A more humane Australian foreign policy

By Dennis Altman | 25 Jun 16
20 minute read

“Australia is committed to a better world,” said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in announcing Australia’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council last year. The bid was originally launched by the Labor government and is for a two year term commencing in 2018.

In announcing support for the bid, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stressed Australia’s record of support for human rights, and spoke of five pillars underlying the bid: “freedoms of expression and of religion; good governance; gender equality and the empowerment of women; the rights of Indigenous peoples; and strong national human rights institutions and capacity building”. Philip Ruddock’s appointment as special envoy for human rights was largely intended to promote the Australian bid, echoing the globetrotting of the Rudd government in its effort to win a seat on the Security Council.

The UN Human Rights Council was established in 2007 to replace the Commission on Human Rights, which had existed for almost 60 years. It was hoped that the new Council would be less politicised and more willing to criticise states with appalling human rights records, but as the Council is currently chaired by Saudi Arabia the changes are not major. The Council has, however, added one significant feature, namely universal periodic reviews of all UN member countries, which allow for a public review of each state every four years. Some states have taken note of at least some of the recommendations of these reviews, though more often they are ignored or at best reinterpreted. Sri Lanka responded to calls to decriminalise homosexuality by claiming there was no contradiction between retaining the criminal laws and the protection of people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

NGO and academic observers view the Council as somewhat more effective than the old Commission, although still subject to political pressures and double standards. The basic dilemma of the Council is that its membership is based on that of the UN, so that a majority of member states come from countries without any genuine commitment to what human rights advocates would regard as fundamental freedoms. The principle of regional representation means that over half the seats are shared between Asia and Africa. Australia is part of the “western Europe and other” grouping, which links us to countries that we share a common political culture but no regional ties, except with New Zealand. Just as Australia had to compete for votes with two European states to win election to the UN Security Council in 2012, it is now in a contest with France and Spain for a place on the Human Rights Council.

Australia’s approach to human rights in the international arena is patchy, inconsistent and subject to convenient amnesia when principles clash with perceived national interest.

Australia’s chances were harmed earlier this year when former President of East Timor, Xanana Gusmal, said his country would not support the bid because of long running disputes over the maritime border between our two countries. Other issues, above all Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, are proving an obstacle for the government.

Human rights are not central to our concept of politics. Unlike most other liberal democracies Australia has no bill of rights, although there are legislated charters of rights in both Victoria and the ACT. (Queensland is currently investigating the possibility, and the Tasmanian government shelved plans for a charter on the rather curious grounds of its expense.) While the concept of rights often appears in political debate in Australia, there are no foundational documents, such as the American Declaration of Independence, to which citizens can appeal. Rights are protected through common law and a series of statutes, such as anti-discrimination legislation at both federal and state level. The Australian Human Rights Commission, established by the Hawke government in 1986, defines human rights very loosely:

Human rights recognise the inherent value of each person, regardless of background, where we live, what we look like, what we think or what we believe. They are based on principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect, which are shared across cultures, religions and philosophies. They are about being treated fairly, treating others fairly and having the ability to make genuine choices in our daily lives.

While the Commission seeks to monitor Australia’s adherence to a number of international human rights agreements it has no oversight of foreign policy. Like almost every other state, Australia’s approach to human rights in the international arena is patchy, inconsistent and subject to convenient amnesia when principles clash with perceived national interest.

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Human rights and foreign policy

Since the Presidency of Jimmy Carter (1976-80) a number of western states have sought to make human rights central to their vision of foreign policy. In the aftermath of Nixon’s downfall, Carter promised a new approach to the rest of the world:

Our policy is based on an historical vision of America’s role. Our policy is derived from a larger view of global change. Our policy is rooted in our moral values, which never change. Our policy is reinforced by our material wealth and by our military power. Our policy is designed to serve mankind.

This approach was reflected in a tougher American position towards repressive governments in South Korea, Iran, Argentina, South Africa, and Rhodesia, and a reversal of American political and military support to President Somoza of Nicaragua, who would later be supported by the Reagan Administration. In 1976 the Democratic Congress inaugurated the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which have continued to this day. While they often reflect American interests, these reports do provide an additional source of pressure on states. The Carter Administration coincided with a period when human rights discourses were emerging as new frameworks for understanding the world, and NGOs such as Helsinki Watch, now Human Rights Watch, emerged to put pressure on governments. None of Carter’s successors, not even Barack Obama, have placed a similar emphasis on human rights as a guiding principle of foreign policy.

When Robin Cook became British Foreign Secretary in 1997 on the election of the Blair government, it seemed as if he drew inspiration from Jimmy Carter. In a speech aimed at setting directions for the new Labour government, Cook declared that:

Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves. The Labour Government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy…

Cook lasted as Foreign Minister until 2001, and resigned from cabinet two years later in protest against Britain’s role in the war in Iraq. But he was unable to achieve the sort of pivot in foreign policy his statement promised if only because of British trade interests, specifically arms sales to countries such as Indonesia and Sierra Leone. A similar problem faces the current Swedish government which, echoing Cook, also proclaims human rights are central to its foreign policy, and has cancelled some arms sales to Saudi Arabia as part of this commitment.

Human rights discourse has become far more central in international fora since the 1970s, and there have been significant advances in attempts to develop minimal standards of respect for rights through concepts like the Responsibility to Protect and the creation of an International Criminal Court. Under the leadership of Gareth Evans (Foreign Minister 1988-96), Australia played a leading role in the development of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, although the UN General Assembly only adopted it as a policy in 2005.

While the doctrine does not use the language of human rights, it clearly holds governments to account for acts of “genocide and mass atrocities”, allowing the Security Council to initiate international intervention to prevent such abuses. Equally the conviction of several political leaders for “crimes against humanity” by the International Criminal Court represents another slow step to recognising limits to arguments of national sovereignty. Unlike the United States, Australia recognises the jurisdiction of the Court.

No Australian government has sought to make human rights as central as did Carter and Cook and, like other states, Australian governments take note of international human rights bodies when it suits them. The Hawke government was able to use the Human Rights Committee’s 1994 decision that Tasmania’s sodomy laws represented an infringement of the rights of the plaintiff, Nick Toonen, to put pressure on the Tasmanian government to repeal them, following many years of advocacy to bring Tasmanian laws into line with the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour everywhere else in Australia. In the same way, the Hawke government used the declaration of the Franklin wilderness as a heritage area by UNESCO to prevent the building of a dam on the Gordon River by the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission, which had unleashed the protest movement that would give birth to the Tasmanian Greens.

The Howard government was more sceptical of international institutions than Labor had been under Hawke and Keating, and expressed considerable hostility to various UN committees, in particular that on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Howard government allowed its membership of the UN Human Rights Commission to lapse, and showed considerable hostility towards attempts to improve international monitoring of human rights if these in any way impinged on Australia. This did not prevent the government from supporting a number of initiatives to further human rights regionally, particularly in Burma which was a focus for Foreign Minister Downer. Australia played a central role in the UN intervention in East Timor in 1999, which highlighted the ongoing tensions in our relations with Indonesia over conflicting notions of human rights and national sovereignty.

In a region of considerable political instability, appeals to protect human rights often become rhetorical devices to defend intervention in support of pro-western governments. The American intervention in Afghanistan, in which Australia has been a willing participant under five prime ministerships, is the most striking example, but so too are the many peace keeping expeditions in countries ranging from Somalia to the Solomons where Australian troops have been involved.

While there might seem to be elements of hypocrisy in many of these involvements it is also true that successive Australian governments have been major contributors to attempts to create minimal conditions of stability and security under both American and United Nations-led expeditions. Support for good governance, the justification for intervention in the Solomons in 2003 under the aegis of the Pacific Islands Forum, also means support for at least some basic human rights, even if that language is not deployed.

Australia has played a significant role in international peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, although tensions between pursuing national interest and promoting human rights have been heightened in recent years by the determination of successive governments to halt asylum seekers arriving by boat. Over the past few years Australian commitment to human rights has been subordinated to increasingly desperate efforts by successive governments to stop asylum seekers arriving by boat and then to find resettlement for those currently incarcerated on Nauru and Manus Island. (At the time of writing there was no resolution of the impasse created by the PNG Supreme Court’s ruling that the detention centre on Manus Island should be shut down.)

The most egregious example has been in relation to Sri Lanka, where both the Rudd/Gillard and the Abbott/Turnbull governments have been unwilling to challenge gross abuses of human rights, even when these have been highlighted by most western states, including Britain and the United States.

While the leaders of Canada, along with India and Mauritius, boycotted the 2013 CHOGM meeting in Sri Lanka, and Prime Minister Cameron spoke out against abuses by the government against the Tamil minority, Tony Abbott was careful not to offend his hosts, although he joined with Canada in publicly dissenting from the Conference’s communique on climate change. Subsequently he has defended his decision not to join “the human rights lobby against the tough but probably unavoidable action taken to end one of the world’s most vicious civil wars”, avoiding the fact that this so called lobby included the countries of “the Anglosphere” with whom he has claimed a particular bond.

Similarly Julia Gillard’s decision to reopen the detention centre on Nauru and Kevin Rudd’s decision to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea have restricted Australian pressure on human rights abuses in both countries, and the search for alternative places of resettlement has led to a remarkable disinterest in the human rights situation in Cambodia (where only a handful of refugees had gone) and even Iran, where the government is keen to return asylum seekers. Indeed Australia’s continued detention of asylum seekers provided an opportunity for the visiting Iranian Foreign Minister to answer criticisms of his own country’s record on human rights.

The most recent HRC periodic review of Australia in late 2015 saw criticism of Australia on a range of issues, most strongly on asylum seeker policies, where both allies and neighbouring countries agreed in their discomfort with Australia’s policies. Neither government nor opposition showed any sign that these views would affect their views.


Towards a more coherent human rights perspective

The most coherent attempt to spell out how human rights might infuse Australian foreign policy came from Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, who wrote a significant statement of foreign policy in his early years in the portfolio. Importantly Evans and Bruce Grant sought to demonstrate self-interest in promoting human rights:

There is a real sense in which by embracing the cause of those who have been denied their rights, we also guard and reinforce the nature of those rights themselves. The historical record shows clearly enough that rights not defended are rights easily lost. More generally, in the longer term the evolution of just and tolerant societies brings its own international returns; in higher standards of international behaviour, and in the contribution that internal stability makes to international stability and peace.

In subsequent conversations with me, Evans has stressed the need to be consistent in promoting rights, and to recognise this has to be done with care: arguing for rights can be productive, unproductive or counter-productive, and we need avoid the latter.

If we are serious about making a concern for human rights central to foreign policy we need to be very clear about what we regard as fundamental rights, and be consistent in how we apply them.

Unlike the countries of the Atlantic world, Australia sits in a region where western understandings of human rights are not necessarily widely shared, and where too enthusiastic promotion of rights can easily be dismissed as neo-colonial interference. A few years ago a standing committee of the House of Representatives joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade issued a report on human rights in the Asia/Pacific region, in which it constantly tries to resolve this dilemma; the tone of the report is summed up in this comment:

In the Pacific in particular, the promotion of human rights in the region would be more effective if a sensitive and respectful approach was taken when addressing cultural issues and customary practices, especially where there are perceived conflicts between international standards and local practice. But this does not mean that international human rights standards should be compromised.

It is not clear how the committee proposed to square this particular circle.

If we are serious about making a concern for human rights central to foreign policy we need to be very clear about what we regard as fundamental rights, and be consistent in how we apply them. At the same time we need to recognise that human rights are deeply contested, and there can be genuine disagreement as to what they encompass.

The most recent inquiry of the Parliamentary Committee on foreign affairs concerned Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty, an issue which Australian governments see as a human rights demand, but also one that remains in use in countries of great importance to Australia. It is unlikely that any Australian government will make abolition of capital punishment central to its diplomacy with the United States or China; the execution of two drug smugglers in Indonesia in 2014 showed the limited ability of Australia to intervene, even though this was a case involving two of our citizens, Muyuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chang.

The awkward question is whether the very public protestations of Australia actually increased Indonesia’s determination to proceed with the executions, but given public feeling in Australia, could any government not have made its opposition public?

This case illustrates the dilemma of pushing for human rights in the global arena; loud noises can backfire, but without domestic pressure no government will take up human rights issues internationally. But the issue also demonstrates the difficulty of agreeing on what exactly constitutes human rights. If the concept is to become central to our global role we need find a form of human rights language that goes beyond the individual liberalism that underpins the western version.


Too often claims for human rights conflate rights with the particular apparatus of liberal democratic institutions that are taken for granted in western democracies such as Australia. Yet a moment’s reflection will show that even amongst liberal democracies there are different assumptions at play: the Australian practice of compulsory voting and selection of Parliamentary candidates by the inner cabals of political parties might strike many Americans as deeply undemocratic. On the other hand few Australians would accept a definition of rights that includes unfettered gun ownership, which has become an article of faith for many on the American right.

Australia has been more cautious than the United States in speaking of “democracy promotion”, although it does engage in low level attempts to support programs through institutions like the Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum. The fragility of democratic institutions in the region poses a problem for Australian diplomacy, which is often caught in the conundrum posed by Michael Ignatieff as “the moral triage between rights and stability”. Enthusiasm for democracy promotion, which was often the language of neo-conservatives during the Presidency of George W Bush, has abated since the tragic collapse of so many hopes inspired by the Arab Spring, and a retreat from western triumphalism in face of new threats of terrorism.

The very concept of human rights may now be too associated with western hubris; it might be more useful to speak of basic rights and seek a common language that does not assume western style democracies as the only possible way of guaranteeing rights. Basic rights fall into two broad categories: protection from physical harm by both state and non-state forces; and access to the necessities of life such as clean water, adequate food, sanitation, shelter and health care. Imagine perhaps the core agendas of Amnesty and Oxfam combined to develop a new paradigm.

This is close to what theorists such as Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and Kenneth Appiah have argued for in developing concepts of cosmopolitanism. The language of cosmopolitanism offers ways of conceptualising rights as a fundamental premise of good foreign policy, rather than as an add-on. Cosmopolitanism has been defined by Paul James as a global politics that, firstly, projects a sociality of common political engagement among all human beings across the globe, and, secondly, suggests that this sociality should be either ethically or organisationally privileged over other forms of sociality.

A decade ago Robyn Eckersley argued for this in the Australian context, foreshadowing a more democratic foreign policy built on “a national imaginary that is hospitable, tolerant, generous to others and compassionate towards less fortunate strangers.” She wrote this shortly before the election of the Rudd government in 2007, and it would be hard to argue that Australia has progressed in this direction over the past decade.

As is clear from the bipartisan stigmatisation of asylum seekers and the current fears of terrorism, Australia is noticeably less generous and hospitable than Rudd promised at his election. In the atmosphere of heightened security fears and hostility to Muslims, debate on foreign policy has seemingly been muzzled. The Labor Party is careful to not allow any difference to appear between it and the government on questions related to “national security”, although it has been critical of the size of cuts to development assistance, and even the Greens rarely speak of foreign policy issues.


A way forward: human rights and human security

The concept of “human security” evolved out of a 1994 report for the UN Development Program by the Pakistani economist and politician Mahbub el Haq, which defined it as a people rather than state-centric vision of security, covering economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security. A decade later the Independent Commission on Human Security defined the essential goals of human security as meaning protection and empowerment, and noted: “Human security complements state security, furthers human development and enhances human rights.”

The advantage of human security as a concept is that it brings together what are often referred to as first and second generation rights, namely the classical liberal formulation of individual political and civil rights along with social and economic rights. (One is reminded of Anatole France’s quip about capitalism that the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.) But in an era when “security” is increasingly associated with threats of terrorism and increasing surveillance, the use of the prefix “human” should remind us that security is multi-dimensional, and that human survival and dignity is threatened by far more than military and terrorist attacks.

As the UN Fund for Human Security has pointed out: “Since the end of the Cold War, we have witnessed the lives of millions of people being threatened not only by international war and internal conflicts but also by chronic and persistent poverty, climate-related disasters, organised crime, human trafficking, health pandemics, and sudden economic and financial downturns.”

The argument that the first principle of foreign policy is to safeguard Australian citizens may make it easier to argue for human security as a central organising principle of foreign policy. Currently Australia spends roughly seven times as much on defence as it does on development assistance, a difference justified by assumptions that the major threats to our security stem from possible military actions, whether directly or indirectly aimed at Australia.

Yet given the threat posed to security in the broader sense by crises of development – populations being displaced by climate change or new epidemic diseases for example – is this a sensible allocation of resources?

There are strong moral arguments for Australia to support human rights but there are equally compelling, pragmatic arguments for making the global environment safer and helping secure what is often referred to as the national interest. The major cutbacks in Australian development assistance over the past few years are not only morally questionable; they have real impact on creating a more secure regional environment.

As Michael Sheldrick wrote in a commentary on the latest Defence White Paper: “Eradicating poverty, raising healthcare standards and providing access to education among developing countries in our region are not just about providing humanitarian aid; they are critical to promoting and protecting our national interests.” Sheldrick cites Australia’s support for building schools in Indonesia as helping counter extreme Islamism, whose teachings are largely antithetical to most concepts of human rights.

Of course it is an over simplification to suggest that better development will necessarily enhance security, but a great deal of the uncertainty of the contemporary world is closely related to massive inequalities, resulting in political instability and the attraction of extremist ideologies.

To dismiss desperate people seeking a better life as “economic migrants” misses the point that economic and political disenfranchisement too often go hand in hand.

The growing numbers of people seeking refuge from war, persecution and hunger is the most dramatic, current example where rights and security overlap in ways that cannot be countered by military force. If Australia’s most egregious breach of human rights lies in its continued indefinite detention of asylum seekers, our political discourses echo the political fault lines emerging in Europe in response to the flood of desperate people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, and Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Mexican and Muslim immigrants. To dismiss desperate people seeking a better life as “economic migrants” misses the point that economic and political disenfranchisement too often go hand in hand.

Difficult as it is to be optimistic in the face of continued murder, torture and civil warfare, some steps have occurred in the past few decades towards greater global recognition of human rights, even as the situation worsens in a number of countries. Even if international institutions can only move at a snail’s pace they are important in helping develop a global discourse around rights and dignity, and in providing support for civil society activists on the ground.

The greatest advantage in Australia’s bid for membership of the Human Rights Council is the potential it offers for a more nuanced discussion of foreign policy and human rights back home. The government will have to answer hard questions about its domestic record, even in those areas highlighted by Bishop, such as indigenous rights. Placing human rights and human security at the centre of debate moves us away from the current obsessions around trade, terrorism and submarines, and recognises that threats to security are rapidly changing. It may also provide a conceptual framework for taking seriously our geographic position, rather than clinging to the traditional notion that we need call in the old world to balance the rising powers of the new.

Acknowledgements: Thanks for discussions to the Honourable Gareth Evans, Emily Howie, Bec Strating, Dan Bray, Jasmine Westendorf and especially Roselina Press.