australia’s human rights obligations requires the government to periodically report to the United Nations (UN) on Australia’s implementation of human rights treaties. Other parties can also be involved in the reporting process.
The Commission has made submissions to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Commission has also made submissions to the UN Human Rights Committee on Civil and Political Rights.
Click here for more information about Australia’s role in reporting to the United Nations and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Commission is involved in international human rights development through Australia’s role at the UN.
The Human Rights Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Disability Discrimination, Graeme Innes AM, was part of Australia’s delegation to the UN which negotiated the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 7 of the Convention specifically promotes and protects the rights of children with disabilities.
Although Australia has signed the Convention, the Commission remains involved in promoting the ratification of the Convention by the Australian government.
For more information about the ratification process please see www.disabilityrightsnow.org.au
The Commission has also been involved in developing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The Declaration specifically promotes the rights of Indigenous children and young people. The Declaration was adopted by the UN in September 2007. The Declaration was not implemented by the Australian government at that time. The Commission continues to promote the implementation of the Declaration.
In 2003, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child convened a Day of General Discussion on the rights of Indigenous Children. The Social Justice Commissioner made three submissions to the Committee relating to identity and culture; non-discrimination and equality; and law, public order and juvenile justice.
In 2002, the Commission participated in the UN Special Session for Children at which the nations of the world committed themselves to a series of goals to improve the situation of children and young people.
The Commission has the power to conduct national inquiries into human rights issues. Many of the Commission’s national inquiries touch on the rights of children and young people in areas as diverse as homelessness, the legal process, Indigenous policy, education, immigration detention, sterilisation and family life.
One of the Commission’s first youth focused projects was the National Inquiry into Homeless Children in 1989. The inquiry revealed that approximately 25,000 children and young people in Australia were homeless, with many more at risk of homelessness or surviving in grossly inadequate housing. Since that time, the Commission has continued to monitor the human rights of the homeless.
Another landmark inquiry was Bringing Them Home National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families between 1910 and 1970. The recommendations of the inquiry can be found in the Bringing Them Home report published in 1997. In commemoration of the 10 year anniversary of the report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma and federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, The Hon. Jenny Macklin MP, launched Us Taken-Away Kids magazine, educational materials and an updated version of the report.
In 1997, the Commission also launched the Seen and Heard report of the national inquiry into children in the legal process. Many of the recommendations of the Seen and Heard report remain unimplemented. Recently the Commission attended a conference reflecting on the 10 year anniversary of the Seen and Heard report.
In 2000, the Commission launched the report of the National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education which inquired into the provision of education for children in rural and remote Australia. The inquiry looked at the availability and accessibility of both primary and secondary schooling, the quality of educational services, including technological support services and whether appropriate education was available to children with disabilities, Indigenous children and children from diverse cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds.
From 2002 – 2004, the Commission inquired into children in immigration detention. The inquiry report A last resort? was published in 2004. The report found that Australia’s immigration detention laws and its treatment of children in immigration detention breached the CRC. Since the release of the report, children are now only detained in immigration detention facilities in exceptional circumstances and only for the shortest time possible.
In 2005, the Commission held a national dialogue with young people on human rights Rights of Passage. The project’s primary aim was to find out what young Australians know about human rights, and to listen to their views on a wide range of contemporary, rights-related issues. Rights of Passage found that young people were eager to share their observations on discrimination, equality, tolerance, vilification and other human rights topics. The dialogue also found that young people need assistance recognising what information will best empower them as they develop.
Since the wellbeing of children and young people is significantly impacted by family life, the Commission’s work in promoting equality between men and women, equality for same-sex families, as well as highlighting work life balance issues also protects the rights of children and young people.
The women, men, work and family inquiry, It’s About Time, was launched by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward in 2005. It builds on the Commission's previous work on paid maternity leave and examines the relationship between family responsibilities and paid work.
In 2007, the Commission reported on the inquiry into discrimination faced by same-sex families and the children of those families in relation to financial and work related entitlements. The inquiry report Same-Sex: Same Entitlements found that there were 58 pieces of federal legislation that discriminated against same-sex families.
Each year, the Commission presents the government with a Social Justice Report and a Native Title Report. Among other things, the Social Justice report looks at the wellbeing of Indigenous children and young people. The Native Title report advocates for land rights and native title, which ultimately provides an opportunity for the continuing transmission of knowledge and culture to Indigenous children and young people.
In the Social Justice Report 2005, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner called for Australian governments to commit to achieving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and life expectation equality within 25-years. An Indigenous health campaign called Close the Gap followed the releases of the report. The campaign highlighted the enormous difference in opportunity and life expectancy between an Indigenous child and a non-Indigenous child.
In the Native Title Report 2006, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner promoted the human rights aspects of the Argyle Agreement. The Argyle Agreement gives rights to the traditional owners of the land currently used by the Argyle Diamond Mine. The Argyle Agreement also sets up a trust which has developed projects to benefit children and young people including a holiday program for youth at risk.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), the Attorney-General has the power to make may make disability standards to specify rights and responsibilities about equal access and opportunity for adults and children with a disability. In 2005, the Commission was involved in producing the Disability Standards for Education, that promotes protection of the human rights of children and young people with a disability.
The Commission has a role to review legislation and make recommendations about laws, government policies and programs that involve human rights issues. Our submissions are presented to government agencies, parliamentary committees and other inquiry bodies. Some of the submissions we have prepared on topics that impact on children and young people include:
- Mandatory detention of juvenile offenders in WA and NT;
- Publication of names of juveniles involved in criminal proceedings (NSW);
- Northern Territory National Emergency Response Legislation;
- Electoral and Referendum Amendment Act;
- Inquiry into civics and electoral education; and
- Inquiry into the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on involvement of children in armed conflict;