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The ALP is just as responsible for human rights abuses

By Nick Ferrett - posted Tuesday, 23 September 2003

It may be that Australia fails in its bid to obtain chairmanship of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. That would make Greg Barns happy, apparently. It would also make the serial and serious abusers of human rights among the members of the committee happy. Having at its head a country with a track record of pluralism and equal opportunity would do serious damage to the UN’s current status as a protest organisation rather than a force for change in the abuse of human rights.

Barns cites the Keating era as a golden age for human rights advocacy in this nation. Human rights was hardly Keating’s strong suit. This is the man who the Indonesians called their "brother in arms". The man who trained the troops who massacred the East Timorese. The only time he had a fight with any leader of a government committed to serious abuse of human rights was when he had a brawl with Malaysia's Mahathir – over trade.

Does everyone forget that during the Hawke and Keating eras we were urged not to impose Western values on those from non-European cultures who came to our shores? That was code for authorising the abuse of women by cultures which treated women as chattels. It was the basis for ignoring the human rights abuses in many Asian countries for the sake of trade. As for the approach to China, Bob Hawke shed a tear for those massacred at Tienanmen (and I believe he was genuine) but trade continued unabated.


Paul Keating was a supporter of the government which sanctioned the invasion of East Timor and later, as Prime-Minister, became the biggest advocate of the military dictatorship which repressed our war-time allies. By contrast, John Howard took politically risky steps to help bring about East Timor’s independence, then acted to clean up the mess in which people like Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating had been complicit.

Don’t forget that when Laurie Brereton, as foreign affairs spokesman for the ALP, came out against the previous Labor policy of support for the annexation of East Timor, he was lambasted by Gough Whitlam, the great defender of the people, as being uneducated. I thought Gough had educated everyone of Laurie’s generation.

The Labor Party has a long and sorry history of being out to lunch on human rights. The only time it has done anything serious on a fundamental issue of human rights it has been to sell out freedom of association by reinforcing compulsory unionism in the workplace and at universities. It was the inventor of mandatory detention. It was the inventor (and only serious advocate) of racially discriminatory immigration policy in Australia.

If I had a say in who was to chair a committee on human rights, I think I would look for someone who came from somewhere where the people held pluralistic values, abided the rule of law, gave its citizens equal rights under the law, didn’t shoot or gas them when they dissented, fed those of its citizens who couldn’t afford to feed themselves, looked after those of its ill citizens who couldn’t afford to look after themselves, educated all of its citizens and was governed according to the democratic will of the people – as opposed to the sort of people who commonly run various elements of the UN now. Somewhere like my country.

The UN is often in danger of being held in contempt by liberal democracies precisely because it offers them so little despite accepting so much from them. It is most often held in contempt by liberal democracies governed by parties (unlike the Labor Party) which are free of historical ties to the biggest abusers of human rights seen in the twentieth century – the communist regimes of Europe and Asia.

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About the Author

Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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