Australia’s Aid and Development Program Should Prioritise Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

Australia’s Aid and Development Program Should Prioritise Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

In late 2010, the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd commissioned an independent review on the ‘future direction of Australia’s aid program’, estimated to be an $8 billion to $9 billion program, 0.5% of GDP, by 2015-16.  The panel is due to report by April 2011. This review should recommend that the promotion and protection of human rights be prioritised as the key aim and instrument of Australian foreign policy generally and the Australian aid and development program specifically.

Just last year, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report on Australia’s role in the Asia-Pacific recommended that AusAID ‘adopt a human rights-based approach to the planning and implementation of development projects’.  This recommendation was underpinned by evidence that development and human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and that a human rights-based approach can enhance program effectiveness and efficiency.  Both the Overseas Development Institute and the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate have identified that the integration of human rights in all aspects of aid programming can deliver more effective, sustainable and value-for-money development outcomes.  The entrenchment of human rights as a key aim and instrument of Australia’s aid and development program would be consistent with the Government’s commitment to strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of that program.

However, apart from enhancing aid effectiveness, there are at least three reasons why the review should recommend that the promotion and protection of human rights be central to Australia’s aid and development program.

First, aid and development is one of the ways in which Australia transmits its values – such as fairness, justice, equality, respect and the rule of law – to the world.  As British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently stated in a speech on ‘Britain’s Values in a Networked World’, ‘as a democratic country we must have a foreign policy based on values, as an extension of our identity as a society.  Our notions of fairness, of dignity, liberty and justice are part of the rich endowment of our history.’

Australia has much to gain from a human rights-based approach to aid and development and to foreign policy more broadly.

Externally, such an approach would contribute to the strengthening of democracy and the rule of law, more stable and predictable political and economic environments, and enhanced international credibility and diplomatic capital. Domestically, defining ourselves as human rights promoters and protectors could build and mobilse constructive and unifying national values; appealing to the best of us.

The second reason why Australia should make human rights the key aim and instrument of aid and development is that we are a member of a region confronting significant human rights and development challenges.  As the Joint Standing Committee identified, the Asia-Pacific is a ‘diverse and complex region with a mosaic of human rights challenges’.  It found that there is a ‘clear need to enhance mechanisms to protect human rights and to redress human rights violations’ and that Australia has a ‘significant role to play’ in the region.  This finding was echoed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture following his 2010 country mission to Papua New Guinea, a key recipient of Australian aid, where he expressed serious concern about widespread and grave human rights violations and recommended that the ‘international donor community considers the protection of human rights’ as ‘the highest priority’ in engaging with PNG.  The aid review presents a significant opportunity for Australia not only to demonstrate leadership on human rights in the Asia-Pacific but also to contribute to the realisation of human rights in the region in practical and effective ways.

Third, making human rights a core part of our aid and development program would constitute a concrete advancement of the Government’s April 2010 commitment to ‘improve the protection and promotion of human rights within our region and around the world’.  It would also give substance to the Government’s pledge, in the context of our UN Security Council candidacy for 2013-14, to act as a ‘principled advocate of human rights for all’.

In her recent book, Global Good Samaritans: Human Rights as Foreign Policy, Alison Brysk asks, why do a small number of countries sacrifice their national interest to promote human rights and help strangers?  Her simple answer is – they don’t.  Instead, she explains, countries such as Sweden, Canada and the Netherlands have nurtured national identities that have a deep commitment to human rights at their centre.  Global good Samaritans, Brysk posits, see the ‘blood, treasure, and political capital they contribute to human rights as an investment, not a loss’.  Both at the local and international levels, they have learned to see themselves, she says, ‘as interconnected members of a community that works best for everyone when human rights are respected’.

Through the aid review, Australia should commit to becoming a principled, persistent, fearless and forceful human rights champion in the region and on the international stage.

We have much to gain from pursuing the human rights agenda and much to lose in failing to do so.

Phil Lynch is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre.