Howard at UN tries to dodge human rights

Issue 

BY ALLEN MYERS
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"John Howard sounded nervous when he rose to speak", Michelle Grattan began her Sydney Morning Herald commentary on the prime minister's speech to the United Nations Millennium Summit on September 7. She went on to point out that the prime minister misspoke a word in his first line and that Howard is "anything but a natural on the international stage".

It is often remarked that Howard is neither comfortable nor particularly interesting as a public speaker. But he had extra reason for discomfort on September 7, knowing that his audience's only possible interest in his words would focus on the Australian government's indefensible decision to boycott the UN's human rights committees and activities.

For the most part, Howard did what he normally does when his reactionary policies arouse opposition: he tried to evade the issue. Thus the assembled heads of government were treated to such fairy floss as:

"Australia is blessed with natural resources, animated by the creativity of people drawn from around the globe, and shares with every other nation on Earth ties of history or geography or culture or mutual interest" — or possibly sunlight or rain.

In an effort to pretend he was talking about political issues, Howard also managed an insincere motherhood statement on East Timor:

"The success of the Interfet operation is self-evident and I wish to acknowledge, without qualification, the utter professionalism and dedication of every member of the international forces." Had someone questioned the troops' professionalism or dedication? Would it matter if they had? And does anyone believe that Howard really troubled to inform himself about the qualities of every member of the forces?

Even when Howard finally mentioned the delicate issue, he was still evasive. The Australian government, he said, believes "that aspects of the UN treaty committee system need reform. Australia's recent experience has been that some of these committees give too little weight to the views of democratically elected governments and that they go beyond their mandates."

If the government were even a little sincere about this complaint, it could have demonstrated it here, simply by being specific. Howard needed only to say, "The such-and-such committee failed to consider properly the following papers which we submitted ..." or "Committee Y, established to consider ABC, instead considered issue DEF".

But Howard was deliberately general, i.e., vague. Some committees failed to consider some things or did some other things outside their mandates.

The reason for Howard's vagueness is obvious. Specific complaints against specific committees could be considered and judged by anyone concerned. And that is what the Australian government fears, because it knows very well that UN criticisms of its record on indigenous rights and refugees are well founded.

'Elected governments'

Howard and his ministers continue to repeat the idea that a "democratically elected government" is being unfairly treated by UN committees that listen to NGOs or other unnamed people who enjoy making false accusations against the government. The whole argument is absurd.

For a start, the election of the Howard government was nowhere near as democratic as it likes to pretend, even in a formal sense. The Coalition in 1998 won a majority of parliamentary seats with less than 40% of first-preference votes; even after distribution of preferences it managed only about 48%, less than the Labor Party.

More importantly, the fact that a government is elected, with whatever degree of democracy, is no guarantee that it will not violate human rights.

The governments that for decades took Aboriginal children from their families were no less elected than the Howard government. Governments in the US south that permitted or encouraged the lynching of their black citizens were elected. The elected British government introduced imprisonment without trial and torture in northern Ireland, among other human rights violations.

If elections were a guarantee of respect for human rights, there would not be much need for human rights treaties. The abolition of such treaties is indeed the logic of Howard's position.

Previous — elected — Australian governments signed various UN treaties on human rights. These treaties included a mechanism, the committee system, for investigating whether the signatory governments were keeping their word.

'Take my word for it'

Obviously, to do their job properly, the committees have to do more than ask governments: "Have you violated the treaty?". They need to be able to receive complaints and then examine whether the complaints are true. And since governments rarely violate their own rights, it's obvious that the complaints will come from groups or individuals who are not governments.

In the case of most of the committee decisions the Howard government doesn't like, the investigation would not have been complicated, because the facts were not in dispute.

The government does not deny, for example, that it imprisons in detention centres all asylum seekers who arrive without visas. No UN committee — no rational individual — needs arguments from an non-government organisation in order to understand that that is a violation of the human rights of those so imprisoned.

Similarly, Howard does not deny his 10-point amendments to the Land Rights Act. That legislation removes from Aboriginal people property rights recognised by the High Court, and does so solely on the basis that they are Aboriginal. One would like to ask Howard: what argument that this is not a violation of human rights did a UN committee fail to listen to?

Howard's position amounts to the demand that the treaty committees simply accept a government's denial of human rights violations — as long as that government is "democratically elected". One should not exaggerate the amount of real protection that such treaties have been able to provide. But the Howard government would turn them into a stamp of approval for human rights violators.