Think big but start small: human rights, like charity, should be nurtured in the home

Opinion Article

2012 October, 19

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? 


"In small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world ... Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." 


I was not familiar with this quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt, but it is probably the best articulation of our reform work in Cape York Peninsula. 


I have always been taken by another pearl from Roosevelt that speaks the same truth: "There is nothing that government can do for you, that you are unwilling to do for yourself." 


Human rights are most usually talked about in the "big places", in international and national declarations, standards and conventions. They are supposed to be upheld and guaranteed by law and democracy. Human rights in normal public discourse is a matter of big politics and big law, concerning public law and public power. 


Human rights are supposed to be secured primarily as matters of politics and laws. They are guaranteed and delivered (or denied and abused) by governments and their instrumentalities. The state is the party that flouts or upholds the human rights of people. 


Human rights lawyers and politicians tend to see human rights as something that must be tackled in the "big places", far from home, in the courts, tribunals, commissions, and national and international forums. 


There is of course great romance and no small prideful posturing attached to human rights advocacy and defence in the "big places". Generations of ambitious law students have seen Geneva as the place where they will do greatest service to humankind. I have long been sceptical of this view. There is a role for the pursuit of human rights in the "big places". But I think too often the prevalent pursuit of human rights is naive - most human rights cannot be delivered as a matter of political or legal fiat - or a cruel hoax on those whose human rights are at stake. 


Rather, there is a harder, messier and less glamorous starting place for taking action so that human rights can be enjoyed by those who stand vulnerable in the absence of such enjoyment. 


That starting place is the place that Roosevelt is talking about, in the "small places", in the families, in the households, in the villages and in the communities. 


It is in the family and the household where the most basic human rights must start. If charity should begin at home, then human rights too must begin at home.


The right to safety, food, family, shelter, inheritance, culture, language - these are all human rights that must first be enjoyed within the family, within the household. For these rights to be enjoyed in practice, there must be practical functioning of families and households, villages and neighbourhoods. 


This means that individuals - parents, adults, community leaders - must take responsibility for realising abstract rights in terms of practical enjoyment. True, governments and their functionaries must fulfil their responsibilities and create and uphold environments that enable individuals and families to uphold their responsibilities and enjoy their rights, but it won't happen if the people who hold responsibilities in the "small places" don't carry out their responsibilities.


The Cape York Agenda seeks the human rights of our people at both levels. In the "big places" we seek constitutional reform and we are unequivocal in our advocacy of our land and cultural rights in the arenas of law and politics. 


But we place a heavy emphasis on human rights in the "small places". Indeed, we have a very strong jaundice in favour of the human rights of our people to material sustenance and livelihood, to freedom from hunger and want, to shelter in good homes, to healthcare and other services, and for children to be educated and have opportunities and capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value.


That is why our first program was about budgeting and money management. It was called Family Income Management in 2000 and is now called MPower. As the MPower slogan says: "A better life begins with a budget." 


In my view there is no use talking about the human rights of our mob in Cape York if our people are hungry, our children are neglected, our families are broken down, and our communities unsafe.


Helping families to attend to their basic, material needs is about achieving human rights. 


Ensuring children are looked after, and have access to the best education we can muster for them, is about achieving human rights. 


Helping mothers to look after their families, and helping fathers take charge of their households, is about achieving human rights.

Think big but start small: human rights, like charity, should be nurtured in the home