A coffee with…John Tobin

A coffee with…John Tobin

John Tobin is a Professor in the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne. In 2011 he was awarded a national citation for outstanding contribution to student learning in the area of human rights, and is currently working with Professor Philip Alston from NYU on a comprehensive commentary on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Editor at large of Right Now, Andre Dao, recently caught up for a chat.

What motivated you to become involved with children’s rights? And what keeps you going?

There are probably several factors. I was educated by the Christian Brothers which were founded by a man who was committed to the education of poor children in Ireland. I know the Brothers often get a bad rap within the context of institutional abuse of children. But I was fortunate enough to be educated by some genuinely inspirational men and women who were committed to serving the interests of children who came from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is no doubt that they have influenced my career choices. I have worked with young people in various capacities as a volunteer and as a lawyer with Victoria Legal Aid. I always found the work to be challenging but also incredibly rewarding. Young people have an energy and enthusiasm that can be contagious. As to why I now research and teach in the area of children’s rights, it’s just a fascinating area. The legal and ethical issues are complex and very often unresolved. So there are enormous opportunities for research that is both intellectually stimulating but also potentially transformative in practice.

To what extent can children be involved with the creation of laws and treaties that purport to protect their rights, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

To a far greater extent than is presently the case. Adults make assumptions about what is best for children all the time. This is no less so when it comes to the creation of laws that are designed to protect them. The challenge for adults is to recognise that children and young adults also have expertise that will invariably be relevant to the design not just of law but also policies affecting them. 

You’ve written before about the need for adults to learn to see that children and young people may see the world differently from adults, and that that alternative view might be more appropriate in certain circumstances. How can we as adults learn to see as children?

I think it’s a real challenge because in contemporary society the transition to adulthood is often associated with a devaluing of the habits and characteristics that we associate with childhood. Adulthood is assumed to confer knowledge and understanding of what is best for a child and childhood is defined as a period of immaturity and incapacity. As adults we too easily forget that children may often view and experience the world quite differently to us. So how can we see the world as children do? Maybe adulthood has robbed us of that capacity but I’d like to think that it’s still possible. The best way to start is to acknowledge that adulthood doesn’t give us a licence on knowing what is best for children. We need to become far more reflective. We also need to start not just talking with children about their views but also listening to them carefully and treating their views with respect. It’s about creating a dialogue and recognising that expertise and insight is not the sole province of adults. 

What’s the greatest challenge facing children’s rights campaigners?

The challenges are many. Even a cursory glance of the newspaper will reveal the multitude of challenges confronting children – detention of refugee children; institutional abuse; bullying; cyber abuse; family violence, corporal punishment and the list could go on. A critical challenge is actually gaining acceptance of the idea that children have rights and that this idea doesn’t mean the end of the family as we know it. Indeed a careful reading of the Convention on the Rights of the Child reveals a model of rights that is deeply sympathetic and supportive of the idea of the family and the special role for parents in securing the upbringing and development of children. But still there persists an anxiety that giving children rights will somehow destroy the world as we know it. So we need to have a more informed discussion about what it means to recognise the rights of children and the benefits of this approach.

What are you proudest of in your professional career so far?

I don’t think I’ve done enough to become proud of anything I’ve achieved so far. But what I am inspired by is the resilience, insight and capacity shown by young people of all ages globally. For example, some of the pictures, stories and poems written by children in refugee detention which were captured in the recent report by the Australian Human Rights Commission were extraordinary. Heart breaking stuff but also incredibly powerful and a real reminder of the challenge we all face if we are to ensure the effective protection of children’s rights both within Australia and also abroad.


 This article was written for the special Children’s Rights Edition of the HRLC Monthly Bulletin, Rights Agenda, developed in collaboration with the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, King & Wood Mallesons, the Human Rights Law Centre and UNICEF Australia.