Australia’s human rights record is increasingly subject to international critique alongside pariah states like Saudi Arabia and North Korea. On the face of it, this juxtaposition is easily rejected. But strong evidence backs the increasing weight of international sentiment opposing Australia’s record.
Australia may already have pariah status in terms of its asylum policies. So why does its government – and perhaps also the majority of its people – seem to care so little for Australia’s tarnished international reputation?
Australia’s behaviour condemned – again
Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2016 condemned Australia for its “abusive” approach to asylum seekers. It noted widespread criticism of Australia’s outsourcing of:
… some of its obligations to asylum seekers and refugees to poorer, less-well-equipped and unsafe countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Human Rights Watch also critiqued Australia’s “overly broad” counter-terrorism laws, the continued disadvantage and discrimination faced by Indigenous Australians, discrimination against people with disabilities, and lack of provision for same-sex marriage.
This report is the latest in a troubling – and mounting – series. In preparation for the 2015 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a number of UN bodies expressed concern at Australia’s human rights position. Remedy Australia noted that Australia has resolved only 15% of complaints upheld against it by UN treaty bodies.
Members of the UPR working group submitted more than 200 recommendations to Australia. Australia must address these concerns – particularly in relation to its treatment of Indigenous peoples and asylum seekers.
Also in 2015, Amnesty International accused Australia of people smuggling, through its asylum boat turnbacks policy. The Australian Human Rights Commission condemned the government’s mandatory detention of asylum-seeker children. It found that this was a violation of their rights and detrimental to their mental and physical health.
For many years, Australia has been accused of failing to meet its obligations to its Indigenous peoples. In 2009, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights found that Australia had “entrenched” racism. He concluded that the government was required to do much more, both to reduce severe disadvantage and to promote self-determination.
The government’s stance
Worryingly, international critique has spurred domestic political point-scoring by Australian leaders. Particularly since the Tampa incident and the September 11 terrorist attacks (both of which took place in 2001), Australian politicians have manipulated public fears about “boat people” and “terrorists” for political gain.
Recent conservative governments have been notable in their rejection of the validity of international critiques. Then-prime minister John Howard famously declared in the 2001 election campaign that:
We will decide who will come to our country, and the circumstances in which they come.
More recently, then-prime minister Tony Abbott complained that:
Australians are sick of being lectured to by the UN.
Abbott, along with his ministers George Brandis and Peter Dutton, showed a lack of respect for democratic conventions in attacking Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs. For holding the government to account on the rights of asylum-seeker children, Triggs was called “biased” and “lacking credibility”, and accused of bringing the commission into disrepute.
Recent Labor governments have hardly distinguished themselves on human rights either. After initiating an inquiry into a Human Rights Act, the Rudd government abandoned legislative human rights protection. The Gillard government re-established offshore immigration detention on Manus Island and Nauru. It was also responsible for the fiasco of the “Malaysia solution” – a refugee exchange that the High Court rejected.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s early rhetoric on asylum seekers may have been softer, but the time for which detainees languish in offshore detention has blown out under his government. Turnbull has not taken UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s advice to overhaul the country’s response to asylum seekers.
Despite resistance to international criticism, Australia remains an active member of the international community. It has a policy of commenting on the UPR reports of all countries.
In its submission to the 2015 UPR, Australia noted its support for the process and:
… long tradition of robust commitment to supporting and promoting human rights internationally.
This commitment is borne out by Australia’s membership of key human rights treaties.
Yet Australia routinely shies away from criticising the poor human rights records of important partners, like the US or Indonesia. Australia’s practices often undermine its formal position on human rights.
On Wednesday, the High Court found that the government has power to participate in the offshore detention of asylum seekers it has transferred to Nauru or Manus Island. The decision proves how limited the court is in its capacity to address the human rights violations the government commits in pursuit of its legislative agenda.
This decision empowers the government to return to Nauru 267 asylum seekers, including 39 children and 33 babies born in Australia. It demonstrates the government’s capacity to shape the Migration Act to permit a wide range of rights violations, while limiting judicial oversight and the capacity of rights-bearers to challenge government actions.
An emerging cultural norm?
A friend recently remarked that many people he encounters seem to care little about the “big issues”. But many of those same people care deeply about whether and where they can park their cars. He called it “the Australian human right to park”.
The romantic idea that Australia is a hard-working, self-made nation of people may be a myth that absolves collective guilt about the stolen continent on which Australia was formed. Within this narrative, Indigenous people are often cast as the beneficiaries of “handouts”, rather than the dispossessed first peoples who still experience colonisation’s impacts.
This outlook is also a justification for arguing that “those who come across the seas” are less deserving of what life in Australia has to offer.
Yet many Australians profess to prize the value of a “fair go” for all. Triggs recently wrote:
One of Australia’s most effective safeguards of human rights is the cultural expectation that freedoms will be protected.
According to a recent Age editorial:
Australians prefer to believe they look out for the most disadvantaged members of our community. But there is an increasing disconnection between the high standards the nation professes to pursue and the contemptuous policies implemented by governments that have the effect of eroding human rights or denying our obligations under international law.
Australia faces a constant tide of international criticism, which will not cease while current policy settings are maintained. Yet the development of a deeper respect for universal human rights is not only the government’s responsibility. All Australians can contribute to shape the country’s attitudes towards, and practice of, human rights.