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Human rights: where are we heading?

By Stephen Keim - posted Wednesday, 30 November 2011

It is easy to feel that this talk of international human rights standards is all a bit pointless.

At home, we look at a grand theoretical construct maintained by mainstream politicians and mainstream media: The threat of the asylum seeker. And we follow a non-debate between our major political parties about how best to punish this small group of people who come by boat seeking the refuge promised in international treaties signed and adopted by Australia under those same political parties.

In Sri Lanka, we see a government continuing to tighten its control over the organs of society in Sinhalese areas and erasing non-Sinhalese areas by militarisation and trans-migration. In Africa, wave after wave of dictators have murdered civilian populations. In the Middle East, colonialism and violent and deadly suppression of dissent live side by side.


Perhaps, the best evidence for such a worldview comes from the United States, "The Land of the Free." The American Civil Liberties Union recently published a 36 page analysis of the changes to American society, wrought by actions taken after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Washington called A Call to Courage: Reclaiming our Liberties, 10 Years After 9/11.

Just as in Australia, it is easy to forget the ways in which laws have been changed and security apparatus are used to affect the lives of many. In the US context, A Call to Courage helps us recall.

In detailing the danger for democratic values of current developments in the United States, A Call to Courage makes reference to a famous quote of late Supreme Court Justice, William J. Brennan who had noted that, just as fundamental liberties were eroded during times of threat and conflict, the nation showed remorse in realising at the end of the conflict that the abrogation of liberties had been unnecessary.

The present situation, however, an engineered concept of war with terrorists everywhere and for all time, prevents the cycle from ever turning back to a more balanced view of the needs of the state and the citizen.

A Call to Couragelists the products of this everywhere war as including indefinite detention, targeted killings and the torture that occurred at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and various other black sites around the world. A Call to Courage points out that even the weak version of habeas corpus available for Guantanamo detainees has revealed that people condemned by the military as terrorists were wrongly detained and were ordered to be released.

This has frightening ramifications for the many detained at Bagram Air Base (which remains a legal black hole) and those subjected to the extrajudicial execution by the targeted killing program where, because of the lack of judicial oversight, errors are even more likely to have been made.


A Call to Couragepoints out the contradictory narratives that have been pursued in defence of the systematic use of torture under the Bush administration's march of America to the dark side.

On the one hand, it is said that the US does not torture and that the Abu Ghraib pictures were the results of a few bad apples that have been sacrificed to a process of legal accountability. At the same time, almost in the same breath, torture is defended, using ridiculous scenarios like the known ticking bomb (which never occur in practice) to defend torture as a lesser evil to which resort must be had.

A Call to Couragealso points out a version of "divided responsibility is no responsibility," by which torture practices were put in place. Decision makers acted on advice; implementers acted on orders and the dodgy legal advisers (my words) who made it all possible were simply advising objectively on the law. Because the Obama administration has chosen to make no one responsible (apart from the sacrificial bad apples), the dual narrative is being pushed by those responsible for the system of torture defending themselves and the practice and claiming vindication with more lies when opportunity presents.

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About the Author

Stephen Keim has been a legal practitioner for 30 years, the last 23 of which have been as a barrister. He became a Senior Counsel for the State of Queensland in 2004. Stephen is book reviews editor for the Queensland Bar Association emagazine Hearsay. Stephen is President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and is also Chair of QPIX, a non-profit film production company that develops the skills of emerging film makers for their place in industry.

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