By Sophie Bouris
Focusing on expanding the knowledge and practical use of human rights for children and uni students was a key aim for the coming decade, speakers told delegates to a major international conference in Australia recently.
It was vital teachers were empowered to deliver human rights education in their classrooms, not necessarily as a standalone subject but integrated into virtually all learning, they heard.
The focus on children stemmed from the conference’s sub-title: ‘Unleashing Civil Society’.
More than 400 hundred human rights experts representing 50 countries – including from governments, the UN, European Council, NGOs, universities and civil society – attended the 9th International Conference on Human Rights Education (ICHRE) at Western Sydney University (WSU) in November 2018.
Former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Dr Sev Ozdowski conceived the conference series nearly a decade ago, in 2010. South Africa, Poland, Taiwan, the USA, the Netherlands, Chile and Canada had held earlier events before the 2018 Australian conference, for which Dr Ozdowski was the major organiser.
Delegates will head to Kathmandu, Nepal, for the 2019 event.
WSU professors noted the support of other NSW universities in sponsoring and attending the 9th ICHRE, and confirmed WSU’se ongoing commitment to supporting human rights. WSU is calling for Australian universities to work together in a non-competitive and collegiate fashion to co-ordinate involvement of students and academics in research and debate.
Dr Ozdowski said the level of school human rights education largely depends on individual teachers integrating rights history and principles into different classes. Teachers could also include discussion of human rights in areas such as climate change, conflict prevention, loss of global civil society space, attacks on human rights defenders and corruption as well as in the traditional legal studies area.
Australia’s Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, also focused on young people as she delivered her address an audience which included more than 100 fascinated high school children who had clearly heard little about human rights. She encouraged them to not only to learn about the history and achievements of the human rights movement but about their own rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
As well, she said they were responsible for preserving the rights of others in their school environments, highlighting the need to protect other kids against racism, bullying and cyber-bullying.
‘Missing link’ was also theme
Several speakers confirmed Australia’s vulnerability given that it remains the only liberal democracy without a Bill of Rights, since the proposal’s defeat in a 1988 referendum. The ‘missing link’, the Bill of Rights, was a major theme of the conference with national and international speakers claiming the concept needed an urgent rethink to correct the framework of rights protection in Australia.
The current director of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Prof Rosalind Croucher, told the gathering that human rights needed to be “reframed” in Australia.
“In Australia, our discussion of human rights most frequently occurs in a ‘negative space’. Human rights are invoked in public debate as inhibitors – reasons why you can’t do certain things. ‘You can’t do that because you are breaching my rights’ is an example of this.
“How do we enliven this idea that human rights are everyone’s responsibility? To me it is about increasing the ‘rights-mindedness’ of people across the nation, across generations, and across all aspects of government. Or in terms of the AHRC’s motif, making human rights about ‘everyone, everywhere, everyday’, not just for government to deal with, or that is solely a matter for legal processes,” she said.
The Global Director of Human Rights Education for Amnesty International, Barbara Weber, who is based in the UK, discussed the difficulties faced by civil society groups in parts of Europe. She described threats to rights protection in European contexts, including by populist movements, state responses to the refugee crisis and an increase in authoritarianism.
Another problem for HRE, said Weber, was that human rights were frequently portrayed as an agenda of elites and were missing from global discourse, including in eastern European countries. Clearly in some countries even the mention of human rights had become dangerous, she said.
* Sophie Bouris is a member of Civil Liberties Australia who was part of the organising secretariat, led by Prof Ozdowski, who is also a member of CLA.