The seven-year itch
by Greg Barns
Since John Howard became Prime Minister in 1996, Australia's stance towards the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee and other UN human rights fora has been one of contempt. As recently as September 12 last year, the Howard government was indicating that it is likely to ignore a recent ruling from the Committee over the Government's refusal to give a widow's pension to a gay man after his partner, a war veteran, had died. But despite this seven-year record of hostility, this week in Geneva, Australia has been elected to chair the Committee.
Even when the Howard government used the UN Human Rights Committee for its own purposes, it was to undermine human rights. In May 1997, China's then Vice-Premier, Zhu Ronghi, rewarded Australia for refusing to back a UN Human Rights Committee resolution condemning China's appalling human rights record. According to the Sydney Morning Herald of 20 May 1997, Mr Zhu said, "Originally I didn't have any plan to go to Australia. I intended to visit some European countries. However, the attitude of these countries at the UN Human Rights Commission session has deeply disappointed us."
Mr Howard's preparedness to snub the UN was in contrast to the record of the Keating government on this issue. Australia had voted for similar resolutions in the preceding six years.
Then in March 1999, the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination recommended a review of Australian laws on Aboriginal land rights after the Howard government introduced amendments to the Native Title Act.
The UN found that this legislation did not protect land ownership of Aboriginal people and that it increased the ownership rights of farmers and others who own pastoral land at the expense of indigenous Australians.
Significantly, this was the first time a developed-world democracy's laws in this area had been called into question.
Instead of responding in a spirit of co-operation, the normally mild-mannered Australian Attorney General, Daryl Williams, fumed that the UN findings were an insult to Australia and that the Australian government might not co-operate with the UN when it visited Australia to follow up on its report.
And follow up it did. A year later, on 24 March 2000, the UN issued a media release that castigated Australia for its native title laws, the mandatory sentencing laws that were responsible for exacerbating the disproportionate number of indigenous people locked up in Australian jails and the backward steps that reconciliation had taken under the Howard Government.
On this occasion, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer led the government's response. He lambasted the UN findings with this petulant outburst: "We are a democratically elected government in one of the most liberal and democratic countries you will find on earth, and if a UN committee wants to play domestic politics in Australia it will end up with a bloody nose." Quite so!
In fact, so outraged by the UN's criticisms was Mr Downer that he told ABC Radio that same day that the Howard Government would review Australia's participation in the United Nations treaty committee system.
Mr Downer continued his campaign against the Human Rights Committee in June 2002 when he and then Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock rejected out of hand the findings of the Committee on human rights abuses in detention centres. Mr Downer told the media on 6 June 2002 that "we won't have bureaucrats in Geneva" telling the Australian government how to run asylum seeker policies.
One of the major complaints that conservatives have had with the UN on human rights issues is that countries that have questionable human rights records are able to sit on committees and deliberate on other nations. If these conservatives are to be intellectually consistent, then they should see that Australia is being just as hypocritical now in seeking to chair the UN Human Rights Committee given its point-blank refusal to take up any of the UN's recommendations over the past seven years.
It's one thing to take issue with the UN occasionally - that's the right of every member country - but to do so consistently over a long period as the Howard government has done in the area of human rights is to call into serious question the suitability of Australia's chairmanship of this premier human rights post.