By Stuart Rees
Article 1 of the UN Charter declares objectives to promote and encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. But the Morrison government ignores the abuses of its friends, does not care about the ‘without distinction’ principle, and thereby undermines claims to champion human rights.
Being selective in advocacy of human rights is a hypocrisy easily spotted. Foreign Minister Payne’s and Prime Minister Morrison’s trenchant criticism of China’s human rights record is coupled to their friendly attitudes towards India, silence about Israel plus failure to acknowledge abuses to Australian citizens and to vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees.
Before considering Australia’s friendship with Israel and India, the government’s domestic human rights record merits summary evaluation.
The Domestic Record
Years of cruelty towards asylum seekers and refugees suggests an assumption about national sovereignty which gives a carte blanche sense of entitlement to place the country above the rules of international law.
The chest-beating stance of John Howard about deciding who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they arrive persists in the mindsets of politicians responsible for observing the Refugee Convention. Removing asylum seekers to endure years on remote Pacific Islands, let alone the enormously expensive idea that authoritarian Cambodia would be an appropriate destination for a few classified refugees, illustrates Australia’s concern with cruelty as policy.
The imprisonment of Australian Indigenous citizens in disproportionate numbers, the morbidity and mortality rates of first nation peoples is another damning example of a poor human rights record. However significant Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations, Australia’s treatment of Indigenous people makes it difficult to be taken seriously when standing up for protesters for democracy in Hong Kong, Tibet, or elsewhere.
In efforts to not offend the US and UK, Australia has remained indifferent to the Australian citizen, journalist, and whistleblower Julian Assange who had revealed murder and mayhem by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A grand jury in Virginia spent years trying to concoct charges against Assange, and who on earth dreamt up the idea that punishment could involve 175 years jail? US politicians had already demanded that Assange be taken out by a drone, shot, or killed by other means.
UK politicians claimed that British justice was beyond question. The Australian government has said and done nothing. In the same breath, Australia and its allies condemn the sadistic punishments dished out in Saudi Arabia but remain indifferent to Assange being contained in a top security prison.
The Morrison government mouths platitudes about the rule of law taking its course and that Assange has been given access to appropriate consular support, but the government dare not criticize US aims to seek revenge against Julian Assange.
Friendship with India
In courting Indian leader Narendra Modi, Prime Minister Morrison declares that India and Australia are like-minded democracies, natural strategic partners and that the governments of the two countries are in full agreement that strong bilateral relationships are the key to a more open, prosperous, and inclusive Indo Pacific region.
A glance at the Modi regime would make even the casual observer question the notions ‘democratic’, ‘open’ or ‘inclusive’.
The people of Kashmir have been locked down for over twelve months, their freedom of expression stifled, their media censored, their political leaders detained.
To suppress dissent and to implement the ideology of Hindutva – the definition of Indian culture only in terms of Hindu values – the Modi government has total control of the judiciary, law enforcement, and mass media. Across India, new citizen laws give preferred treatment to Hindus, Christians, and other religious minorities but exclude Muslims. Anyone deemed a non-citizen is judged to be in India illegally and can be sent to a detention centre.
Australian Greens spokesperson on foreign policy, Senator Janet Rice identifies Modi’s erosion of civil liberties, police oppression, persecution of religious minorities and of Indigenous peoples. Opinion in the London Economist says Narendra Modi threatens to turn India into a one-party state. NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge forecasts that India is becoming a fascist state.
Making friends with India to counter hostility from China does not excuse Morrison and his Ministers from ignoring these anti-democratic developments, including violence towards women plus cruelties in the embedded caste system. Millions of untouchables, the Dalits, continue to do work that Hindu society considers filthy. They must live outside the boundaries of villages and are not allowed to come near sources of drinking water used by other castes. They are not allowed to eat sitting next to a caste Hindu or to use the same utensils. Author Sujatha Gidla reports that every day in an Indian newspaper you can read of an untouchable beaten or killed for wearing sandals or for riding a bicycle.
Support for Israel, Disdain for Palestinians
Commitment to human rights requires consistency but the only obvious consistency in Australia’s foreign policy is that it always does what the US and Israel want, irrespective of the rights and interests of Palestinians.
In June 2020 at the UN, Australia refused to condemn Israel’s proposal to annex over one-third of the Palestinian West Bank. Most European countries and the developing world voted for the UN motion condemning annexation but Australia along with the Marshall Islands voted against, even though Foreign Minister Payne had insisted that Australia preserves peace, promotes human rights, and the rule of law.
In the same June 2020 UN sessions, Australia and the Marshall Islands also opposed UN Human Rights Council resolutions for Palestinian self-determination, against Israeli settlements and settler violence, and on Israeli human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories.
Ben Saul, Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney judged annexation a reversion to the pre-1945 law of the jungle where violence not law prevailed, and people everywhere were fair game to predatory neighbours. He identified annexation as a crime of aggression under customary international law, hence the challenge for an Australian government to warn Israel that if annexation proceeded, it could impose sanctions on Israeli banks, travel bans on Israeli leaders, and an arms embargo.
When Russia seized Ukrainian Crimea, Australia imposed sanctions on Russia, but it seems unimaginable that the government would take the same stand against Israel.
Armed with a chutzpah smirk, Australia seems unembarrassed when appearing in international forums that consider human rights and the rules of international law.
Prime Minister Morrison’s silence about human rights abuses by friends, but his pride in posing as a champion of those rights in relation to enemies, is ‘without distinction’. His selective interest in human rights leaves Australia vulnerable to the accusation, ‘put your own house in order before making criticism of others.’
Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Akl Quds) Peace Prize and author of the new book “Cruelty or Humanity”, Bristol: Policy Press. A human rights activist, poet, novelist, and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.