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
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
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. …