Our Voice Muffled

Matt Foley - Courier-Mail - Perspectives - 6th September 2000

The Howard Government's decision to wind back Australia's commitment to international human rights law by refusing to sign a UN Protocol on Discrimination Against Women is a bad one for Australia, in practice and in principle.

It isolates Australia from an international community increasingly sensitive to the rights of women and it undermines our credibility as a respected voice for democracy and human rights in a region in which such a voice is urgently needed, as recent events in Fiji and East Timor demonstrate.

Australia's unhesitating advocacy on human rights, political legitimacy and parliamentary democracy in those countries contributed greatly to a speedy and just resolution of the turmoil. The result confirmed Australia's reputation as a just and stable leader in the region. It also led more swiftly to a peaceful and economically viable environment on our own doorstep.

The refusal to sign or ratify the Protocol on Women is also bad in a principled sense. Fifty-two years ago, Australia played a pioneering role in championing the UN Declaration of Human Rights through representatives like "Doc" Evatt.

Every year Australia proudly observes International Human Rights Day, marking the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, following the devastation of World war II and the Holocaust.

Australia's relatively advanced anti-discrimination legislation has largely grown out of our acceptance and promotion, as signatories, of a range of UN human rights charters, treaties and protocols and our recognition not only of political but also of cultural and even economic rights as fundamental human rights.

While most attention focuses on civil and political rights, it is important to remember that the United Nations is an evolving entity that generates new social and economic thresholds for its signatories, and that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights deals with economic, social and cultural rights.

The argument that Australia can now somehow turn its back on their United Nations as a bastion of human rights because of our relatively advanced social and political freedoms is spurious and dangerous. By attempting to limit Australia's involvement in UN human rights to those limited, politically expedient interests that suit its narrow agenda, the Government is undermining social freedoms - not only for women but for the young, for indigenous people, people with a disability, the aged - that derive historically from our partnership with the international community through the forum of UN committees.

To attempt to do so not only ignores our pioneering role in the past. It damages us in the future.

Human rights are a legitimate area for international treaties, and Australia either accepts that or the message we send the world is that we do not accept the full and evolving range of human rights for all peoples, regardless of sex, race, age, creed or physical ability.

The Commonwealth Government is undermining our national reputation by refusing to sign or ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women because it establishes a new complaints procedure.

New complaints procedures are a necessary part of an evolving interpretation of human rights. Should expediency dictate government involvement? The point of signing UN conventions and treaties is to bring nations forward, reluctantly perhaps in some cases. It is extraordinary that the Federal Government has now put Australia into this reluctant category in relation to the legal treatment of women. Not a proud moment for us.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, phrased her call on Australia's Federal Government to reconsider its decision not to sign the Optional Protocol diplomatically. But the message was clear, for all the world to see. A country that will not condone human rights initiatives is not a country to hand out rebukes to the George Speights of the world.