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Human Rights

Teacher notes

What are ‘human rights’? Are some more important than others? Are they culturally determined? Our awareness and acknowledgment of human rights has developed in response to particular historical situations. It is important to explore how human rights have been secured, defined and protected internationally and in Australia and to assess our own record.

About the unit | Indicators of student achievement | Background notes | Discovering Democracy resources | Other resources | Links to other units | Notes

About the unit

  • The nature and definition of human rights and responsibilities
  • Historical development of the concept of human rights
  • Protection of human rights in Australia
  • Human rights of Australia’s Indigenous people over time

Contexts: The Declaration of Independence (USA), the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (France), the Bill of Rights (USA), UN Declaration of Human Rights, Australian Constitution, civil rights organisations, Indigenous peoples’ human rights in the twentieth century

Indicators of student achievement

The student can:

  • explain different kinds of human rights
  • evaluate different means of protecting human rights over time
  • plain values associated with particular human rights and responsibilities.

Background notes

Human rights are difficult to define, but may be categorised as being civil, political or social in nature. These rights imply responsibilities, and achieving a balance between rights and responsibilities, or between conflicting and competing rights, can be very difficult. This is illustrated by the banning of controversial Holocaust historian David Irving from coming to Australia to speak publicly. On another point, what we may consider universal human rights may in fact be culturally based: societies which are not based on western value systems may not agree with the western tradition of individualism in human rights.

The key statement of human rights today is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. This grew out of the historical development of rights through such events as the American and French revolutions and, more immediately, was a response to the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Australia adopted the United Nations Declaration, but most of those rights had been secured earlier through Acts of Parliament and common law decisions, both British and Australian.

In Australia special bodies have been established to protect human rights. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Ombudsman are government bodies whose role is to protect human rights. Private organisations such as Councils for Civil Liberties and Amnesty International are also active and important. Amnesty International’s successes indicate the power of international opinion in securing human rights in countries where internal forms of protest may not be possible.

One way of attempting to secure human rights is by a Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights is an explicit statement of rights. Because it may require judicial interpretation, it gives significant power to judges.

Australia generally has a proud record in human rights. However, Indigenous Australians have not always fully shared those rights. In the first half of the century Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people were deprived of many rights. Some rights were gained in the 1950s and 1960s and in 1967 the Commonwealth gained the power to legislate in Aboriginal affairs.

Discovering Democracy resources

Stories of Democracy CD ROM - sources, especially the Australian Constitution

Discovering Democracy - A Guide to Government and Law in Australia

Discovering Democracy website:

Further teacher reference material can be found in Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, pages 203-4.

Other resources

Australian Archives 1997, Exploring Citizenship: Teachers Resource Kit.

Links to other units


Focus question 1

Hanic is an imaginary society based on Confucian values. This value system stresses the importance of the group above the individual, and therefore raises the question of whether western-based individualist ‘universal’ rights are really universal, or whether human rights are culturally based. This issue is raised again at the end of Focus question 2.

You may wish to show the film In the Name of the Father to support one of the case studies in this unit.

Focus question 2

The complete Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights are on the Stories of Democracy CD ROM and Discovering Democracy Units Selected Sources, and are readily accessible on the World Wide Web.

Focus question 3

Most case studies in this section are based on real situations. Further information on Amnesty International is available on the World Wide Web.

The answers to the case study questions are:

Activity 1a

Section 80. No. This is simply not allowed by this section.
(b) Section 116. No. This would be 'establishing' (that is, making official) one religion.
(c) Section 116. Yes. It would be argued that this would not be 'establishing' a religion, it would be supporting education in a religious context.
(d) Section 51 (xxxi). Yes. This would be on just terms.
(e) Section 80. Uncertain. The High Court could decide that this is still trial by jury, or they could decide that this is not what the Constitution makers understood by trial by jury when they created the section.
(f) Section 51 (xxxi). Yes. Though a complicating factor here is that this might be breaking the Racial Discrimination Act, and could lead to a challenge in the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC). The UNHRC can make recommendations to the government, but has no authority over it.

Activity 2a

The school needs to ensure Peter is treated the same as any other student.

Activity 2c

In a similar case to the situation in the unit, the Ombudsman investigated, and agreed that the Australian Taxation Office was acting on insufficient evidence. They should have established that it was ‘Gina’ who was the taxi driver more fully before making any accusation.

Activity 2d

Steffi is being discriminated against because of her gender - the test is an unreasonable one.

Activity 3a

The High Court in this case decided that not having a lawyer did create an unfair trial. They decided that he should have a re-trial, but that the trial would not be allowed until he could afford a lawyer or had one appointed by legal aid. In deciding this, the judges reversed the earlier decision of the High Court, in effect saying that it was a bad decision.

Activity 5c

The Minister decided that a visa would not be issued to Irving. The stated reason was that he had a criminal record. Irving said he would fight this decision.

Activity 6b

The situations for the Bill of Rights are imaginary ones. Student answers may differ according to their interpretation of the meaning of the words used in the Act.

The ACT Bill of Rights is a draft proposal only, and does not yet exist in law as at 1998.

There have been two major attempts to change the Australian Constitution by referendum to provide a limited extension of the existing freedoms established in the Constitution. These were rejected in 1944 and 1988.

Focus question 4

The materials included here on Indigenous Australians’ rights are highly selective. This is a sensitive topic which teachers need to be prepared for. The focus in the unit is on civil and political rights. Teachers may want to broaden this scope to consider:

Back to 'Human Rights - At a glance'

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