Perspectives on human rights and Australian foreign policy

Magna Carta Address

Delivered at the National Maritime Museum, Sydney, on 8 February 2013. The Magna Carta lecture is an annual event organised by the British High Commission in Australia. Each year, a prominent figure is invited to speak about a modern issue relevant to the values enshrined in the 1215 charter.

Speech, E&OE, (check against delivery)

8 February 2013

Nearly 25 years ago, I stood in a bookshop asking myself if I really wanted to read another book on the Holocaust.

I opened If This Is a Man at Primo Levi’s description of an Auschwitz hut in the middle of the night.

He describes the sound of sleeping prisoners moving their jaws as they dream of food.

Levi writes: “You not only see the food, you feel it in your hands, distinct and concrete… someone in the dream even holds it to your lips.”

I decided to buy it.

The most important book of the 20th Century: Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man.

Because it is the best of all the books in the literature of testimony.

Because it is a monument to all those who were killed in the last century by totalitarian dictatorships.

Because it tells us what humans are capable of.

Levi presents the workings of the concentration camp — arguably, as we think of it today, the defining invention of the twentieth century — with cold realism, an intense physicality.

You feel a finger-curling revulsion as Levi escorts you through the huts and parade grounds, and explains the laws and bylaws of a universe of torture and death.

Levi was writing of his own experiences, of the industrial evil he survived during the Second World War.

Yet 70 years after the Second World War, atrocities persist.

Even in our modern, wealthy era in human history.

When democracy has become part of the global agenda.

When human rights are more respected than at any point in human history.

There are deprivations and torture, and gulags.

Today we have stories like Escape from Camp 14.

In North Korea, the camps are called “Kwan-li-so” or control centres.

But the truth is that they are political prisons where forced labour, punishment and death are routine.

First established in the 1950s under North Korea’s so-called “great leader” Kim Il-sung, modelled on the gulag system that operated in Russia, up to six “Kwan-li-so” still operate in North Korea.

Something like 130,000, or maybe 200,000, political prisoners.

Forced labour, its existence denied by the state.

Camps No. 14 in Kaechun, No. 15 in Yodok, No. 16 in Hwasung, No. 22 in Hoeryung, and No. 25 in Chungjin.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, NGOs and international agencies like the World Health Organization and the UN Human Rights Rapporteur on the DPRK — have all denounced Pyongyang’s human rights record, and its horrible impact on the lives of ordinary North Korean citizens.

But why do we care?

Why should we care?

Today I want to pose these questions.

Why do countries like Australia, or Britain, care about human rights in other parts of the world?

If we look back in history, for almost all of our existence, democracy and human rights were, almost everywhere on the Earth, utterly implausible ideas.

Autocracy and absolute power prevailed.

A document like Magna Carta was so extraordinary, we celebrate it 800 years on.

It took the catastrophe of two world wars before we enunciated what we now think of as universal human rights.

Today, Australians and Britons are lucky enough to live in countries where everybody has their say, freedom to express their views, choice of action and individual respect.

But — democratic citizens that we are — why should we look to see other countries embrace respect for their peoples?

Why should we talk about human rights in an international context at all?

Why shouldn’t we just get on with prosecuting — in a narrow way — our sense of what is in our national interest, in protecting and expanding Australian, and British, interests?

I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone in this room today that I think there are a range of compelling reasons why we should continue to prosecute the case for improved human rights standards around the world.

Both our countries are strong advocates for human rights.

Indeed, it is just one area of co-operation among many — as my colleague William Hague said in his speech in Sydney last month — “the level of our foreign policy cooperation is unprecedented.”

The moral reasons for our support of human rights are undeniable.

It would be strikingly wrong of us, living with the freedoms and choices that we do, not to hope for better lives for our brothers and sisters.

To the wholesale indecency of the Holocaust, Levi’s account was the response of an entirely decent man.

In our own time, we must strive for that decency.

These rights are  intrinsically human.

There are legal reasons, too.

In 1945, the international community came together to commit itself to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The UN Charter is founded on this commitment.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives further expression to this commitment.

However much practice and performance fall short, the central thrust is unmistakeable and, I believe, irreversible.

As Galileo said, “nevertheless, the world does move”.

Towards equality in dignity and rights.

Towards freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinions or other grounds.

The momentum of worldwide commitment is to a right to life, liberty and security.

To freedom from slavery, torture, arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

To equality before the law.

To presumed innocence in the case of a criminal offence, until guilt has been proven.

Indeed, in the words of Magna Carta itself, in article 39 —

“No free man shall be taken or imprisoned … or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land”.

It is the commitment to freedom of speech, conscience and religion.

To democracy in government, including the right to vote.

To freedom of work, to health, to education and to participation in the life of the community.

But behind all of that, there one fundamental reason why we embrace the drive for human rights around the world.

We recognise that the opening of our own societies — making them more inclusive, making them more equal — makes them better places to live.

Better, and, richer, in all senses.

Making our country a fairer, more open society liberates us from the prejudices and fears of our past.

The Australian experience offers a clear example of the linkage between the quest for a better national life and the pursuit of international human rights.

And the connection between observance of human rights and our standing in the world, especially in our region.

The outstanding example of this connection is the abandonment of the White Australia Policy.

Our generation, the beneficiaries of this transformation, rightly honour those who achieved this change.

In less than a decade from the early 1960s, under Liberal and Labor governments.

But we also do well to remember the foundational work of the men and women of the war generation.

A generation absolutely steeped in White Australia as an article of faith.

Something worth fighting for — literally.

All the greater, then is that generation’s achievement.

In Canberra yesterday, I had the pleasure of launching a landmark book published by my department — Australia and the United Nations.

I quote from the chapter on human rights and international law by Colin Milner:

“Through their contributions to the drafting of the UN Charter at the San Francisco Conference [in 1945], Dr Evatt and the Australian delegation helped lay the foundations for a broad conception of human rights in the proposed organisation — one that included economic, social and also cultural rights, in addition to the traditional Western focus on civil and political rights.”

We can now see this work created a climate and made implicit a commitment in which policies of gross discrimination like White Australia could never stand.

Australia’s own work in 1945 was the beginning of the end for the White Australia policy.

Colin Milner describes how Dr Evatt successfully urged the Conference to broaden the meaning of the concept of “freedom from want” — one of the four freedoms set out by Roosevelt and Churchill in the Atlantic Charter in August 1941.

He argued that “economic and social security were pre-conditions for peace.”

Widespread support for the Australian position led to a strengthening of the Charter’s provision for the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

The Council was empowered to promote the observance of, as well as respect for, human rights.

Thus, not least because of the Australian effort, Article 55 of the Charter became:

“universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”

The Australian delegation thus made a striking advance in the cause of human rights.

Dr Evatt successfully proposed Article 56, by which the member nations pledged themselves to take action in cooperation with the UN to achieve the purposes set out in Article 55.

In recognition of the Australian effort, Article 56 became known as the Australian Pledge.

Ignored, by-passed, broken it may have been in the storms and stresses of the Cold War.

But still a beacon of human rights today.

And surely, a commanding answer to the question — why should we engage ourselves on human rights.

Simply — we made a pledge in 1945.

Striving to make the world a safer place, we have transformed ourselves, as well, to our immense benefit.

So we have good answers for the question: why engage on human rights.

Other questions that arise are: how have we gone?

And how do we keep driving to enhance human rights?

Our societies have opened up immensely in the past 65 years.

No fair observer could look at Britain, or Australia today, and not see the extent to which the freedoms of our citizens have been enriched.

In the Australia I was born in, the opportunities and choices available to women were immeasurably poorer than they are today.

In the world before Germaine Greer — Australian women had the vote, but their roles and responsibilities were intensely constrained.

Government and society acted in ways — sometimes taking extraordinarily painful actions intervening in women’s lives — that would never be contemplated today.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders remain, today, burdened by the history of contact since 1788, with challenges that have long since been removed from the wider population.

Much remains to be achieved.

Improving health.

Lifting education.

Lowering incarceration rates.

I do not want to overstate the progress that has been made — because I recognise that notwithstanding the Apology, a long road lies in front of us, in finding reconciliation with the Australia’s first peoples.

But progress has been made.

In 1945, indigenous Australia was denied any voice.

Any vote.

Was even denied its presence, its place on this continent.

And today — like in Britain — we have a richness of multiculturalism — which implies the right of anyone to participate in our national life — that could not have been imagined in war-time Australia.

Progress has not just been made here, or in Britain.

Standards have evolved around the world.

When Dr Evatt brought the Genocide Convention before the Australian House of Representatives, for debate and unanimous acceptance in 1949, he made this key point:

“Other things which are now denounced as crimes by the whole civilised world — piracy, the slave trade, traffic in women and children … all prevailed in many parts of the world; and they are only brought under international law by the acceptance of conventions binding on all civilised nations.”

Matters that would never have been contemplated in 1945 are now on the public agenda across the world.

As the world becomes more democratic, more connected and more open through the information revolution, domestic politics and policies become more international.

We see, for instance, the extraordinary impact of the election and re-election of President Obama.

Only 20 years ago, the election of a Southern President marked an advance in the civil rights cause.

When I welcomed President Clinton to Sydney as Premier of NSW in 1996, I said:

“We rejoice that, only forty years after the tragic events at Little Rock in 1957, a Governor of Arkansas can stand before the world, as the twice-elected President of the United States. That transformation embodies the enduring strength of the promise of America.”

Only sixteen years later, we have a twice-elected black President of the United States.

One of the remarkable things about President Obama’s second inaugural address was hearing some of the accounts of those who witnessed it.

Many expressed something akin to the shock of his first inauguration, the realisation that somehow — despite what we thought we knew about the fault lines of race in the United States — there is truth to the American ideal of equality before the law.

President Obama’s second inaugural speech — proclaiming the need to establish real equality for people of all sexual orientations — made waves not because that issue is a new one, but as a symbol of how far it has come.

In the United States, as in Australia today, the question of gay marriage is well and truly alive.

By contrast, we have the interesting but no less instructive case of capital punishment.

In the United States, according to Amnesty International, 1,277 people have been executed since the Supreme Court lifted the moratorium on the death penalty in 1976.

Amnesty estimates thousands are executed in China, although statistics on the death penalty there remain closed.

There can be little doubt that, had the Warren Supreme Court’s ruling that the death penalty constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” prevailed, its abolition would be high on America’s human rights agenda, especially with regard to China.

Even where it remains on the statute books, there is an increasing reluctance on the part of governments to carry it out.

In the last decade, the number of countries known to have carried out executions has fallen by a third.

In Britain and Australia, abolition prevailed because elected Parliaments were prepared to run ahead of majority public opinion on the issue.

Our national progress has come as we have continued to endorse and support the developing international rights system.

Any assessment of our national performance must be made against the benchmarks of the international treaties we have supported and ratified.

Among them:

The Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;

The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child.

From the first — the most resounding of all the UN Conventions — Against Genocide, in 1948 — the United Nations has been building an international framework for human rights.

Even under the pressures of the Cold War — sometimes even in response to those pressures — the international community expanded the definition and application of human rights.

Always new frontiers, new horizons.

Here, I think, we have a basic answer to the question of how we can advance the cause of human rights.

That is — “by the acceptance of international conventions binding on all civilised nations.”

Which brings me to the last of my questions:  how can we advance human rights further?

We must move on several fronts: reform at home, international cooperation, bilateral action, enlisting the vigilance of non-government organisations and the creation of citizens’ groups.

Firstly, there is the question of domestic reform, of changes we can make in our own landscape.

The Gillard Government is continuing to do that with our anti-discrimination reforms, the reconciliation process and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

But in every contact we have with other countries, whether bilateral or multilateral, we have an opportunity to advance the cause as well.

Consider our aid program.

The fundamental purpose of Australian aid is to help people overcome poverty.

But we recognise that the alleviation of poverty is critical to enhancing human rights.

Our aid program places individuals at the centre, provides a voice for the marginalised, instils real transparency and protects the full range of civil and political rights.

Our aid program also helps protect economic, social and cultural rights.

In 2010-11, we spent $727.7 million on lifting education standards in developing countries.

In 2011-12, $2.163 billion of AusAID expenditure was gender-related.

$108 million on programs to improve the lives of people with disability (2011/12)

And more than $544 million on health (2010/11).

That support makes a real difference to peoples’ lives.

Improving access to justice for victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Congo.

Ending the exploitation of children in the Solomon Islands.

Combatting human trafficking in Cambodia.

And improving awareness of civil rights in Myanmar.

Of course, there are times and situations that require an absolute stand.

The actions of the Assad regime deserve utter condemnation — the latest atrocity is as unacceptable as the thousands of deaths the Syrian government has inflicted on its people.

The North Korean regime needs to be called to account for their gross violations of human rights, as well as their missile launches and the threat of a nuclear test.

But by reaching across national boundaries — by asserting the rights we all share — we can make a difference.

Myanmar is an example of the change that can occur.

What the Australian experience shows, above all, is that there is no inevitable conflict between national sovereignty — or national objectives — and human rights.

In multicultural countries like our own, we can’t afford to step back on human rights, to suggest that people from different cultures or societies should have different rights.

Indeed, we need to do the opposite.

We need to drive participation in our national life, to further enrich our own societies.

To strengthen our national conversation on the idea of human rights, decency and the kind of world we want to live in.

The emergence of Islamist terrorism as a force demonstrates the critical importance, for the health of our democratic societies, that we make our democracies living, breathing creatures relevant to everybody in our societies.

Established counter-terrorism policies have their place — security and law enforcement issues cannot be ignored — but should not predominate.

The picture always needs to be much broader.

We should put energy into programs that bind us together as a society, and that draw cultures together across national boundaries.

Interfaith and intercultural dialogue, for example, is valuable when focussed on articulating and explaining common values across faiths and cultures.

The notion of tolerance, along with equality and respect for each other, is crucial — not just in terms of religion but for all claims of conscience.

This involves a consensus about how we treat each other and allow people in society the space to grow and develop and ultimately, we hope, flourish.

But in our aspiration for equality and human rights for all, we are helping to create healthier, wealthier, better and fairer societies — in which we can live together.

The cause of human rights is the cause of world peace.


In this 21st Century, we emphasise, of course, the universal nature of basic human rights.

That is not to deny our own traditions and inheritance.

Certainly not, in a place like the National Maritime Museum, itself a memorial to our Bicentenary.

And so near the spot to which the First Fleet carried, as well as the convicts, the textbooks of British civilisation: the King James Bible, Shakespeare’s plays and Blackstone’s Commentaries.

Even in these utterly unpromising beginnings, they carried with them the inheritance of their ancestors: Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights and the Bill of Rights.

One of Shakespeare’s plays is, of course, King John.

Curiously enough, considering the dramatic possibilities, there is nothing in King John about Magna Carta, nothing about Runnymede.

But Shakespeare never lets you down.

His King John is a play about political legitimacy.

And nothing could be more contemporary than that.

And when I think of the British contribution and influence, and even more, the contribution that Britain can still make, I have no hesitation in linking the prospects for human rights — in Britain, her offspring, in Europe and the world — with the last words of Shakespeare’s play:

“Naught shall make us rue, if England to itself do rest but true.”

Media enquiries