Why Australia should speak out on rights

An edited version of this piece was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald

It seems to have taken an apparent chemical weapons attack killing hundreds of people in Syria to bring human rights into the foreign policy debate of the Australian elections. Until these horrific events in Syria, human rights have been a glaring omission from the foreign policy agendas of both the ruling Australian Labor Party and the opposition Coalition.

In a recent foreign policy debate, for example, Julie Bishop proudly endorsed the power of “quiet diplomacy,” while Bob Carr talked about the importance of understanding and respecting Asian values, saying, “I like the attitude of our 10 ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] neighbours to engagement with Myanmar and we will follow.”

If Australia’s regional foreign policy is restricted to soft diplomacy and ASEAN-style commerce-only engagement that is bad news for victims of human rights violations in Asia. People like Filep Karma, a Papuan activist who remains ill in an Indonesian prison, jailed for 15 years for his peaceful support of Papuan independence. Or the family of Jonas Burgos, a leftist activist in the Philippines who was forcibly disappeared in 2007. Despite substantial evidence implicating the military, the family still is awaiting answers about his whereabouts. A quiet word from an Australian official won’t free Karma or ensure justice for Burgos.

Since 1978, my organization, Human Rights Watch, has found that while private diplomacy has its place, what counts most is sustained public pressure that raises the costs of human rights violations. Abusive governments will often be forced to think twice about committing abuses when international actors raise concerns with public statements or by documenting state responsibility for violations. Governments take notice when their abuses, embarrass their international partners, and lead to conditioned military aid or trade relationships or individual sanctions against leaders.

The release of many political prisoners in Burma has been the result of sustained international pressure over many years, in conjunction with local efforts, to draw attention to individual cases and ensure that political freedoms are not forsaken simply in favor of preferential trade arrangements. I’ll never forget the moment in May last year when I met leaders of the “88 Generation Students,” political activists who had been imprisoned in Burma for most of the past 25 years. The group’s leader, Min Ko Naing, who spent more than 20 years in jail, thanked the international community, including Human Rights Watch, for continuing to raise their cases publicly: “It was due to the continued foreign pressure that we were released.”

In the Philippines, the military has been implicated in numerous cases of extrajudicial killings of leftist activists, but the number of killings dropped markedly in 2008 when the voices of UN experts and foreign officials combined with local and international advocacy groups to condemn the killings and demand justice.

Australia describes itself as a “middle power” in Asia, a region undergoing transformative change and immense economic growth. It is the region’s oldest enduring democracy, with strong institutions and a lasting commitment to the rule of law and a robust economy. As such, Australia has great potential to be an effective leader and promoter of human rights in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet until now, Canberra’s efforts to advocate on rights have been at best uneven. It’s been easier for foreign ministers to speak up on rights abuses in countries with which Australia has fewer trade relations like Syria, Burma, and Fiji, but harder to sustain rights pressure on major trade partners such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

As other countries catch up economically, and more Asian countries undergo transitions from authoritarian rule, Australia can play an important role in sharing its experiences as a healthy, vibrant democratic society that values free expression and association. But to get there, it will require shifting the foreign policy debate from a negative preoccupation with deterring boatloads of asylum seekers to a more positive commitment to stand with victims of abuses and acknowledge human rights violations wherever they occur. As a party to nearly all the major human rights conventions, Australia can and should play a role in stressing the importance of international law.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is right to say that regional cooperation is needed to address the issue of asylum seekers, but a better way would be to encourage more neighboring countries to adhere to international law and adopt the Refugee Convention and help them develop their capacity to protect refugees. Instead, Australia devises arrangements like offshore processing that simply deflect Australia’s responsibilities and foist burdens on neighboring countries with far less capacity to process claims and integrate refugees. Australia’s actions speak louder than words; any criticisms of countries like Bangladesh, Burma or Thailand for violating refugee rights will ring hollow when they see Australians shirking their responsibilities.

Especially as Australia currently has a seat on the UN Security Council, it should be making more of an effort to promote a foreign policy that consistently makes rights a priority. A “quiet diplomacy only” approach will be interpreted as tacit acceptance of the status quo, which will just enable and encourage repressive governments to continue to crack down on dissidents and commit abuses with impunity.

Australia likes to think it punches above its weight in international affairs. Being a firm moral voice on human rights gives real authority to that elevated status, while speaking softly on abuses diminishes it.

Elaine Pearson is Human Rights Watch’s Australia Director based in Sydney. Follow her on twitter at @pearsonelaine.