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Human rights: what are they good for?

By Jennifer Wilson - posted Wednesday, 29 July 2009

There is a good deal of opposition to the introduction of a federal charter of rights in Australia. Some of the common arguments against the proposal suggest that things are just fine as they are; that we are extremely privileged to live in this democracy as it is, and that some countries that already have a bill of rights or its equivalent are not necessarily renowned for their democratic practices. Things seem to become particularly contentious around the topic of the human rights of children who are abused by parents, legal guardians, and other primary caretakers, that is, by non-state actors in the private sphere.

International conventions, to which Australia is signatory, have recognised for some time the necessity to broaden the concept of human rights beyond the popular notion of civil and political rights. The Convention on the Elimination of Violence Towards Women (1994), the Beijing Platform for Action (1995), and The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) all address the issue of private violence by non-state actors. In 2001, Amnesty International broadened its mandate to include violence against women as human rights abuse, as well as to include “all grave abuses of human rights”. In this, Amnesty extended the traditional interpretation of human rights into the private sphere.

But what difference do these Conventions make to the plight of the abused child?


The immediate answer to that question is that we do not know, because child abuse and child sexual abuse in Australia are not perceived in terms of human rights abuse: as is, for example, discrimination against the disabled; racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, and other abuses that are covered by our anti-discrimination legislation.

This legislation is based on a concept first laid out in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and extrapolated in subsequent Conventions. It has made a great deal of difference to a great many human beings, though it is still a work in progress. To those who argue that a human rights approach to child abuse is an academic waste of time, I must say, how do you know, because we haven’t done it yet, and nor has any other country in the world.

The face of the child makes a powerful moral claim on us, none more so than the face of the suffering child. The abused child is rendered rightless in the process of abuse. To be without rights is to be perceived as less than human. The profound sense of violation reported by survivors of child sexual abuse is often described as soul damage. Perhaps it is also appropriate to think of that profound damage as the flagrant destruction of the rights that help to construct us as human, in the eyes of others, and of ourselves.

Perpetrators acknowledge no human status in their victims: the child is merely a means to an end, the end in this case being gratification of the adult’s sexual needs, and/or the adult’s need to experience an entirely controlling power over another human being. As survivors will agree, the journey back from that rightless position to the point where one can come to believe that one has even the right to have rights, is a journey of terrible hardship, and unspeakable struggle. Many do not make it through.

As far as I am aware, there has as yet not been an Australian study on the types of human rights abuses most frequently and consistently perpetrated in our country. It is not unreasonable to consider, given the child abuse and domestic violence statistics, that our most frequent and grave human rights transgressions may well be those perpetrated in the private sphere by non-state actors, including the abuse and sexual abuse of our children by their parents, family members, legal guardians and other primary carers.

That the family is built on the love and concern of human beings for one another is a reasonable assumption, and currently an expanding global belief as Western cultural norms become increasingly dominant in societies where once marriage might have been seen in primarily economic terms. When violence of any kind occurs within the family, it ruptures powerful cultural fantasies of family life as a private and safe haven to which one may retreat from the trials of the public world. No doubt every family, no matter how it is constructed, begins its collective life with these hopes and dreams, and with the intention to create a refuge wherein all its members can be safe.


But for the child who is subjected to abuse, the home is far from a refuge: it is a highly dangerous and sometimes lethal environment. There can be little as bleak as the daily existence of the child whose domestic world consists of intimate abuse and exploitation by the adults who are charged with her care.

What, then, of the child whose topoanalysis reveals primarily sites of torment and terror?

Experts on trauma such as Judith Lewis Herman have argued strongly that the experience and aftermath of trauma suffered by victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse is no different from the traumatic aftermath suffered by soldiers returning from the horrors of the battlefield.

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About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at

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