There is a growing consensus that education in and for human rights is essential and contributes to both the reduction of human rights violations and the building of free, just and peaceful societies. Human rights education is also increasingly recognised as an effective strategy to prevent human rights abuses.
- Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan
During 2003, the Senate’s Human Rights Committee has been pursuing this education-focused investigation. The Australian Parliament’s inquiry into Human Rights and Good Governance Education in the Asia Pacific Region makes an important policy contribution to a key human rights area – that of educating individuals and communities about human rights.
The inquiry was conducted under four terms of reference:
- the role of human rights and good governance education in the promotion of fair and sustainable social, political and economic development;
- Australia's involvement in human rights and good governance education;
- the involvement of the UN and other regional government and non-government organisations; and
- progress made in Australia and the Asia Pacific towards the realisation of the goals of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education.
As the Attorney General’s submission to the enquiry said:
Human rights only exist in a meaningful way if people believe in them and are committed to them. They exist because people understand their value to the community and appreciate their importance to the rights, liberties and dignity of the individual. The protection of human rights depends on them being accepted and observed by each and every member of our society.
This requires that people are educated and informed about human-rights principles, the relevant international human rights instruments, and the impact of human rights on their daily lives.
The strong link between education and the promotion of human rights has been widely recognised and is inherent in a number of key international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 26) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (article 13). These instruments place obligations on States to undertake human rights education, training and public information programmes. As a state party to the UN Decade for Human Rights Education, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other major human rights instruments, Australia has accepted an obligation to provide human rights education.
Similarly, it is increasingly recognised that the way a society is governed has a direct correlation to the success of social, political and economic development, including the protection and promotion of human rights.
The Citizenship and Democracy: Australian Students' Knowledge and Beliefs study undertaken in 1999 (published in 2002) provides some insight into the extent to which governance (or "civics") and human rights are understood among Australian school children. While the study found that students appreciated living in a democracy and recognised the importance of being a "good citizen", only about half the students surveyed had a grasp of the "essential pre-conditions for a properly working democracy" and were not strong on what constituted their civil rights.
Domestic efforts in regard to human rights and good governance education are anchored in a number of school-based Commonwealth programmes such as Discovering Democracy (coordinated by the Dept of Education, Science and Training) and HREOC's programme Youth Challenge, which incorporates both student and teacher-education resources. The states also have a range of "civics" programmes in their school curriculum.
In terms of the wider community a few programmes exist, such as Living in Harmony (coordinated by DIMIA), the Human Rights City project being developed in Perth and the Citizenship for Humanity project developed by the NCHRE. And, of course, HREOC has an extensive range of activities and information available on its website.
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