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Is Australia reneging on its traditional support for human rights?

By Irene Khan - posted Tuesday, 21 September 2004

Australia has a long tradition of supporting human rights and multilateralism. It made a vital contribution to the 1945 negotiations on the United Nations Charter to ensure that respect for human rights was placed alongside peace, security and development as the primary objectives of the UN. Australia also participated in the eight member committee charged with drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the then minister for external affairs, Dr Evatt, led the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration in 1948.

Since then, Australia has played a leading role in developing international law, including key treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and important international institutions such as the International Criminal Court.

But that framework of human rights, international law and multilateral co-operation that Australia helped to build is today undergoing the most sustained attack since its establishment half a century ago. I am afraid that Australia has contributed to the post September 11 climate of fear and mistrust by failing to use its influence with the US to uphold human rights.


Openly flouting international law, the US has detained hundreds of people without charge or trial; has designated its own citizens enemy combatants; refused to investigate mass killings by its allies in Afghanistan; turned a blind eye to allegations of torture and custodial deaths until the pictures appeared on the front pages of the newspapers; and condemned hundreds of prisoners - including minors and the very elderly -  to indefinite incarceration in Guantanamo Bay, without charge, trial or access to family or lawyers.

Guantanamo Bay has been described by one commentator as a “global experiment in inhumanity”. By a blanket presidential decree all the detainees, including two Australians, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, have been denied prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Conventions and labelled as unlawful combatants - a title with no significance in law. Only recently has the US Supreme Court been able to bring some hope to a hopeless situation by allowing individuals the right to judicial review.

Following concerns raised in the media as to whether the Australians had been subjected to torture or ill-treatment, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard asked the US to “look into the matter”. Amnesty International considers that the investigations were neither exhaustive nor independent, particularly as there was no direct interview of detainees themselves or access by independent medical experts.

By failing to use its influence with the US to uphold human rights, the Australian government has failed to stand up for due process and basic rights. It has reneged on the Australian tradition of  “a fair go” and multilateral cooperation. It has betrayed its own citizens in Guantanamo. 

The so-called war on terror, followed by the war in Iraq, has created a deep sense of injustice and alienation by pitching one group of people against another. Increasing polarisation between communities has strengthened the hands of fundamentalists -  Christian, Muslim or Hindu. The liberal space for dissent and tolerance is shrinking in many countries as hardliners take over each end of the spectrum. Civil society is no longer quite so civil in many countries as the voices of dissent, of minorities, of women, social activists and human rights defenders are muzzled, sometimes violently.

True justice is both socio-economic and legal. Human rights also involve economic and social rights - but they are being systematically ignored, despite commitments of the kind we find in the Millennium Development Goals. Can we truly believe that we will make the world safer for a handful of us through military might or security measures, while the rest of the population continue to live in misery?   


I believe that Australia, given its history of constructive engagement on global issues, has a great deal to offer. I have already mentioned Australia’s contribution to human rights. In the past its strong leadership was critical for the International Criminal Court and the Chemical Weapons Convention. In East Timor, Australia won international plaudits when it led the UN-authorised multinational force in 1999.

Unfortunately in East Timor it is now being accused of beggaring its neighbour. More generally, too, some of the shine on Australia’s international reputation, I regret to say, has rubbed off.

A number of recent Australian initiatives have demonstrated a disturbing willingness to ignore international standards and conventions to which Australia is a signatory. In particular, Australia’s refugee policies of recent years and its attitude to issues surrounding the detainees in Guantanamo Bay appear to reflect a wavering of commitment to the laws and values that Australia has upheld internationally for so many years. One has the impression that bit by bit Australia is detaching itself from -  or is increasingly willing to reject - those elements of international human rights and humanitarian law that are no longer considered ‘useful’.

Australia no longer accepts the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice over boundary issues. It will not sign the Kyoto Protocol. It has decided not to ratify the Optional Protocol Against Torture. It has rejected UN reports on Aborigines and has ignored international refugee law.

The world needs an engaged and principled Australia that is ready to play its part in the region and the world. Yes, we live in an unsafe, unfair and endangered world. We can live with our fear, or we can roll up our sleeves and have a fair go at making the world not just safer but also more just for all.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited extract from Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan’s 2004 Annual Hawke Lecture titled Human Rights and Security: Security for Whom? presented at the University of South Australia on 9th. September.

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About the Author

Irene Khan joined Amnesty International as Secretary General in August 2001.

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