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FOCUS March 2002 Volume 27

Update on HRE and HREOC

Jan Payne

*This is an excerpt of the report presented by Jan Payne at the Tenth Workshop on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Haman Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region held in Beirut, Lebanon, 4-6 March 2002.

One of the most important statutory functions of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is to undertake educational programs for the purpose of promoting human rights. It is a vital function of the Commission.

At the Ninth Workshop for Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region held in Bangkok (March 2001), the President of the Commission (Professor Alice Tay) spoke of a range of programs and initiatives used by the Commission in regard to human rights education. These programs include human rights training activities, media engagement on human rights issues, speeches and presentations by Commissioners and staff, and the conduct of National Inquiries on important human rights issues. Examples of such Inquiries are the very widely reported National Inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their families and the recently announced National Inquiry into Children held in Detention.

The latter Inquiry will look at the adequacy and appropriateness of Australia's treatment of child asylum seekers and other children who are, or have been, held in immigration detention.

National Inquiries have a very important educative role in that they seek to promote an understanding and acceptance of human rights in Australia; they undertake research to promote human rights; they examine laws related to human rights; and provide advice to government on laws and actions that are required to comply with international human rights obligations.

National Inquiries together with the complaints handling processes of the Commission (which provides individual remedies for persons who have suffered discrimination or breaches of human rights), form a powerful nexus in the promotion of human rights and responsibilities in Australia.

I would like to update the human rights education information particularly in the areas of Online Human Rights Education Resources, the Intervention and Amicus functions of the Commission and the upcoming workshop to be hosted by the Commission on Human Rights Education, the Media and Racism.

In relation to online education resources, two challenges confront the Commission. First, the internet must be accessible to all students and secondly the information must be accurate, accessible, challenging and creative. We rely on government to supply the infrastructure, and the Australian government has committed to making the internet available to as many students as possible.

As far as the second challenge is concerned, the Commission consults widely with teachers and students. We use surveys and evaluative measures including electronic mailing lists to assess the effectiveness of the education materials. Feedback so far has been very positive.

The first online human rights education program the Commission has developed is called Youth Challenge (YC). It is for secondary school students. The program was launched in December 2001 by Professor Tay and a group of education experts. It links to curriculum subjects such as Civics and Citizenship, History and Legal Studies.

YC provides teaching strategies, activity worksheets, links to human rights resource materials, and case studies presented by way of two videos. There are three parts to the program which cover human rights in the classroom, origins of human rights, relationship between rights and responsibilities and application to the students' own lives. Other issues include the importance of "identity" and difference as an element of human rights, and sex, race and disability discrimination.

The Commission has promoted the online materials widely through the use of advertisements in teacher journals, distribution of posters and postcards and direct contact with all secondary schools. The success of the promotion is evident from the online statistics for December 2001/January 2002 which show large numbers of people accessing the YC online materials.

Work is now underway within the Commission to produce a comprehensive online education program. Initially targeting teachers (both primary and secondary), students will also have access and be able to use the materials as well. The aims of the modules are to provide a context for discussion on human rights and to assist students to hone their decision making skills when presented with a range of conflicting ideas about human rights and responsibilities.

The second human rights education activity I wanted to discuss is the Intervention and Amicus role of the Commission.

The Commission has had a function of acting as an Intervener in certain court proceedings since the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act commenced in 1986. The amicus role given to each individual Commissioner only came into effect in April 2000. The Commission uses the amicus and intervention role as an educational tool, by the promotion of our arguments through publication on the website ( and comments in the media as appropriate.

An amicus curiae is a "friend of the court" whose role had traditionally been to ensure that the court is properly informed of matters which it ought to take into account in reaching its decision. An amicus application may only be heard if the court thinks it is proper after "good cause" has been shown by the applicant.

The Commission has developed guidelines for the exercise of the amicus curiae function which can be found on the Commission's website. The amicus curiae function applies only to those matters in which a complaint alleging unlawful race, sex, or disability discrimination has been terminated by the Commission and where the Federal Court or Federal Magistrates Service is subsequently hearing the application.

To date, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner is the only Commissioner who has appeared as amicus curiae. The court accepted that the proceedings had significant implications for the administration of the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) and it was in the public interest for her to assist the court. The benefit of exercising this role is that it will assist with the development of a body of anti-discrimination jurisprudence and should assist the parties to focus on the issues and ultimately resolve the dispute. The Commission will continue to monitor cases where this function may be applicable.

The Intervention function of the Commission has much broader application. The Commission with the permission of the Court can intervene in court proceeding involving any human rights issues (human rights being defined as those recognized in six named international instruments);1 in proceedings involving discrimination in employment or occupation; and in race, sex, martial status, pregnancy or disability discrimination matters. Guidelines regarding the Intervention function can also be found on the Commission website.

In proceedings where the Commission had intervened it has relied heavily on its specialist human rights knowledge and expertise. It has also been careful to choose proceedings which involve issues of public importance which may effect to a significant extent persons other than the parties before the Court. The Commission has sought and been granted leave as an Intervener in 26 cases. The range of matters includes:

  • Family law proceedings involving sterilization of young women with disabilities, and the validation of the marriage of a female to a male transsexual person;
  • Proceedings involving child abduction cases; international law and the extent to which administrative decision makers are obliged to take into account human rights instruments in making their decisions;
  • Native title issues;
  • Immigration cases including access by people in detention to legal representation; and the alleged arbitrary detention of persons aboard the MV Tampa.

The exercise of these functions broaden the educative base of the Commission and provide an important avenue for the development of human rights and anti-discrimination law in Australia.

Finally, the Commission with the assistance of the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights is hosting in May/June of this year (2002) the Regional Workshop on Human Rights Education, Media and Racism. The goal of the workshop is to provide Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions members, and other national human rights institutions with strategies and skills to strengthen their capacity to utilize the media to promote human rights education, particularly as it is related to educating against racism.

Ms. Jan Payne is the Acting Director for Public Affairs of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

For more information, please contact: Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Level 8 Piccadilly Tower, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney NSW 2000 Australia; ph (612) 9284-9791; fax (612) 9284-9751; e-mail:; "Jan Payne" <>;

1. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons, Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, and Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.