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PM’s words encouraging…but more action needed

PM’s words encouraging…but more action needed

Australia’s own charter would create a greater community awareness of responsibilities as well as rights, James Dunn says. ‘The humanitarian consequences of the economic crisis will test the extent to which the basic rights of our citizens are really being protected," he says.

Reflections on the UDHR’s 60th Anniversary

A Magna Carta, but in the Making!

By James Dunn*


It was gratifying to see the significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at last being recognised by our political leaders, after having languished in low profile, or no profile at all, for 60 years,. I was particularly encouraged by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s decision to consider what we should have had years ago – a bill or charter of human rights. The charter would bring much stronger focus on the substantive conventions spawned by the UDHR, the International Bill of Rights, all ratified by Australia. These include two conventions covering civil, political, economic and social rights, and the important conventions outlawing discrimination against women, on children’s rights, and against torture. Rudd’s words are encouraging but we need more action.

This promises to lead to a shift in our thinking, the creation of a greater community awareness of responsibilities as well as rights, and in so doing a more enlightened community. The latter will generate a greater political will in relation to our humanitarian obligations in the international arena as well as in Australia.  That is not to say that our democracy is in a sorry state, but there have been serious flaws, even in recent years, such as our treatment of asylum seekers, of the rights of women and our indigenous people that needed remedying. To have human rights clearly placed on our political agenda is very encouraging right now, when the humanitarian consequences of the economic crisis will test the extent to which the basic rights of our citizens are really being protected. These are, in reality, the enduring fabric of our democracy.

However, although our governments ratified these conventions they didn’t really take them seriously, failing to create conditions for their effective implementation. Most European states, on the other hand, inspired to prevent a recurrence of the horrendous abuses of the 20th century, introduced real mechanisms for protection, and gaining higher human rights ratings than did Australia. During my years as a senior adviser to parliamentarians (from Gorton to Hawke governments), I was able to advise on human rights issues, but very few of our legislators gave the issue other than cursory or selective attention, in contrast to the situation in Europe..

I am still haunted by vivid personal recollections of humanitarian suffering in Hiroshima, in the Soviet Union and, in particular, the tragic seizure and occupation of East Timor. East Timor is an outstanding example of just how weak our commitment can be. To my constant disappointment and shame, apart from a few speeches there was never any real acknowledgement of the shameful failure of my own government at least to press the Suharto government to end its onslaught of oppression and senseless killing. Yes, they were informed about bloody events there (often by me), but most shrugged and turned their faces away.  Australia’s dereliction of duty during that period left me, as an adviser, with a deep and lingering hurt and shame. If we do not have an enlightened community with the courage to assert itself when necessary, we will have democracy without human rights (if there can be such a thing!),  a lifeless, and spiritless condition.

With Obama’s refreshing commitment to strengthen the UN system, a stance echoed by Kevin Rudd, there is now a real prospect of a change of direction. The global economic crisis has emphasised that the desire to reform our ethical standards is now an imperative, not just a good thing. Eleanor Roosevelt’s haunting 1948 pronouncement of the UDHR as a ‘Magna Carta for all Mankind’ is, hopefully, no longer wishful thinking.

But then, my dear readers, in democracies like ours, it is now largely up to you. Our political system is gaining strength, in terms of the force of public opinion. Thanks to the media and, in particular, to opinion polls, your views are important all of the time, not just at elections. Legislators have much more demanding electorates, and the government that does not listen will soon find itself in danger. It would not really be overstressing the point to say that the real custodians of our democracy, our national conscience, are not just our legislators, but an articulate community enlightened by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

James Dunn* James Dunn AM is a former Australian diplomat, UN human rights expert and a member of CLA. This article first appeared in the Illawarra Mercury The UDHR turned 60 in December 2008.

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