How labor came a cropper on human rights

... if it all started well, it didn't take long for things to slip. No compensation followed the apology to the stolen generations, despite money being the litmus test of genuine concern, and the Northern Territory intervention continues to inflict racial discrimination and humiliation ... It is time our political leaders broke from the debilitating conventional wisdom in Australian politics: the view that most Australians are red-neck mugs whose compassion extends only to themselves and their mortgages.

Ben Saul The Australian June 18, 2010

Adapted from a Peter Nicholson CartoonPeter Nicholson Cartoon (edited)

A signature of the Kevin 07 campaign, and one reason for its success, was a pledge to remake Australia into a good global citizen after human-rights problems under John Howard.

Despite starting well, in recent months the Rudd government's leadership credentials on human rights have begun to fall apart.

Labor is bleeding votes to the Greens, and some to the opposition, because it is now seen to stand for nothing: it is neither as tough on easy targets as the opposition, nor as decent as the Greens.

Lurching a bit to the right, but not far enough, is an odd political strategy that wins few votes and alienates many.

One of the lessons of the 2007 election is that Australians respond well to strong leadership on human rights and warm to prime ministers who fight for principles.

From its early days in office, the Rudd government did (almost) everything human-rights advocates could have dreamed of, despite a few wobbles over the death penalty in Asia.

Globally, it signed new treaties on disability and women's rights and against torture, as well as (eventually) supporting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It got Australians elected as chair of the new UN disabilities committee and on to a key UN body for indigenous peoples; it sought a seat on the Security Council, pursuing global governance over unilateralism; it invited specialised UN human-rights bodies to visit Australia at any time; it increased foreign aid; and it gave more money to the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia.

Domestically, the government moved swiftly.

It made refugee and asylum policy less punitive and detention more humane, including the abolition of the Pacific Solution and temporary protection; its same-sex entitlements laws reduced discrimination; it apologised to the stolen generations; it inched towards paid parental leave in a difficult economic climate; and it gave legal aid a much needed boost.

New torture offences were introduced, the death penalty prohibited, reform of anti-discrimination law has been flagged and some of the hard edges were even knocked off the anti-terrorism laws.

All of this was impressive, particularly against the low bar set by the Howard government.

But if it all started well, it didn't take long for things to slip.

No compensation followed the apology to the stolen generations, despite money being the litmus test of genuine concern, and the Northern Territory intervention continues to inflict racial discrimination and humiliation.

Some of the most controversial aspects of the terrorism laws, such as control orders, preventive detention and ASIO powers, remain untouched; legal aid remains grossly underfunded by at least $170 million a year; attention to war-crimes prosecutions is negligible (not a single war criminal has been prosecuted in Australia in 60 years, and not for lack of suspects); and after 35 years, a decision still hasn't been made about Indonesia's execution of five journalists at Balibo, let alone crimes against the East Timorese.

By mid 2010, the landslips on human rights turned into an avalanche and, faced with a resurgent and rabid opposition, Rudd's strategy has been to toughen up on "soft" human-rights issues.

Despite denying a "race to the bottom", Rudd has attempted to outflank the opposition on border protection: processing Afghans and Sri Lankans has been suspended, despite being discriminatory and leading inevitably to arbitrary detention; remote new detention centres are being opened despite the acute mental health risks to detainees; and new people-smuggling laws potentially criminalise supporters of asylum seekers and even innocent rescues at sea.

The language of border security has again replaced the language of freedom.

Of course, the government was never going to succeed in being tougher than the opposition on refugees, so it is no surprise Abbott has dusted off Howard's policies.

No one should then expect the Rudd government to fix other areas of migration law that violate rights, such as the denial of social security to new migrants or the health screening out of migrants with disabilities or AIDS.

Despite signing up to every human-rights treaty under the sun, it is in individual cases that the rubber hits the road.

The government is determined to deport moderate Iranian religious sheikh Mansour Leghaei despite a UN Human Rights Committee order not to do so.

ASIO claims Sheikh Leghaei is a security risk, but he has never been told why.

In the Kafkaesque manner of communist and fascist countries, a family will be torn apart based on secret evidence and faceless accusers. No civilised country in Europe does that, because those countries take human rights seriously.

They balance the right to a fair hearing against security concerns, despite facing more acute dangers than does Australia.

Australia is yet to respond to another UN finding that the post-sentence detention of sex offenders is arbitrary, unlawful detention, but no one, particularly paedophiles, should hold their breath in a country like ours.

One reason for Australian exceptionalism is the absence of a bill of rights, for which the current government bears a heavy responsibility.

Despite the fanfare around Frank Brennan's human-rights consultation and its recommendation for a human-rights act, the government's response was one of the greatest fizzers in human-rights history: funding will be provided to educate Australians about rights they cannot enforce by law; a parliamentary committee will examine the impacts of bills on rights, which happens already through Senate committees that governments routinely ignore; the government will meet non-government organisations more often and send a human-rights plan to Geneva.

One could faint at the ambition of it all.

When elected in 2007, the government had political capital in spades and could have adopted the same rights protections every other civilised democracy enjoys.

But Rudd's cabinet appeared spooked that parliamentary sovereignty would be infringed, which is precisely the point when parliaments repeatedly violate or ignore human rights.

True democracy requires politicians to accept constraints rather than coveting unbridled power over the vulnerable -- a point lost on Australian governments.

In foreign policy, the government's record is underwhelming.

Australia protested that Israel tinkered with our passports but said little about Israel's assassinations or its devastating blockade of Gaza; we remain one of the world's largest importers of phosphate fertiliser from occupied Western Sahara, assisting Morocco in its illegal plunder of resources; and we still expect Arab and African countries to vote us on to the Security Council.

It is time our political leaders broke from the debilitating conventional wisdom in Australian politics: the view that most Australians are red-neck mugs whose compassion extends only to themselves and their mortgages.

Associate professor Ben Saul is co-director of the Sydney Centre for International Law at Sydney University and a barrister acting for Sheikh Mansour Leghaei