Australia joins the ranks of human rights offenders, says Sidoti

Date: 19/08/2002

Once hailed as a world human rights leader, Australia has joined ranks with states that are among the world's greatest human rights offenders, according to University of Western Sydney academic, Professor Chris Sidoti.

Speaking at a public lecture, the former Australian Human Rights Commissioner said that in recent years the practice of compulsory detention for asylum seekers, coupled with domestic policies on reconciliation and mandatory sentencing, had damaged Australia's human rights credibility in the eyes of the international community.

To save our reputation as a 'model member' of the United Nations, Professor Sidoti called on Australia to re-establish its role as a human rights leader by positively engaging with international human rights mechanisms and developing the international legal system on a regional and global scale.

He also argued for an Australian Bill of Rights to protect the fundamental freedoms of all those in Australia and for better education for politicians and the public about human rights.

"For fifty years Australia has been one of the leading nations committed to protecting the human rights of all people," said Professor Sidoti.

"However events in the last few years, most notably our treatment of asylum seekers, have severely dented Australia's reputation as a human rights leader.

"Our recent record in the UN on issues such as the women's discrimination convention, the international criminal court and inspection of detention centres puts us in the company of hard line countries with appalling human rights records such as China, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Burma.

"We have simply lost the plot."

Professor Sidoti says Australia's recent human rights practices, both international and domestic, have drawn widespread criticism from the international community.

"Each of the six key human rights treaties has a committee of independent experts to monitor compliance with the treaty's obligations. Over the last two years Australia's performance of its commitments has been criticised repeatedly by every one of these six committees," he said.

"They have been critical of our mandatory sentencing of offenders, particularly children, mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals, the prison conditions of indigenous people, our attitudes towards native title, our past policies of removing children, attitudes towards reconciliation and the perceived downgrading of women's rights.

"The problem is, while no government likes criticism, the present Australian Government is more sensitive than any of its predecessors and most of its contemporaries. It is neither mature enough to listen to the views of others nor big enough to admit when it is wrong."

Professor Sidoti believes Australia can rediscover its human rights conscience.

"We can no longer rely on the benevolence of Australian governments to ensure respect for human rights in this country. Uniquely among western democracies, the legal protection of human rights is almost non-existent in Australia - we have no Bill of Rights, either constitutional or statutory," he said.

"The first step is to plug this legal gap - to enact comprehensive national law which will protect the fundamental freedoms of all Australians.

"We need to educate our politicians and public servants about human rights. We must enable them to bring a consciousness of human rights into all the decisions they make, all the policies they adopt and all the programs they administer.

"We also need to educate the general public better. Australians generally do not have a good sense of what constitutes a human right and there is an unwillingness to accept that human rights are violated in Australia and these violations are serious."

He said Australia also needs to re-examine its global responsibilities.

"After the events of the last two years, Australia faces great difficulty in resuming its leadership role and being accepted as a legitimate and credible voice on human rights," Professor Sidoti said.

"It will take more committed participation in the international system. Australia can have an effect on regional politics and play a role in promoting human rights and addressing situations of conflict, such as it did in East Timor, Cambodia, Fiji and Bougainville.

"Australia must also work to ensure the successful commencement of the International Criminal Court and move quickly to ratify the newer human rights treaties it has so far failed to ratify.

"It must engage more meaningfully with the human rights treaty monitoring committees and with UN human rights mechanisms, including more visits to Australia and more positive and constructive dialogue.

"The opportunities are there for Australia to be a leader on human rights internationally and domestically. It's not the opportunity that is lacking, only the will, the commitment, the wisdom and the belief. Have we lost the plot? Clearly we have. The question now is whether we are committed and determined enough to re-discover the way ahead."

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