Human Rights are Core to Australia’s Foreign Policy

Darcy French


Australia was one of eight countries involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. In supporting the UDHR, Australia affirmed its commitment to a world in which all humans would enjoy the ‘four freedoms’: freedom of belief and religion, and freedom from fear and want. A lot has changed in the world since 1948, but the universal declaration still stands. In the 70 years since the UDHR, Australia has signed all of the major human rights treaties. It has participated actively in the world’s leading human rights bodies and institutions. For many years Australia was seen as a human rights leader, both in rhetoric and practice. No longer.


Today, Australia’s humanitarian and human rights record has lost much of its former glory. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are now widely seen as foreign policy failures, notably as failed humanitarian interventions. An infamous and maligned border protection policy has drawn the ire of the United Nations and was criticised or condemned by 42 countries in Australia’s most recent universal periodic review. Mandatory off-shore detention has been described as unlawful and cruel by the International Criminal Court, and by the UN working group on arbitrary detention. Human Rights Watch says that these policies are damaging Australia’s global reputation.


Yet, the Australian government maintains that it is a global defender of human rights. The 2017 foreign policy white paper reiterates that Australia is “a determined advocate of liberal institutions, universal values and human rights.” On international human rights day in 2019, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “as a proud, liberal democracy, we believe in the indivisibility, universality and inalienability of individual rights.” Payne told Australian diplomats to “ensure engagement on human rights issues is a core part of the fabric of our bilateral relationships.”


A seat on the Human Rights Council has also enabled Australia to promote human rights at the international level. Specifically, Australia is an advocate in the areas of women’s and girls’ rights, good governance, and strong human rights institutions. Australia’s seat on the Human Rights Council has been a high-point in Australia’s recent history of international human rights advocacy.


There are strong links between human rights, economic development, and political stability. This suggests that an incoherent human rights foreign policy jeopardises Australia’s attempts to create a more stable region and world. Australia should ensure human rights are an essential component of its foreign policy, both in rhetoric and in practice.


However, Australia’s policy inconsistency threatens its global influence, making it harder to work with allies to protect and promote human rights. Historically perceived as a good global citizen, Australia’s soft power suffers when human rights rhetoric and human rights practice diverge.


Reframing Australia’s Foreign Policy


A coherent human rights policy would assist Canberra in consolidating its middle-power status, and in creating a mutually prosperous Indo-Pacific region. The ‘unipolar moment’, defined by American global hegemony, is now coming to an end. As a result, Australia must adapt its diplomacy to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Recognising the importance of soft power in middle-power diplomacy, the Australian government committed in 2017 to a comprehensive soft power review.


Australia, argues ANU professor Rory Medcalf in his recent book Contest for the Indo-Pacific, is well placed to use diplomacy to navigate the multi-polar dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region. Australia is a country at the crossroads of east and west, historically linked to Europe and the United States, but geographically and economically entangled in the future of the Indo-Pacific.


In the South-Pacific, where it is a regional power, Australia can lead in the protection of vulnerable populations affected by conflict, state failure, or natural disasters. The threats posed by climate change in the South-Pacific, including population displacement and economic decline, are an emerging regional crisis. A human-rights based approach to the region is sorely needed and is in the interests of both Australia and its South-Pacific neighbours.


A coherent human rights foreign policy would help Australia shape norms within the Indo-Pacific, and ensure Australia is a respected middle-power. It would enable Australia to work cooperatively with both state and non-state actors in pursuit of political and economic development. This would help Australia defend and promote the ‘rules-based order’ that has suffered from a decline in American leadership.


Although not all countries in the Indo-Pacific share Australia’s vision for a democratic and liberal region, a progressive human rights record will help set a standard. Successful middle-power diplomacy with a focus on human rights will increase Australia’s capacity to affect the development of the Indo-Pacific region positively.


Having a human rights-based approach to foreign policy is in Australia’s national interests. A more stable and prosperous region, where human rights are protected and respected, will help create a more stable and prosperous Australia. Australia should ensure human rights returns to the core of its foreign policy.


Darcy French is studying a dual master’s degree, completing a Master of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po in France, and a Master of International Law at Peking University in Beijing, China.

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