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Australian citizenship and human rights

By Valerie Yule - posted Thursday, 17 January 2008


It is good that citizens constantly discuss and seek to implement an Australian Bill or Charter of Rights. It is also desirable that there should be some way whereby new citizens - and old - can be tested on their understanding of what Australian citizenship should mean.

While the debates continue, Australia could use and apply the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Rather than a citizenship quiz of mostly trivial information that most of us would fail, it would be a more valuable and handy test to know and accept a short version of this. This would have the additional benefits that Australia would be setting an example for all nations to make the UN Declaration well known to all their citizens, as held by them all, and it would make clear Australia’s code of human rights, held in common with the rest of the world. All would know where we stand.

The UN Declaration as it stands is fairly short and intelligible to most educated people, but its language and length are still too difficult for everyone to absorb it all. A still shorter and simpler version could be used for everyone - for intending citizens, for all children in all schools, and for ready reference by all.

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Its 30 clauses could fit on a single page of about 950 words, or, in print large enough to be readable by all, on two sides of one sheet. Everyone should learn and understand the vocabulary because the words are at the heart of our democracy and society. The 30 rights could also be set out as slogans, short enough to be listed on passports as reminders of what nations require of their citizens.

In Australia we have a multicultural society, but as in Europe, it risks division by segregation. New immigrants need more help to adapt, as they must, and the whole population needs to know how to help, and pull up our own socks too.

Australia has managed very well with most of our immigrant groups, but there are problems when migrants bring with them values, beliefs and practices that downgrade or restrict women, deny religious freedoms, or where youth have been accustomed to violence. We have had all these problems in our own past too.

I think that understanding this Declaration and agreement with its principles would be as good a test for Australian citizenship as you could get. Australian citizens should all be expected to understand and accept that all people are born free and equal, and have the same rights without discrimination. They all have political rights to life, liberty, justice, fair trials, privacy, security of person, and recognition and protection by the law, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to be given asylum from persecution. They all have the right to a nationality, and to take part in their government.

Socio-economically, all have rights to a decent standard of living, to work, a fair wage, to join a trade union, to ownership of property, to marry and have a family, to social security, education, rest and leisure, and to participate freely in their community and to enjoy the benefits of our society's progress.

“Freedoms to” includes freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, association, and freedom of movement.

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“Freedoms from” include freedoms from slavery, servitude, torture, and arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

We have the right to an international order in which to realise these rights. With these rights go the responsibilities of citizens. Everyone has duties to their community, in order to be full citizens, and no one has the right to destroy any of these rights or freedoms for others.

The history behind the UN Declaration is one way of teaching world history and the foundations to our own history, showing what hard struggles have been necessary to obtain these precious rights and freedoms, not to be given up lightly.

The “Australian history” curriculum in our schools should include the backgrounds of the English Magna Carta, that Great Charter of 1215; the American Declaration of Independence, 1776, famously stating that all humans are created equal, with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; the Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood that was the hope of the French Revolution; and the Four Freedoms, from hunger and fear, and freedom of speech and religion, set out by Roosevelt and Churchill, following the 'eight common principles' of their Anglo-American Atlantic Charter in 1941.

History also shows us no unremitting progress. There are repeated examples of roll-backs. Relatively few countries today would score 30 out of 30. Indeed, an annual Human Rights ladder could be as publicly competitive as national medal scores in Olympic Games.

Australians can monitor our own legislation for how it matches up, or falls away - and the reasons for this. The consequences of eroding basic freedoms are attacks on other freedoms. The foundations of all the freedoms in the United Nationals Declaration are freedom from fear and freedom from want. Who of us all are the fortunate and free, and what can we do about the shortfalls?

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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