Is this the end of the age of human rights? Let's hope not

Is this the end of the age of human rights? Let's hope not

This article was first published by The Sydney Morning Herald

Late last year, a friend told me that we need to make sure we don't look back in the future on human rights as just a passing phase. It was a comment that kept coming back to me over the past 12 months with Brexit, the re-rise of Pauline Hanson, the hardening of Turnbull and now Trump.

There's no mistaking the caustic trend. But equally, we must not be mistaken about what we need to do to address it.

The starting point is recognising and responding to the genuine fear, resentment and feelings of exclusion driving these results.

We absolutely must fight the divisive, harmful racist, xenophobic and sexist rhetoric that is stoking it. And we must stand with and support the minorities who bear its brunt. But we also need to fix the underlying causes.

Part of this challenge is in addressing what's wrong with our democracy – tackling the things that are making it more remote and disconnected from communities. Earlier this year, our Safeguarding Democracy report highlighted an unmistakeable trend of governments across Australia eroding many of the vital foundations of our democracy from protest rights to press freedom. Action is needed – on whistleblowers, strengthening institutions, enabling – not stifling – NGO advocacy, a national human rights act, reforming political donations and maybe even looking at truth in political advertising laws.

The other key plank is addressing income inequality. The myth of Australian egalitarianism has masked a growing income inequality that is fuelling resentment at the system. Over the past few decades, income inequality has widened with real wage growth for the highest earners massively outstripping growth for the lowest.

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's work, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, laid out reams of data showing that developed nations that have greater income equality, do better on the things we all care about such as physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence and child well-being.

The data is as clear as the message: it's in everyone's interest, including the wealthy, to share prosperity more equally.

But what was behind the data? Why was this the case? The authors argue that it's about self-esteem. Disparities in wealth and status breed resentment.

It's why Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's claim that "there's never been a more exciting time to be Australian" didn't resonate with communities facing downturn and job insecurity as the mining boom or local manufacturing ended.

Pride, dignity and self-confidence matter deeply to us. Where they're damaged through job loss, poor health, relationship breakdown and more, there's fertile ground for exploitation through calls that promote esteem in some by demonising the other: Muslims, refugees, people on welfare and more. These calls often trash long-established and hard-won human rights guarantees around discrimination, women's rights, arbitrary detention and even torture (Trump promised to bring back waterboarding and "a hell of a lot worse").

It's counterintuitive at times and also tragically ironic. Why would lower-income white Americans vote for a President who has vowed to repeal the system that delivers affordable healthcare to them?

Here in Australia, Pauline Hanson has said a lot about non-issues like halal certification and little about the real issues affecting many of her supporters such as unemployment and sustainable future job creation.

The proposed lifetime ban on refugees, calls to end Muslim immigration, attempts to repeal our hate speech laws and Peter Dutton's claims that illiterate refugees are "taking Australian jobs" while somehow simultaneously "languishing in unemployment queues" are all part of the same picture.

This kind of politics might promote a sense of tribal belonging but it does nothing to address the underlying causes of the resentment. It feeds off feelings of exclusion and then promotes an agenda of more exclusion.

For those who care about a fair, just and compassionate Australia, we need to respond.

We need to strengthen our democracy and reverse income inequality. We need to fight harder and smarter for the values we believe in and the Australia we want. Finally, we need to go back to basics on human rights and recommit to the universal values the world signed up to after the horrors of World War II. We need to show communities why those values matter, not just to the "other" – those minorities most at risk of human rights violation – but to all of us.

Hugh de Kretser is executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre.