The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia


Address by The Hon Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at Consultations between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Non-Government Organisations on Human Rights, Parliament House, Tuesday 30 July 1996


I welcome this opportunity to discuss the Government's approach on human rights issues.

I am particularly glad to do so with members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and non-Government organisations which work so hard to promote human rights.

Human rights are an important element in Australia's foreign policy because this Government strongly believes in the dignity and freedom of individuals.

This Government believes in the universality of fundamental human rights and also believes that Australia can take effective steps to ensure the promotion of human rights, including through representatons to promote those rights in its dealings with other countries.

Today I would like to set out the Government's approach to human rights. I will do this by looking first at the Coalition's Human Rights tradition . Secondly, I want to explain the intellectual foundations of the Government's approach to human rights. Thirdly, I want to outline the concrete and practical features of the Government's approach to human rights, before finally outlining two additional human rights iniatives.

Part One: The Coalition's Human Rights Tradition

Before considering the philosophical foundations and key principles which underpin the Government's approach to human rights, I want to reflect briefly on the Coalition's rich history in upholding and protecting human rights.

The Coalition has a proud tradition in the practical achievement of human rights in its foreign policy.

It was my predecessor as Foreign Minister, Percy Spender who started the Colombo Plan in 1950. This Plan was the region's first serious program of economic cooperation and technology transfer and contributed to the realisation of basic social rights such as education and health.

Spender's successor, Richard Casey, Australia's Foreign Minister from 1951-60, was instrumental in ensuring both the continuation of the Colombo Plan and also the introduction of UN programs which brought real economic benefits - and with them the conditions essential for the realisation of human rights- to people in countries throughout the Asian region.

Casey's efforts also meant that Australia firmly established its reputation at the United Nations as a country committed to upholding human rights.

This was particularly evident in the period from 1956-57 when Australia was a member of the UN Security Council and was noted for its support for people suffering political persecution for conscientiously held beliefs.

The Coalition's practical and concrete approach to human rights was again evident during the Fraser Government.

The Fraser Government linked Australia with the "front-line" African states and led the way in developing Commonwealth initiatives to end apartheid.

The Fraser Government was especially active as a partner in the negotiations leading to the 1977 Commonwealth Gleneagles Statement on Apartheid in Sport - an initiative that was instrumental in gathering international pressure against South Africa's apartheid regime.

Malcolm Fraser was in particular, greatly respected for his role in helping to realise the Lancaster House agreement which lead to independence for Zimbabwe.

Having just returned from the Organisation for African Unity meeting in Cameroon, where I was accompanied by Mr Fraser, I can tell you that the warm reception he was accorded by African leaders was a powerful reminder both of the respect in which he is still held and the fact that human rights issues have been a strong element in the foreign policy of Coalition governments.

The Fraser Government further confirmed its human rights credentials when it reversed the decision of the Whitlam Government to recognise the Baltic states which had been annexed into the Soviet Union against their will.

In 1976, Fraser's government also demonstrated a clear commitment to the rights of asylum seekers by offering a welcome to refugees from Vietnam despite protests by the then Opposition.

The point of recalling all this is to remind you that Coalition Government foreign policies have traditionally recognised the breadth of Australia's national interests while maintaining a humane and principled foreign policy.

I believe time will show this to be equally true of the new Government.

Part Two: The Foundations of the Government's Approach to Human Rights

Drawing on this proud tradition, this Government views human rights as an inseparable part of Australia's overall foreign policy approach.

The importance of human rights within Australian foreign policy is explained by four key principles from which the Coalition draws.

First, human rights are important in the conduct of Australian foreign policy because the treatment of individuals is a matter of concern of itself to Australia.

Secondly, the promotion and protection of human rights is important to Australia's national interest because it underpins the country's broader security and economic interests as was sadly evident following the period of Khmer Rouge control in Cambodia which ultimately led to refugee flows and the need for a major international involvement.

Thirdly, the Australian Government's policies on human rights are based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international human rights instruments which enshrine the principles of universality and indivisibility of human rights.

Australian policy, therefore, does not presume to hold other nations to standards that we do not apply to ourselves.

Fourthly, the Government believes that attention and consideration should be given to the promotion, protection and implementation of all human rights, whether they be civil, political, economic, social or cultural.

This proposition lies at the heart of the right to development which links the two categories of rights in a way that is particularly relevant to our region.

It is clear then that economic development is critical for improving the quality of life for people in developing countries, which is the ultimate aim of human rights endeavours. At the same time, the stability of free and democratic societies can enrich and accelerate human development by providing standards and direction for social and economic growth.

With these points in mind, the transition of ethical approaches into practice is guided by two considerations.

First, Australia must be realistic in its assessment of what can and cannot be done on particular human rights issues and practical about the best means of seeking to realise its human rights goals.

Achievable objectives are vital for effective foreign policy of any sort.

These objectives most naturally begin at the bilateral level. In addition to bilateral efforts, we attach importance to multilateral channels to marshal widespread support for any given approach.

As such, the United Nations plays a central role in this regard.

Australia, for instance, makes active use of the UN Commission on Human Rights to focus attention on serious cases of human rights abuse and to mobilise the UN machinery to monitor and seek improvements in particular situations.

The second consideration which governs implementation of our concerns is that Australia's policies must be based on a clear analysis of the way in which human rights concerns fit with Australia's interest in maintaining security and enhancing prosperity.

This means that the Government's policy approaches will necessarily be developed as part of a comprehensive treatment of foreign policy and implemented in the context of the overall relationships that Australia has with other countries.

The specific goals which flow from these considerations include a commitment to promoting basic economic and social rights such as maternal health care, primary education and adequate housing.

Similarly, there are key civil and political rights which this Government will seek to foster and which appear critical to both individual freedom and long-term social stability. These rights, which were identified in the 1991 Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade's "Review of Australia's Efforts to Promote and Protect Human Rights" include:

i) adherence to the rule of law;

(ii) an independent judiciary;

(iii) a free press;

(iv) freedom of speech and assembly; and

(v) the right to a free trial.

Part Three: Practical Human Rights Policies

Having outlined the basic principles which underpin Australia's approach to human rights, I now want to consider how Australia translates these principles into practice.

The hallmark of this Government's approach to human rights is that it will seek to achieve practical outcomes which actually improve the lives of individuals abroad.

The Government seeks to make a difference on human rights, rather than merely to posture. Australia will employ a variety of approaches to human rights issues so that it achieves the best possible results for its efforts.

The Government's approach encompasses development co-operation, public diplomacy and private diplomacy.

Development Assistance

The first of the ways Australia promotes human rights is through its development assistance program. Australia's aid program not only promotes economic, social and cultural rights but also civil and political rights.

The Australian Government recognises that the development of these rights must be safeguarded and nurtured by appropriate institutions and structures.

Australia's development cooperation program, through AusAID, will continue to support democratic development and human rights institution building in developing countries.

The Government is particularly supportive of helping countries in the Asia Pacific region to develop strong, independent national human rights institutions. These are an important means of promoting domestic adherence to international human rights standards.

The Government also provided substantial financial support for the first Asia-Pacific Workshop of National Human Rights Institutions which was organised by Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in early July.

Despite the tough budgetary environment, I have supported the continuation of a human rights fund previously administered by DFAT. This will now be administered jointly by AusAID and DFAT. The fund will continue to have a developmental focus and will support priority human rights activities identified by our missions.

As part of its overseas aid program, the Government supports a broad range of programs targeting improvements of human rights both within individual country programs and through other programming mechanisms.

In the field of civil and political rights, for example, Australia provides assistance to Papua New Guinea on a bilateral basis to help PNG's police and corrective services officers carry out their functions in ways that promote the rule of law and respect for human rights.

The work of NGO's in the area of human rights is also supported through the aid program, including, for example, child rights programs in Bangladesh and the Philippines and in support of legal aid in Indonesia.

The Government will continue to support the activities of multilateral human rights bodies, including the Commonwealth Secretariat's important work on good governance.

Peace and human rights are inextricably linked. Nowhere has this been more graphically illustrated than in Africa where, in recent years, some of the world's worst human rights atrocities have been carried out in the context of civil war. In recognition of this, the Australian Government recently made contributions both to the initiative of former Tanzanian President Nyere to prevent war in Burundi, and to the OAU Peace Fund.

In the area of economic, social and cultural rights, the Government is making additional efforts to ensure that development assistance effectively targets basic needs and poverty alleviation.

In this endeavour, the role of NGO's is obviously very important and the Government wishes to see an enhanced role for NGOs in the aid program.


A second policy area where the Australian Government has promoted human rights is the issue of landmines, the insidious weapons which maimed or killed some 26,000 people last year. The impact of these weapons involves not only the immediate human tragedy, but it also undercuts the overall development of those areas affected by diverting both financial and human resources which could otherwise be employed in providing basic health and education.

Therefore, in April, along with my colleague the Minister for Defence, Mr McLachlan, I was delighted to announce that Australia supported a total global ban on the production, stockpiling, use and transfer of landmines and implemented a unilateral suspension on the operational use of landmines by the Australian Defence Force.

I was pleased to announce that as well as working to strengthen international support for our position, the Australian Government has increased its efforts to do something practical to tackle the humanitarian disaster posed by these weapons.

In May, I announced a de-mining program for Cambodia and Laos worth $12 million over three years.

The bulk of this money will be directed to the UN Development Program/Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) project.

The package also includes amounts for technical assistance to CMAC from the Australian Defence Force, for unexploded ordinance clearance in Laos, and for mine awareness and victim support programs, including those undertaken by non-government organisations.

This emphasis on demining is, I believe, an example of a very practical approach to human rights.

Human Rights Representations

A third way the Australian Government will work to promote human rights is the important area of human rights representations. The Australian Government remains committed to continuing bilateral representations on both individual cases and general situations as an important means of improving human rights observance overseas and to give appropriate expression to concerns that are felt in Australia.

Most of the cases raised are based on Amnesty International "Urgent Action" cases which the Government pursues on behalf of the Amnesty International Parliamentary Group.

Australia will thus maintain a vigorous human rights diplomacy, both multilaterally and bilaterally. On the bilateral side, Australia will continue to make representations through our network of Embassies and High Commissions overseas on cases of human rights' concern brought to our attention by Amnnesty International.

These representations strengthen Australia's profile as a concerned and active country in the human rights field.

Diplomatic Approaches

Beyond development assistance and representations on individual cases, the Government has available to it the various tools of diplomacy.

As an example of this approach, with regard to conditions in Burma I have spoken out consistently and strongly called for greater dialogue between the SLORC and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and supported calls for political liberalisation.

Australia will continue to make representations to the Government of Burma on specific human rights cases of concern and will maintain regular contact with opposition spokespeople, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Government has also maintained the "benchmarks approach" in relation to Burma which links greater bilateral contact with moves toward greater regard for human rights.

The Australian Government will therefore continue to neither encourage nor discourage trade and investment between Australian enterprises and Burma. It will continue the ban on exports of defence and defence related goods to Burma and our bilateral development assistance program will remain suspended. Humanitarian assistance for displaced people from Burma in Bangladesh and Thailand will continue, however, as will assistance that Australia provides through UN agencies and NGO's.

During the recently completed ASEAN Regional Forum I had the opportunity to meet with my Burmese counterpart and put forward Australia's concerns about human rights, democracy and political detainees in what can only be described as direct and unqualified terms.

I am pleased that it was with the encouragement of an Australian proposal, that, for the first time, there was discussion of Burma's human rights' record during the formal session of the ARF.

Australia is also actively involved in pursuing a peaceful resolution to the tragic conflict on Bougainville. I personally raised the issue with the PNG Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, during my visit to Papua New Guinea in May. Mr Howard also made Australia's position clear to Sir Julius when the two leaders met in Sydney the same month.

I have repeatedly stated that a military solution is simply not available and that the only lasting settlement will be a negotiated one.

To that end, the Australian Government stands ready to assist with reinvigorating the peace process, and I recently made this offer to the Papua New Guinean Foreign Minister when we met in Jakarta. I was delighted in my discussions with Foreign Minister Genia to be told that PNG would now look for a negotiated solution to Bougainville with a view to giving Bougainville greater autonomy under the existing PNG Constitution.

Australia's contribution to the restoration and rebuilding process on Bougainville, which aims both at restoring basic social services and providing a clear peace dividend is a further means by which the Government hopes to encourage a peaceful settlement.

In dealing with particular issues I have said that I believe it is generally best not to lecture but to seek results in human rights diplomacy. I believe a good example of this has been the Government's approach to East Timor which aims to help bring about improvements there .

By way of practical initiatives, while I was in Jakarta last April I announced a contribution of $300,000 for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to continue its human rights monitoring work in East Timor. This is in addition to Australia's continuing development assistance program to East Timor.

I also made it clear in Jakarta in April that Australia will continue to lend whatever support it can to the two streams of dialogue on East Timor held under the auspices of the United Nations and to help in reducing the dramatic unemployment problem in East Timor which undoubtedly compounds the problem there. Most recently, the Government provided approximately $25,000 to meet costs associated with the All-Inclusive Intra-East Timorese talks in Austria in March.

It was against this background of practical assistance that I was able to raise Australia's concerns about conditions in East Timor with both Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and President Soeharto - amongst others. Whilst making Australia's concerns clear, I deliberately chose not to lecture or hector, but to offer Australia's assistance in seeking a constructive and peaceful resolution.

Part Four: Looking to the Future: Initiatives

In looking to the future the Australian Government is involved in two key initiatives in the human rights field which, I believe, mark out new long-term directions for Australia's human rights involvement.

First, the Australian Government supports the development of Asia-Pacific human rights arrangements which would complement UN human rights machinery and national human rights institutions.

I was pleased that, with the Government's support, the Human Rights Workshop organised by Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) last month led to the establishment of an informal Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions.

For its part, the Australian Government will provide an additional $225,000 over three years to enable HREOC to provide support services for the new Forum.

The second Government initiative I would point to is the establishment of a new Centre for Democratic Institutions which will focus on the promotion of democracy internationally.

I have tasked my Department to develop detailed proposals for the Centre and work is now under way towards its foundation.

I am aware that ACFOA is keen to develop a proposal for a Human Rights Centre for Dialogue and Co-operation. Much of that proposal is, I think, commendable and my Department will take the ACFOA proposal into account in framing recommendations for the Centre for Democratic Institutions. It is also important that NGOs be included in both the design and running of any formal Centre given their great interest, expertise and experience in this field.


In concluding, I want to commend the role of NGO's in the ongoing world-wide campaign to promote and protect human rights. In that context I believe there are two important things to note.

First, to recognise that governments and NGO's have different but complementary roles. The special capacity for witnessing and advocacy which rests with NGOs cannot easily be replicated by government. However, government has a capacity for representation and direct diplomacy, which although often less public, is usually not within the power of NGOs.

Secondly, there will at times be disagreements over both approaches and objectives, as there are within the non-government community itself. That is simply a feature of healthy democracy and I want to say clearly that I both invite contact from and look forward to working with the NGO community on the topic of how we can make a genuine contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights.

Earlier in this speech, I made mention of the Coalition's proud tradition of a principled and humane foreign policy which has been notable for its practical attainments of the protection and development of human rights.

This Government is already developing an approach to human rights in its foreign policy which I believe is adding to this proud tradition.

It has already focused on practical and effective approaches to the promotion of human rights.

Ultimately, all of these approaches flow from a coherent philosophy which recognises that human rights are an integral part of Australia's interests and that Australia has a responsibility in its foreign policy to promote the dignity of the individual.