Australia’s B+ human rights record: good but must improve

Julias Gillard has raised the issue of human rights with the Chinese. AAP

Can Prime Minister Julia Gillard lecture China on its human rights record given the many failings observers see in Australia’s own treatment of vulnerable groups?

Australia generally has a good human rights record but in the areas where we fall down, we fall down badly, and crucially, we don’t seem to be working hard enough to make up the ground.

So, where exactly do we stand internationally when it comes to protecting human rights?

Does Australia generally meet its human rights obligations?

More often than not Australia does have a very good human rights record. The majority of people in Australia lead good lives with health and education systems that are very good by world standards.

The problem in Australia lies not with the majority but with the fact that there are too many people who slip between the cracks, who don’t get the benefits of the system and who can have quite poor human rights outcomes by world standards.

Where are Australia’s most obvious human rights shortcomings?

There are some obvious examples like the case of Aboriginal people going back decades, even centuries. You can look at past Australian law which for the majority of the life of our nation have denied [Aboriginal people] a vote in Federal election or more recently where it is clear that when it comes to human rights in areas like education and the like there is much work to be done. Their outcomes are demonstrably worse, whether measured in life expectancy or otherwise, than the broader Australian population and that goes to very basic human rights around living standards.

When it comes to other groups you can also look to, increasingly, problems around aged care and the National Human Rights Consultation run by Father Frank Brennan demonstrated real problems within the aged care system involving involuntary detention and great problems of under-resourcing and liberty being deprived for elderly people, often at the most vulnerable time of their lives.

Mental health is another good example and I think it is fair to say that there are very significant problems in the case of asylum seekers and refugees. They relate to the fact that we have sought to excise part of Australia when it comes to them having equal legal right with other people including asylum seekers. You have two classes of people, one who get the full benefit of the protection of the law and another that doesn’t.

Could Australia face international reprimand or action for these breaches?

We are violating international accords we’ve signed up to on a number of levels and there have been a number of reprimands issued by the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations for example which has found that Australia is in breach of its international human rights conventions.

That committee has handed down a number of finding demonstrating that Australia has breached human rights. They do include in the asylum seekers area, indigenous rights and a number of others.

What is most disturbing about those findings is that with very rare exceptions, they have not been responded to. There has been a willingness to take a reprimand without acting and I think that does demonstrate a broader theme and problem when it comes to human rights and Australia and that is that we are very good on the international stage speaking about human rights and signing onto accords and agreements but our actions at home don’t live up to that standard and too often we fail to follow up on our international commitments.

Are there areas where Australia performs well in terms of human rights?

In terms of the respect for human rights I think you can look especially at something like our political process, that we do run free and fair elections and we can change governments without bloodshed and that goes to the fundamental human right that’s essential to a democratic society. We are the envy of the world in our ability to run elections as we do.

There are also problems there. We rely on good processes but we have never put those protections in law. We have never put into place a clear protection of freedom of speech in Australia and that means in all sorts of ways freedom of speech, such as through the Right To Know coalition has exposed in many areas, simply is ignored when it counts.

How do we compare to other Western middle powers such as Scandinavian countries and Canada?

Recognising that overall Australia does have a broadly positive human rights record, I do think it is fair to say that we’re lagging behind those other nations in not now taking steps to improve that record.

I think Australians are often complacent about the steps that need to be taken to improve the situation for often the most vulnerable people in the community. It is often out of sight out of mind for many of those problems.

I think a variety of more things are needed including more funding in some areas and also some better legal protections to ensure that these things can’t occur without sanction or remedy and it is telling that Australia is now the only democratic nation in the world that lacks a national Bill of Rights, a clear statement of human rights.

We’re obligated to have that by our international commitments but we’ve never actually implemented that commitment, we have not kept faith with what we are required to do internationally

Is Australia placed under a greater human rights focus than other nations with ‘better’ reputations? Canada has an excellent reputation for human rights but indigenous people there face the same poor health and imprisonment outcomes as Aboriginal Australians.

It is fair to say that there is no country you can point to that has a perfect record or even close to it. Democratic nations around the world have a series of human rights problems and indigenous peoples is a good example where the kind of problems Australia has can be found elsewhere in the world, often without the same recognition [internationally].

That said Canada is a country where they are taking greater steps to fix those problems within the human rights framework they have got there, they are developing new treaties recognising indigenous rights more strongly, there is a range of things that are bearing fruit over there.

The big difference is that those countries are making greater effort in areas where I think Australia is not and I think that will tell in the longer term in terms of the level of protection in those countries.