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Human Rights Should be the Heart of Australian Foreign Policy

Elena Yi-Ching Ho | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

Image credit: Sigmund via Unsplash

In early February this year, the Australian government announced it would close the gap for 19,000 temporary protection and safe haven enterprise visa holders, who have been kept in limbo for decades. As part of Labor’s election promise, these people will finally be eligible to apply for permanent residency.

Proudly an original signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Australia positions itself as a one-of-a-kind role model when it comes to human rights issues. The Australian government claims to be committed to working at both governmental and non-governmental levels to advance human rights around the globe, and believes itself to be a “leading proponent” in the matter. However, it seems that Australia’s rhetoric on human rights often does not reflect its policies.

In recent years, the Australian government has been outspoken on various international human rights issues. During her speech in the 2020 UN Human Rights Council, former Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne claimed the government had been “clear and consistent in raising human rights concerns”. She also called out countries involved in human rights disputes, including China. Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong once again raised human rights issues with the Chinese government at the risk of damaging relations during her visit last December – the first Australian Ministerial visit to Beijing in three years,.

Recently, as the diplomatic relations between China and Australia have been thawing, Xiao Qian, the Chinese ambassador to Australia, suggested that both sides could resume the human rights dialogue that has been on hold since 2014. In response, Canberra once again reiterated its commitment to “keep raising human rights concerns at the highest level.”

In addition, Australia imposed sanctions on several Russian individuals one year after passing Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions, enabling the government to boycott foreign individuals and entities who are involved in significant human rights abuses and corruption. In the past few months, Canberra has continued placing the sanctions on more individuals from Russia, Iran, and Myanmar.

However, while Australia seems to be triumphing holding foreign agents to account for human rights abuses, its poor record on refugee policy and treatment of indigenous Australians has been damaging its reputation. Greens Senator Nick McKim has gone as far as to label Australia a “human rights pariah”.

Although the current established human rights policy, Refugee and Humanitarian Program, provides the possibility for asylum seekers to apply for visas either onshore or offshore, the processing has been controversial and problematic.

Onshore resettlement allows people who have already arrived in Australia “lawfully” to apply for a refugee visa. While this aspect of Australia's refugee policy allows for limited recognition of the UN’s non-refoulement obligations, this process has remained contentious due to the “turning back boats policy”. This policy was strongly reinforced by Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) in 2013, which introduced “military-led” style operations to deter asylum boats from reaching Australia, thus ensuring refugee arrivals have no access to resettlement in the country.

Between our militarised turning back boats policy and our notorious offshore detention regime, Australia has violated a series of international law including the non-refoulement obligation under International Refugee Law, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Australian government has been criticised for its refugee policy by the international community, including the harsh border policing and both offshore and onshore detention procedures. However, there’s still no clear indication on whether there will be any amendment to those policies. In fact, in a recent Senate Committee inquiry regarding the Migration Amendment (Evacuation to Safety) Bill, the Department of Home Affairs was the sole agency among over 150 submissions to advise against the bill. This advice was based on concerns that removing offshore detention centres might offend the Nauru government.

The UN has also denounced the Australian government for its First Nations policies and treatment such as the high incarceration rates, especially amongst children. Moreover, the UN Human Rights Committee recently stated Canberra has failed to protect Indigenous Torres Strait Islanders from climate change.

To be sure, Canberra has played a part in raising and acting on human rights issues both internationally and domestically. However, Australia’s human rights policy has been inconsistent with the rules and commitments it has made within the international rules-based order. The Australian government has been accused of favouring a “quiet diplomacy” approach which avoids raising human rights issues when it might cause harm to diplomatic ties.

As Senator Janet Rice argues, “without a consistently principles-based foreign policy, the Australian governments' approach remains open to criticisms of hypocrisy and, in some instances, racism.” If Canberra wants to live up to its commitment on human rights that “reflects our national values and is an underlying principle of Australia's engagement with the international community”, then it should first work on its own policies which are currently undermining human rights values.

Elena Yi-Ching Ho is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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