Setting a human rights agenda for Australia

CLA has been calling for years for a green paper/white paper process to analyse and define Australia’s foreign policy imperatives and objectives, in particular our focus on boosting human rights in the Asia-Pacific. Here Phil Lynch gives an excellent rundown of what new Foreign Minister, Mr Carr, should be concentrating on.

Human rights agenda for new Foreign Minister

By Phil Lynch*

Early in their terms as US Secretary of State and UK Foreign Secretary, Hillary Clinton and William Hague both outlined ambitious agendas for human rights and foreign policy. Australia’s new Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, should take a leaf out of their playbook.

Both agendas were underpinned by what former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has long identified as our national interest in “good international citizenship”. This approach recognises that spending political, financial and human capital on human rights beyond our borders is an investment, not a loss. Australia has a deep national interest in a stable region, a rule-based international order, a multilateral approach to global policy challenges, and a world which understands and respects Australian values such as freedom and a fair go. As Evans points out, we also have a self-interest in the reputational and reciprocal benefits that flow from good international citizenship.

So what should Carr, who has said that he will be both an “activist” Foreign Minister and a foreign policy “realist” commit to in the area of human rights?

First, Carr should commit to a principled and persistent approach to human rights, underpinned by a comprehensive human rights policy. A comprehensive policy, similar to those developed by the Netherlands and Sweden, could mainstream human rights across all areas of Australian foreign affairs and, like those countries, capitalise on the benefits of doing so. It could identify areas in which Australia is well-placed to make a distinctive international contribution, such as in business and human rights, the empowerment of women and girls, and combating discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Second, Carr should commit to the principles of human rights universality and non-selectivity. Unlike his predecessor Kevin Rudd, for example, he should be as active in working to end the violation of fundamental civil and political rights in West Papua as in Libya and Syria. In a similar vein, he should ratify the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers. It does not sit well with our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific, many of whom have ratified the Convention and whose nationals are migrant workers, that it is one of the few international human rights treaties Australia has failed to sign.

Third, Carr should commit to a human rights-based approach to Australia’s expanding aid and development program. Both the OECD and the Overseas Development Institute have identified that a human rights-based approach can deliver more effective, sustainable and value-for-money development outcomes. As part of this approach, the Government should increase AusAID funding to programs directly targeted at promoting and protecting human rights. At $3.7 million, AusAID’s Human Rights Grants Scheme is less than 0.1% of the total aid budget and just one-tenth the size of the Netherlands’ Human Rights Fund.

Fourth, Carr should commit to undertaking and publishing human rights impact assessments as a core component of Australia doing business abroad. Human rights due diligence could have avoided, for example, Australia’s investment in a Cambodia railway project that has resulted in human rights violations associated with the involuntary resettlement of locals. A human rights impact assessment could also enhance transparency about Australia’s training and cooperation with Indonesia’s special forces, Kopassus, and counter-terror police, Detachment 88. Members of both Kopassus and Detachment 88 have been implicated in ongoing human rights abuses in West Papua and it is widely accepted that Kopassus forces were responsible for serious human rights violations in East Timor.

Fifth, Carr should commit to strengthening the human rights expertise and capacity of the foreign service, including by increasing the number of human rights officers and incorporating human rights modules in all DFAT training. He should also establish a Human Rights Advisory Group, comprising experts from NGOs, academia and human rights bodies, to provide external advice on foreign policy and options for addressing human rights problems. UK Foreign Secretary Hague established just such a group in 2010 and now says that its “expertise has proved invaluable in informing our human rights policies”. It is imperative, he says, for governments to “hear from experts at the forefront of reporting and documenting human rights abuses”.

Finally, Carr should endeavour to secure bipartisan support for a human rights-based approach to foreign policy. Both major parties have a proud history in this regard. Australia played a key role in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Labor in the 1940s. Under the Liberals, we played an influential leadership role in the global movement against apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 80s. Carr should appeal to and build on this bipartisan legacy.

Committing to the promotion and protection of human rights as a key aim of Australian foreign policy is not, to borrow Gareth Evans’ phrase, “disinterested altruism”. While it may appeal to the best in us, we also have much to gain from pursuing a principled human rights agenda and much to lose if we fail to do so.

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