Australia - Effective Action on Human Rights

Speech by the Hon Alexander Downer MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the NSW Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs

Sydney, 5 August 1999

(Check Against Delivery)


Thank you John Melhuish; ladies and gentlemen.

Its a great pleasure to be able to speak to the NSW Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. I've long admired the role the Institute plays in developing a more informed debate within Australia on foreign policy issues and Australia's place in the world. And as I noted earlier this year, when I launched John Legge's history of the AIIA, its a task the Institute has been performing for nigh on seven decades.

But I'm also pleased because this meeting gives me the opportunity to discuss human rights - a topic close to my heart and crucial to the Government's foreign policy agenda. So tonight I want to say a few words about our approach to human rights issues, and to highlight some of the concrete action the Government has taken to promote adherence to proper standards of human rights around the world, but more particularly in our own region.

Human rights and Australian values

Even before the Coalition came to office in 1996, we had made it clear in our policy platform, A Confident Australia, that a Liberal-National Party Government would not shrink from taking action on human rights issues.

Indeed, if I may make a personal digression, the kinds of issues that are central to the promotion of effective standards of human rights around the world - such as the promotion of civil society, or respect for the individual - are issues that lie at the heart of Liberalism. My colleagues in the Liberal and National Parties share a long tradition of upholding individual freedoms and the rule of law, so the pursuit of the universality of these ideals comes instinctively to us.

But on a wider scale also, pursuit of appropriate standards of human rights appeals to an even more basic aspiration amongst Australians - the belief in a "fair go". We all believe that people should be free from arbitrary Government action, free from discrimination, free from violence and oppression - these are basic values that we all share. And as we pointed out in our Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper in 1997, it is entirely appropriate that our Government reflect those community values in the pursuit of foreign and trade policy objectives, just as we reflect them in any other area of our work.

The White Paper indicated that human rights are an inseparable part of our efforts overseas for two reasons - because they are a matter that concerns all Australians, and because their general observance helps create the kind of international environment that will advance Australia's general foreign and trade policy agenda.

The global human rights agenda

Our Government's consistent position has been that sustained improvement in the standard of human rights globally can best be achieved through domestic reform founded on working institutions which guarantee participation and accountability. Reform isn't something which can be imposed from outside, for without political will and a group of people with a knowledge and a commitment to making those institutions work, they will simply wither away.

Australia has played a leading role in developing the international human rights system, and you can expect that role to continue into the future. Although that system has a necessarily broad focus, it does have a limited ability to help states implement agreed standards. Regional human rights mechanisms also have a place, and Australia has done its part to encourage their establishment and effectiveness, including in our Asia-Pacific region.

It is quite clear that the ability of each state to protect human rights effectively will mainly depend on the strength of its own institutions, including a representative legislature, a free and open press, an accountable executive and an independent judiciary. A vigorous civil society is another important element in creating a culture of human rights. When any of these elements is missing or underdeveloped in a country, the whole society suffers. Legitimacy, born of transparency and genuine participation, breeds confidence and dynamism. A lack of democracy and public accountability undermines credibility and breeds resentment, as populations despair of being able to control their own destiny.

If ever one needed a demonstration of the impact of a lack of transparency, it can be found in the Asian economic crisis. Many countries concentrated on economic development while ignoring the need for concurrent democratic advances, and in the process failed to develop the kind of financial and prudential rigor that comes naturally to a transparent civil society. The outcome was devastating. I invite you to contrast that situation with that of Australia - one of the most open and transparent democratic societies in the region - which now has an annual growth rate better than most countries in the world, and which has maintained peaceful and orderly transitions of government throughout the harshest of economic climates.

Openness and accountability are important because they stimulate debate and criticism. That might slow down decision-making on occasion, but it also makes better policy and lead to a freer society and greater economic flexibility. It is those strengths that have helped Australia ride out the shocks caused by the worst economic crisis our region has seen since the end of the Second World War.

It is heartening that these lessons are also informing the policy choices of other nations in our region. Indonesia, for example, is now evolving into a more open and accountable society, where ideas are contested and criticisms aired. It has just contested its most democratic election since 1955. It is moving to allow the people of East Timor to decide their own future. The Indonesian Government recognises the need for more openness and transparency, especially in the area of financial management and control. The crisis has bought misery and pain to many in Indonesia, but a happier legacy may be a move towards greater freedom and democracy for the great mass of that country's people.

We're seeing similar currents at work within all the countries of our region, to a greater or lesser extent. In some cases, an existing trend towards respect for human rights has been strengthened. In others, governments may be realising for the first time that "open business, closed politics" never really works, and that non-participatory government can sustain only so much economic growth. For our part, Australia stands ready to help these positive developments in any way we can, since progress towards more freedom and openness in our region benefits us as much as it does our neighbours. And one of the ways in which our Government has been able to provide practical assistance has been through increased funding under our aid program of activities to improve the standard of governance in the region, a topic I will return to later in my remarks.

Talking about our region, I want to touch briefly on the argument that human rights are "relative", or have "cultural particularities". As I have made clear on many occasions, the Government rejects this view. Human rights are universal rights - they are not some kind of Western import, with little resonance in other regions. In fact, some of the greatest champions of human rights in the modern era have come from our region - if you had to rank the most influential people of the 20th Century, for example, I am sure Mahatma Gandhi would be near the top of your list.

To use Indonesia as an example again: it would have been common just a few years ago to hear the suppression of political debate in that country justified on the basis that people were more interested in putting food in their stomachs, and making money. Well, this year's election showed how absurd that notion was. The elections were held, and the people participated - more enthusiastically, in fact, than many Australians would. And the world did not come to an end. Indonesia is stronger, not weaker, at the end of that process. If anything has given me real confidence in the future of human rights and democracy in our region, it has been the process of Indonesia's election.

When we speak of universality, we speak of the whole spectrum of rights - civil, political, economic, social and cultural. Respect for one aspect of human rights should not mean neglect of others. Nor does development of any one area have to be at the expense of another. We acknowledge that rising economic standards will have a beneficial effect on human rights standards generally, but the relationship between the two is a complex one, and economic growth is not a substitute for action on civil and political rights.

Human rights - deeds, not words

I want to look now at some of the practical action that our Government has taken to promote adherence to human rights standards. But before I do, I want to say something about how we go about our work.

As I've said before, the guiding principle of our Government in approaching the promotion of human rights is very simple - will it work? Whatever we do must be effective. If I was in this business for the sake of political popularity, things would be very straightforward. We could make a lot of sound and thunder, and our domestic audience would be well satisfied. But the plight of people whose rights we are supposed to be protecting and promoting would not be changed. We are simply not interested in scoring brownie points in the domestic press at the expense of progress on issues that have a real impact on the lives of hundreds millions of people around the world, and if that means some noses are put out of joint domestically, so be it.

In some cases we may have chosen to pursue the substance of dialogue over the self-satisfaction of megaphone diplomacy, but our message gets through loud and clear. More clearly, in fact, since our interlocutors may actually listen to what we have to say, rather than automatically tune out.

And when we judge that public comment may help advance the situation, we have not been hesitant to make it - I'd remind you, for example, of the countless occasions on which the Prime Minister or I have commented on human rights abuses in East Timor. What our Government has done is to abandon the notion that there is a "one size fits all" approach to human rights. If we believe that effectiveness requires quiet negotiation, we will pursue that. If we believe that we can achieve something through a public statement, we will make it. And I make no apologies for choosing different tactics to solve different problems.

Our practical HR agendaIn approaching the task of improving human rights standards in our region and globally, our Government takes a multifaceted approach.
On individual cases of concern, my Department makes many hundreds of bilateral representations on human rights matters each year. Many of these raise cases that are brought to our attention by the Amnesty International Group of the Federal Parliament.

We also provide funding for many human rights projects through our bilateral aid program. Last financial year, around $600,000 was provided to aid small human rights-related projects throughout the region. In addition, more substantial funding was provided to continuing projects, such as our bilateral human rights dialogue with China (of which I will speak in more detail shortly), and the provision of institutional support for Indonesia's human rights body, the Komnas HAM (for which we have provided up to $2 million over three years).

At the multilateral level, we are active in all United Nations human rights forums, and have provided financial support for the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. Since we came to office, we have provided over $1.4 million dollars to help it with its human rights work.

Australia played a key role in the successful conclusion last year of a Statute for an International Criminal Court - a matter which gave me great personal satisfaction, and which I count as one of the great achievements of our Government's human rights agenda.

To ensure that all the officers of my own Department involved in this work understand fully the context in which they are operating, a Human Rights Manual has been produced as a training tool. I launched a revised version on Human Rights day last year which, like its predecessor, has proven invaluable not only within my Department but more widely within the Government and outside. Not only is it used in human rights training work undertaken within the government - including for groups like the Australian police currently working in East Timor - but I am told that officials of many countries use it as a basic reference text in their own work and that even human rights NGOs find it both fair minded and useful.

Another aspect of our domestic human rights agenda that has international application is the revision of Australia's National Action Plan on Human Rights, which I and the Attorney-General have been developing through a broad consultative process. The original recommendation from the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights that all States consider drawing up National Action Plans on Human Rights emanated from a proposal put forward by Australia, and we led the way with our initial National Action Plan in 1994. Our Government intends to continue the process of revising the Plan, both for our domestic purposes and to encourage other states, particularly those within our region, to adopt this means of coordinating and publicising action on human rights issues.

At the regional level, we've supported the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. Since its establishment at an inaugural meeting in Darwin in 1996, the Forum has allowed the human rights commissions of Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines to strengthen cooperation among national human rights institutions, including through information sharing, staff exchanges, technical cooperation and an annual regional meeting. The Forum, which will hold its 1999 meeting in Manila from 6-8 September, also assists other regional governments wishing to establish such institutions. Our Government has increased funding for the Forum secretariat (which is located within Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission) to $225,000 per year for the next three years to carry out this important work.

Australia has also been supporting human rights institution-building within the United Nations. As well as sponsoring resolutions in the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly promoting the role of national institutions which have gained significant additional support in recent years.

Australia is the principal, but no longer the only sponsor of the work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on national institutions. This work has been instrumental in the establishment of a number of new national institutions and in the development and success of many others provides technical assistance to countries working to establish their own national institutions.

I expect to see a further boost to regional and bilateral cooperation on human rights issues through the activities of the Centre for Democratic Institutions (CDI), the establishment of which was a key policy commitment of the Government at the 1996 election. The CDI is devoted to the provision of practical support for the consolidation and strengthening of democratic institutions in developing countries covered by Australia's aid program. It exemplifies a cooperative rather than conflict approach towards promoting human rights and is the flagship of our good governance initiatives. The Government provides funding for CDI activities under our overseas aid program, to a total of $3 million over three years.

A focus of the Centre's training programs is on institution building and the processes by which broader society, notably the media and community groups, can contribute to democratic decision making. It has already made excellent progress, with activities ranging from a workshop on Managing Transition in East Timor, to a four-country project on anti-corruption, to seminars on reporting requirements of human rights treaties.

This theme of developing robust national institutions has been continued in our bilateral human rights dialogue with China. The third in our annual series of meetings will be held in Beijing later this month, and will build on the detailed and comprehensive agenda for action our two countries have already developed. The meetings have involved broad-based participation by experts from a range of relevant agencies, and have allowed us to register Australian views on a number of matters, including Tibet, the death penalty, and other human rights issues. Australia has also committed funds for the development of activities in China that will focus on institution building, policy development, research and training, up to an amount of $1.1 million this financial year.

Australia remains concerned about human rights developments in China. The value of our dialogue is that these concerns can be registered effectively. We talk, they listen - and vice versa. Of course, there will be no overnight transformation of the human rights situation in China, but it is unrealistic to expect one. But I feel strongly that our dialogue has made a difference, and that it is more beneficial to have China engaged, and moving forward, than to have them put up the shutters and make no progress at all. Is it better to have all the energy of China's bureaucracy directed at defeating an annual draft resolution in the Commission for Human Rights, or have them working - as they now are - on the ratification and implementation of UN human rights instruments?

Before I conclude on the China dialogue, may I hit on the head once and for all the snide observation made by some that these are "secret" meetings. I make the initial and very obvious point that they are no more, and no less, "secret" than any government-to-government meeting. I mean, when you meet with another nation, you don't usually do so in the middle of the MCG with every man and his dog looking on from the stands. But more substantively, we actually do keep Australian NGOs fully briefed on the outcome of the dialogue. Indeed, when the Chinese delegation was in Australia last year, we ensured that they were able to meet with some 40 Australian NGOs and hear their views first-hand.

I'd like also to mention one final example of the benefit of concentrating on outcomes rather than rhetoric in bilateral human rights diplomacy. Last week I met Burma's Foreign Minister, and urged Burma to consider establishing an independent human rights commission, like the one established in Indonesia under former President Soeharto. Our proposal remains under active discussion. This week the Australian Commissioner for Human Rights, Chris Sidoti, visited Burma to talk further with Burmese authorities about the role of an independent human rights body.

Now, this one swallow is a long way from making a summer, but the fact that the Burmese Government can see the point of such a body, albeit not having made up their minds about it, is a good step forward. And it highlights the positive role that Australia can play in advancing discussion of human rights issues throughout our region.

Australia - committed to effective action on human rights

I hope I have given you some insight into Australia's continuing work on human rights in our region, and beyond. It may not be high-profile, it may even be open to misrepresentation by people who pursue other agendas, but it is effective. Unfortunately, it is also likely to continue for many years into the future. For while human rights continue to be ignored, our own values as Australians are challenged.

So our work goes on. We shoulder it in the knowledge that positive results do come, although they may seem to come at a glacial pace. But every now and then, like icebergs falling from the glacier into the sea, they can come in a rush - as they have done in Indonesia, and elsewhere. It is those results that help us keep faith in the inexorable progress of that glacier, and in the ultimate triumph of the cause of human rights.


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