Since John Howard became Prime Minister in 1996, Australia’s stance towards
the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee and other UN human rights fora
has been one of contempt. As recently as September 12 this year the Howard
government was indicating that it is likely to ignore a recent ruling from
the Committee over the Government’s refusal to give a widow's pension to a
gay man after his partner, a war veteran, had died. But despite this seven
year record of hostility, according to the Financial
Review last Monday, Australia
wants to head the Committee when the Chairpersonship becomes available next
January. It has done nothing to deserve this diplomatic "reward" and its candidacy
should be opposed.
Even when the Howard government used the UN Human Rights Committee for its
own purposes, it was to undermine human rights. In May 1997, China's then Vice-Premier,
Zhu Ronghi, rewarded Australia for refusing to back a UN Human Rights Committee
resolution condemning China's appalling human rights record. According to the
Sydney Morning Herald of May 20 1997, Mr Zhu said, "Originally I didn't have
any plan to go to Australia. I intended to visit some European countries. However,
the attitude of these countries at the UN Human Rights Commission session has
deeply disappointed us."
Mr Howard's preparedness to snub the UN was in contrast to the record of the
Keating government on this issue. Australia had voted for similar resolutions
in the preceding six years.
Then in March 1999, the UN Committee on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination recommended a review of Australian laws on Aboriginal land rights
after the Howard government introduced amendments to the Native Title Act.
The UN found that this legislation did not protect land ownership of Aboriginal
people and that it increased the ownership rights of farmers and others who
own pastoral land at the expense of indigenous Australians.
Significantly, this was the first time a developed-world democracy's laws
in this area had been called into question.
Instead of responding in a spirit of co-operation, the normally mild-mannered
Attorney General, Daryl Williams, fumed that the UN findings were an insult
to Australia and that the Australian government might not co-operate with the
UN when it visited Australia to follow up on its report.
And follow up it did. A year later, on 24 March 2000, the UN issued a media
release that castigated Australia for its native title laws, the mandatory
sentencing laws that were responsible for exacerbating the disproportionate
number of indigenous people locked up in Australian jails and the backward
steps that reconciliation had taken under the Howard Government.
On this occasion, Foreign
Minister Alexander Downer led the government's response.
He lambasted the UN findings with this petulant
outburst: "We are a democratically
elected government in one of the most liberal and democratic countries you
will find on earth, and if a UN committee wants to play domestic politics in
Australia it will end up with a bloody nose." Quite so!
In fact, so outraged by the UN's criticisms was Mr Downer that he told ABC
Radio that same day that the Howard Government would review Australia's participation
in the United Nations treaty committee system.
Mr Downer continued his campaign against the Human Rights Committee in June
2002 when he and Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock rejected out of hand
the findings of the Committee on human rights abuses in detention centres.
Mr Downer told the media on 6 June 2002 that "we won’t have bureaucrats in
Geneva" telling the Australian government how to run asylum seeker policies.
One of the major complaints that conservatives have had with the UN on human
rights issues is that countries that have questionable human rights records
are able to sit on committees and deliberate on other nations. If these conservatives
are to be intellectually consistent then they should see that Australia is
being just as hypocritical now in seeking to chair the UN Human Rights Committee
given its point blank refusal to take up any of the UN’s recommendations over
the past seven years.
No wonder groups such as Human Rights Watch and some African countries don’t
want to make it easy for Australia to run this Committee. It’s one thing to
take issue with the UN occasionally - that’s the right of every member country
- but to do so consistently over a long period as the Howard government has
done in the area of human rights is to call into serious question the suitability
of Australia’s candidacy for this post.
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