A little while ago I received a request from the Australian College of Educators, of which I am a Fellow, to assist the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in improving its education resources. I was asked to complete a survey questionnaire that might last ten minutes. As a former survey-research addict, and as someone interested in the whole concept of ‘rights’, I set out to do so. I’ve written a dozen essays on this website that refer to the notion of ‘human rights’ of one kind or another, and have a deal of disquiet about the common use of the term. ‘Rights’, in my judgment, are privileges conferred by law, but in common parlance ‘rights’ seem to be mostly aspirational — that is, ‘there ought to be a right’… of this kind or that kind, and we’ll make a fuss until there is one.
The immediate problem is that because ‘rights’ are conferred by law, if there isn’t such a law, then there is no right. There are, at the same time, values and customs that most of us adhere to most of the time. For example, the great majority in our country behave honestly as a matter of course , and there are laws that can apply to us if we don’t. But there is no ‘right’ to be treated honestly. Not only that, it is hard to get parliaments to write new laws about rights, and when they do (as in the anti-discrimination example), it is not at all clear what that parliament really meant, though it aids the growth in our GDP by providing more work for lawyers.
I wasn’t much help to the AHRC, since I no longer have any role in classrooms. But again and again I wanted to write — and did sometimes write in one of the boxes — surely you need to be teaching about what ‘rights’ are, not (as it seems to me) assuming that everything that is bad in the world is somehow about human rights. And in due course after I had sent off my response, I decide to go to the AHRC website, for further enlightenment.
Somewhere, I said to myself, there will be a definition of a ‘human right’. What I got first of all, was not a definition, but a kind of context:
Human rights recognise the inherent value of each person, regardless of background, where we live, what we look like, what we think or what we believe.
They are based on principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect, which are shared across cultures, religions and philosophies. They are about being treated fairly, treating others fairly and having the ability to make genuine choices in our daily lives.
Respect for human rights is the cornerstone of strong communities in which everyone can make a contribution and feel included.
If I remove the first three words and the later three words ‘for human rights’, I thoroughly support what is written. But nothing there tells me what a ‘right’ is, and nothing there is a legal ‘right’, to the best of my knowledge. All this is aspirational stuff — if we were all nice people, like you and me, the world would be like this, because we would all be nice to each other — and we should be, too. So I read a little further, and got this:
The Commission has a responsibility to monitor Australia’s performance in meeting its international human rights commitments. We provide advice and recommendations so that these standards are reflected in our national laws, as well as policies and programs developed by government.
Well, that told me what the AHRC is for, and indeed that is its primary responsibility under its Act of 1986. But I could go further still, and found this, in Fact Sheet No. 1 in ‘Defining Human Rights’:
Human rights are often defined in different ways.
Simple definitions that are often given include:
- the recognition and respect of peoples dignity
- a set of moral and legal guidelines that promote and protect a recognition of our values, our identity and ability to ensure an adequate standard of living
- the basic standards by which we can identify and measure inequality and fairness
- those rights associated with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The more I read, the more perplexed I became. These words do not define ‘human rights’, although the last line goes close. The problem is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is full of noble statements, and indeed replete with the word ‘rights’. But it is a hortatory document. It is simply fatuous to say that ‘human rights’ are a set of moral and legal guidelines that promote and protect a recognition of our values, our identity and ability to ensure an adequate standard of living. To say it yet again, rights are laws, not guidelines. Under certain conditions, an Australian has a ‘right’ to an old age pension when he or she turns 65. That is a right. There is no right known to me that protects ‘our identity and ability to ensure an adequate standard of living’. Nor could there be — it would be a dog’s breakfast of a law.
So I kept reading. Now we know that the AHRC is there to monitor the Commonwealth Government’s activity in observing the international treaties in this domain to which Australia is a signatory. And the AHRC has a set of papers about ‘knowing your rights’, where what is put forward is indeed based on law. But what is this?
Our Vision: Human rights: everyone, everywhere, everyday
Our Mission: Leading the promotion and protection of human rights in Australia by:
- making human rights values part of everyday life and language;
- empowering all people to understand and exercise their human rights;
- working with individuals, community, business and government to inspire action;
- keeping government accountable to national and international human rights standards;
This seems a lot wider than monitoring the Government. There’s quite a few of the international treaties which our Government has signed, incidentally. But they too are guidelines, not laws. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), for example, sets out principles, or values, that ought to guide societies in the way their laws and customs treat children, but until a nation has actually passed a law, then the Convention is simply another piece of hortatory assertion. Article 27, for example, begins like this: 1. States Parties [Australia is one] recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. See the word ‘right’? What sort of a right is this? Article 27 goes on to say that it is the parents’ primary responsibility to ensure that the child actually has that standard of living, but the State also should do what it can to help. I would say that in Australia the great majority of children are covered, and where they are not there is a real problem, often with parental neglect. And we have laws and procedures to deal with at least some of that neglect. Much of it, perhaps most, is the responsibility of State and Territory governments, not of the Commonwealth.
At the end of a lot of reading, I became worried that the AHRC has become almost a law unto itself, leading the charge to make us all nicer people than it thinks we are. I think it has come to believe that the Universal Declaration’s rights are real ones rather than aspirational ones, and that is wrong that they are not enshrined in our law. The Act does give it power to put educational material in the schools. Perhaps it is the pedant in me that wants the Commission to be clear about what ‘rights’ are, and not to go on and on about making the world a better place. Dare I say it, I think this is an example of political correctness. How could any decent person be opposed to what the AHRC is trying to do? But it worries me.
Perhaps it is the advice of my teacher father, many years ago, when I proposed putting this or that into the school curriculum. ‘What are we going to take out to make room?’ he asked nicely. Though I am open to persuasion, I do not think that the AHRC should be trying to get the curriculum expanded to include its own material.
Perhaps I should ask my teacher daughters what they think.