Conservative Aussies shift approach to human rights

Aligning itself with the US, Australia is increasingly critical of international bodies such as the UN

Historians of the post-World War II era usually give Australia top marks in the field of human rights.

It was one of eight countries that drew up the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. During the 1970s, both Labor and conservative governments happily ratified the UN Race Discrimination Convention and various covenants on civil, political, social, and economic rights. And during the 1980s, two Australian prime ministers helped marshal world opinion against apartheid South Africa.

But in the past six weeks, the country has taken several dramatic steps in the opposite direction, effectively snubbing human rights, critics say. The conservative Liberal government ordered its UN ambassador to vote against sending a new protocol on torture to the General Assembly for debate, going further than the US, which merely abstained. Then Prime Minister John Howard wavered on supporting the International Criminal Court (ICC). Most recently, the government attacked as "emotive" a highly critical UN report on its detention centers for asylum-seekers.

Such moves are characteristic of a conservative government that took power in 1996and has aimed to expand ties with its traditional ally, the US – especially since Sept. 11.But some observers see a deeper ideological shift taking place in the Australian government, where, increasingly, the view is that international bodies interfere with domestic politics and the sovereignty of elected officials.

"This is very much a homegrown form of isolationism," says Chris Sidoti, who heads the independent Human Rights Council of Australia. "In human rights circles, our name is mud."

Ultimately, critics fear, Australia's rejection of human rights protocols will only strengthen undemocratic regimes. "The whole basis on human rights standards rests on countries with good records being willing to put themselves under scrutiny," says Malcolm Fraser, a former conservative prime minister who is now a fierce critic of his own party.

Hostility toward the UN has been building since the conservatives took power. Mr. Howard saw in President Bush an ideological ally, and he quickly brought Australia into line with the Bush administration's unilateralism, first by repudiating the Kyoto protocol on climate change.

Like their counterparts in the US, Australian conservatives have argued that elected politicians, not liberal judges, should decide the nation's laws. "[The government's] view is that judges don't have the answers, we do, and that the United Nations is a group of disaffected countries that's not too keen on our good friend the United States," says Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer.

Mr. Fraser believes the government is using foreign policy for domestic purposes, by claiming it has stood up to international bodies like the UN which interfere with the nation's laws, especially on immigration.

Since the early 1990s, Australia has been the only developed nation to automatically detain asylum-seekers without refugee visas. Up to 1,400 people are still imprisoned. According to a national poll in February, 56 percent of Australians, support compulsory detention.

Early this month, the government reacted furiously to a UN report on detention camps compiled by India's former chief justice, Prafullachandra Bhagwati. In one camp, Woomera in the South Australian desert, Mr. Bhagwati wrote that he found himself confronting "a great human tragedy," describing conditions as "inhumane and degrading."

The optional protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment would have allowed UN inspectors into Australian jails, something the government argues is unnecessary and breaches national sovereignty. By voting against the torture protocol, though, Australia found itself in the company of such notably nondemocratic states as Libya and China.

"There is no logic in any civilized government rejecting the treaty against torture," said the Opposition legal affairs spokesman Robert McClelland. "They're scared the international community will attack them for how they're treating asylum seekers, if not with physical torture, then with an element of mental torture, leaving people behind razor wire with no end to the process."

But Foreign Minister Alexander Downer explained the government's decision differently. "This isn't a country where people are being tortured in our prisons. We're perfectly capable of running our own prisons without officials from the United Nations coming here."

In late June, after an unexpectedly fierce debate, the cabinet only narrowly approved support for the International Criminal Court. Australia had led support for the court at the 1998 Rome conference. But, after a trip to the US, Howard echoed Bush's concerns about peacekeeping forces being the subject of frivolous or malicious complaints to the court.

Even after ratifying the court, Attorney-General Darryl Williams still says "the government understands the concerns of some members of the community and has taken steps to ensure Australia's sovereignty is protected."

Father Brennan has argued strongly in the past against the need for a constitutional bill of rights for Australia, saying a combination of judicial supervision and adherence to international law can do the job. "But now," he says "we have an attempt by the government to withdraw international scrutiny along with judicial scrutiny."

Brennan doubts the current federal government would override state laws violating international human rights – something that former governments have done. In 1994, for example, the previous Labor government struck down Tasmanian laws that criminalized homosexuality.

And it's a longer way from the days when Australia led the charge to establish treaties against land mines, blinding weapons and nuclear proliferation.

"They were the high points of our human rights regime," he said. "The low point? Well, I think that's now."

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