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The delicate diplomacy of being 'nice' human rights violators

By Howard Glenn - posted Monday, 21 March 2005

Mike Smith is a nice bloke - an experienced diplomat who heads Australia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, and through his work here over the years has won widespread respect. I’ve not met him, but have heard him speak and seen his work, and even my hard-line human rights activist friends here in Geneva admire him for his work last year as Chair of the Commission on Human Rights.

So the diplomats here were relieved when Canberra agreed that Ambassador Smith could have the difficult job of fronting for Australia, when it was our turn to be discussed by the Expert Committee set up under the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Last time, in 2000, Australia was represented by Philip Ruddock, and there’s been a lot of work needed since to fix Australia’s reputation.

The traditional wisdom about how little regard the Australian Government has for the United Nations is belied on a daily basis by the millions spent participating in its forums. But on these special occasions - when you see such a bevy of bureaucrats flown in from Australia to be able to create a response to any conceivable question about our race relations - you see clearly how serious the work here is.


The ultimate sanction for breaches of the Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination is, basically, international shame. Being talked about, being included on lists, having unpleasant statistics circulated, speeches made in international seminars: it’s about as bad as it gets.

So on a cycle supposed to be every two years, but for practical reasons every four or five years, the Expert Committee a) invites reports from government and non-government organisations, b) gets a briefing from NGOs, c) hears an Opening Statement from the signatory Government, d) poses questions to that Government, based on its research and the NGO information, e) hears responses from the Government after an overnight break and f) publishes commentary on the situation in that country. (The key documents for all these stages are in the “research and papers” section of our website).

So when Mr Smith read Australia’s Opening Statement to the Expert Committee on March 1, there’d already been a lot of work done. Including on his speech, by all reports, with several departments, two Ministers and the Prime Minister clearing it first. (Mr Ruddock really did make a bad impression last time).

I’m afraid that jet lag, and incipient flu, made my normal posture of silent embarrassment when listening to Australian officials speak quite impossible on this occasion. But let’s get the context understood.

We’re hearing a report about the five year period during which we’ve had the demonisation of asylum seekers; mandatory detention of thousands of adults and children fleeing three nations at war or in conflict; Tampa; children overboard; the corruption of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to take holding camps outside the reach of Australian or international law; the abolition of most specialist Indigenous run programs; increase in most Indigenous indicators of disadvantage; the disruption and dismantlement of ATSIC; the gutting of the Human Rights Commission, including the proposed abolition of the Race Discrimination Commissioner’s role; creation of an inferior class of temporary refugee protection for mainly Afghans and Iraqis; a High Court that rules that there are no protections from the indefinite detention of people under the “aliens” powers - currently being applied to detain more than 130 people in Australia for more than three years, and still worse, 48 adults and 6 kids still detained on Nauru.

The Australian opening statement owed much to the teaching of 1984 in Australian schools during the 70s. Just as many Australian bureaucrats see Yes Minister as a training video, it’s clear that the Orwell’s novel has become a source of inspiration.


Read the speech to see what I mean. It’s dotted with “Harmony Day”, “Living in Diversity”, “shared responsibility”, “quiet revolution”, “community capacity building”, “the charter of public service in a culturally diverse society”, the “national framework for human rights”, “diversity works”, “native title is now a settled, accepted and effective dimension of Australian society and economic life”. Not to mention a whole lot of highlighting of exceptions and glosses over reality. It was too much for the Chinese member of the Expert Committee - who through the simultaneous translator, was heard to remark - “all these wonderful programs, yet Indigenous people seem dissatisfied, why is that?”

But then it turned from banal niceness to a pointed attack on the Committee for its last report, particularly that its observations:

Largely ignored the significant progress made in Australia across the spectrum of Indigenous issues, while reflecting an unquestioning acceptance of arguments raised in NGO submissions.

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About the Author

Howard Glenn leads lobby group Rights Australia Inc, was previously founder and national director of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, and brought the widest range of organisations and individuals together to challenge poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Formerly CEO of the National Australia Day Council, he was responsible for modernising national celebrations and the Australian of the Year Awards, and involving communities across Australia in debates on reconciliation, republic and national identity.

Howard was an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Governments, and had key involvement with Indigenous education policy, the response to the deaths in custody Royal Commission and the establishment of the reconciliation process. Outside government he has extensive community sector involvement, currently on human rights, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol issues. When not at a computer, Howard is a middle distance runner and a surf lifesaver.

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