Sri Lanka, Human Rights and Australian Foreign Policy in a Tweet

Sri Lanka, Human Rights and Australian Foreign Policy in a Tweet

Kevin Rudd, or @kruddmp to his online followers, likes to tweet.  I strongly support his use of Twitter – social media is an important new tool in the world of digital diplomacy – but I was struck by one message from the Foreign Minister on 4 July.  It read ‘4 corners tonight on Sri Lanka deeply disturbing.  UN Human Rights Council can't simply push this to one side.  Action needed.  KRudd’. The program, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, was indeed deeply disturbing.  It documents serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law against Tamil civilians by Sri Lanka’s military, including systemic rape, murder and the targeting of hospitals and health care clinics.  The allegations are not new, however.  The program aired in the UK on 14 June.  Both the US State Department and Human Rights Watch issued reports on possible war crimes in Sri Lanka as far back as 2009.

What struck me about the Foreign Minister’s tweet was the implication that the UN Human Rights Council has failed to act with sufficient resolve or urgency on Sri Lanka.  It struck me because, at the Council’s last session on 15 June, Australia failed to even identify Sri Lanka as a ‘situation requiring the Council’s attention’.  Australia did make a strong statement calling for the Council to act on Syria, Libya, Iran and Fiji.  Unlike states such as the US, the UK, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark, however, we were resolutely silent on Sri Lanka.  Each of those countries and many others, by contrast, called for ‘immediate action’ to ‘ensure accountability’ for ‘grave allegations’ as to breaches of human rights and international law in Sri Lanka.

A critical analysis could attribute this silence to Sri Lanka’s cooperation with Australia to prevent the flow of asylum seekers.  The 2011/12 federal budget included $10.8 million to deploy Australian Federal Police liaison officers to Sri Lanka (as well as to Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand) to ‘combat people smuggling’.  The Sri Lankan Department of Immigration and Emigration is a recipient of Australian aid dollars.

A more generous analysis, to which I am inclined, attributes the disjunct between Australia’s statement in Geneva and the Foreign Minister’s tweet to our lack of a comprehensive strategy on human rights and foreign policy.  Without such a strategy, Australia’s action on international human rights often lacks coherence or clear priorities for action.  This was evident again just a few days ago, when the Foreign Minister, in announcing a new aid and development strategy, said ‘for the first time, human rights has been formally included within the core development objectives of the Australian aid portfolio’.  This is a positive development,  It will come as some surprise, however, to the UN’s Independent Expert on Human Rights and Foreign Debt who, just three weeks earlier, was lambasted by Australia for his ‘inaccuracy’ in ‘asserting that AusAID does not have an overarching human rights-based approach guiding its policies and programmes’.

Kevin Rudd is a highly capable, energetic and ambitious Foreign Minister who professes a strong commitment to human rights.  Australia’s candidacy for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, conceived and actively and appropriately pursued by the Foreign Minister, pitches us as a ‘principled advocate of human rights for all’.  And so should we be.  The realisation of human rights should be a primary goal and instrument of Australian foreign policy.  As a goal, we should commit to promoting human rights and the rule of law as a key foreign policy priority.  And as an instrument, we should protect human rights to secure related goals such as peace, security and sustainable development.

If Australia’s human rights rhetoric is to translate into effective outcomes, however, we need to develop a more principled and coordinated approach.  A comprehensive strategy, similar to those developed by the Netherlands and Sweden, could integrate human rights in all areas of Australian foreign policy and, like those countries, capitalise on the benefits of doing so.  Those countries have also appointed permanent Human Rights Ambassadors – a post which does not exist in Australia – to ensure an active and consistent approach to human rights at the international level.

With an ever shrinking foreign service, the Foreign Minister should also establish a Human Rights Advisory Group, comprising experts from NGOs, academia and human rights bodies, to provide external advice on foreign policy and options for addressing human rights problems.  Mr Rudd’s UK counterpart, Foreign Secretary William Hague, established just such a group in 2010 and tweeted only a few days ago that ‘the Group’s expertise has already proved valuable in informing our human rights policies’.  It is imperative, he wrote, for governments to ‘hear from experts at forefront of reporting and documenting human rights abuses’.

Mr Rudd, I look forward to the tweet that reads ‘Just announced comprehensive human rights strategy & 100 concrete actions Australia will take to advance human rights around world. KRudd’.  That would be 140 characters worth far more than 1000 words.

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

This opinion piece was first published on ABC The Drum.