Conservative Aussies Shift Approach to Human Rights ; Aligning Itself with the US, Australia Is Increasingly Critical of International Bodies Such as the UN

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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. …