Have you got the right? Putting human rights on the agenda (without putting people to sleep)

A new video series is helping to educate the public about human rights without putting them to sleep. Marius Smith from the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University explains how and why

‘How do we educate the public on human rights?’ It’s a question that we’re constantly asking ourselves at the Castan Centre.

As an academic research centre based at Monash University, teaching and research naturally come first for our academics. But as human rights experts, we have to make our work accessible to policy makers and the general public. There are two keys to tackling this dilemma.

First, you must find the right platforms. The mainstream media remains as important as ever, but social media can have great benefits for an organisation – we currently use TwitterYoutubeFacebookLinkedIn and two blogs (our policy blog and our interns blog).

The second key is the tricky one – presenting your work in a way that the average person both understands and wants to read, listen to or watch. We like to think we’ve become good at it – our Tweets are engaging, our Facebook posts succinct but informative and our blogs written in plain English. But we’re always trying to improve.

A very particular human rights dilemma

We got the ultimate chance to put our skills into action when tackling a particularly Australian dilemma – public apathy about human rights. The problem came to our attention when the National Human Rights Consultation Committee, set up by the former Labor Government, recommended that Australia adopt a federal Human Rights Act (currently only Victoria and the ACT have such laws). After a delay of some months, the Government decided not to accept the Committee’s recommendation.

At first glance, the decision seemed mystifying. The Committee had received a then-record number of submissions in favour of an Act and its public polling backed up the proposed law’s popularity – only 14% of people were opposed to it. And yet considerable pressure from a relatively small group of opponents was sufficient to kill the idea off.

When scouring the Committee’s report, we found the key to understanding what had happened – most of those in favour of human rights lack detailed knowledge about them. Without detailed knowledge it is unlikely that they will really understand how important they are.

And yet human rights laws are important, even in this prosperous country. Since the introduction of Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act in 2006, social welfare organisations, community legal centres and others have successfully used the Charter to help the most vulnerable people including people with a disability, those with mental health illness and public housing residents. This report by the Human Rights Law Centre uses case studies to illustrate how the Charter has helped vulnerable people.

So, we asked ourselves, how can we educate the public, in very simple ways, about what human rights are and why they’re important? By answering the question, a video project was born.

Have You Got That Right?

The aim of Have You Got That Right? is to put rights in context by referring to topical issues rather than simply trying to explain each human right. So, instead of asking “what is the right to non-discrimination?” we ask “is there a right to marriage equality?” Instead of asking “What is the right to privacy?”, we are ask “do I have a right to be free from government surveillance?”, and so on.

That’s the first step to creating an engaging product – getting the topic right. Naturally the next step is to create something that people want to watch. That was made much easier by the incredible pro bono support we received from film and television veterans such as our producer Robert Hall, composer Guy Gross and the animation company Jumbla, as well as our writing team and numerous actors and crew.

The final product involves a number of five-episode series, each with a different theme. Series one and two blend comedy with serious academic content, and so far nine of the ten episodes have been released (episode 10 – is there a right to vote? – will be released in early June). It’s a fun format – fast paced, humorous (we hope) and informative.

And, for those who want more information, we have a website featuring resources on each topic targeted at both adults and secondary school students.

This more engaging approach draws on our experience of “applied learning”: by putting information in context, we make it easier to understand and use. We aim to make it possible for anyone who watches these videos to join in a conversation on privacy, asylum or prisoners’ rights, to name a few of our topics.

The response

Since the launch, we’ve had a fantastic response from schools, human rights organisations and the general public. For example, the ACT Human Rights Commission intends to use the videos in their training courses, and school teachers plan to use them in class. Since our launch, there have been over 25,000 page views on the website and over 10,000 views on YouTube. As the resource grows, so will the constituency. And, if all goes as planned, Have You Got That Right? will help to create a more educated community of human rights supporters in Australia.