Subject: Human Rights: at last Becoming a Magna Carta for All Humankind? - James Dunn

[complete version of column distributed abridged by Illawara Mercury]

Human Rights: at last Becoming a Magna Carta for All Humankind? James Dunn

It was gratifying to see the significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at last being recognised by our political leaders, after having languished in low profile, or no profile at all, for 60 years,. I was particularly encouraged by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s decision to consider what we should have had years ago – a bill or charter of human rights. The charter would bring much stronger focus on the substantive conventions spawned by the UDHR, the International Bill of Rights, all ratified by Australia. These include two conventions covering civil, political, economic and social rights, and the important conventions outlawing discrimination against women, on children’s rights, and against torture.

This promises to lead to a shift in our thinking, the creation of a greater community awareness of responsibilities as well as rights, and in so doing a more enlightened community. The latter will generate a greater political will in relation to our humanitarian obligations in the international arena as well as in Australia. That is not to say that our democracy is in a sorry state, but there have been serious flaws, even in recent years, such as our treatment of asylum seekers, of the rights of women and our indigenous people that needed remedying. To have human rights clearly placed on our political agenda is very encouraging right now, when the humanitarian consequences of the economic crisis will test the extent to which the basic rights of our citizens are really being protected. These are, in reality, the enduring fabric of our democracy.

However, although our governments ratified these conventions they didn’t really take them seriously, failing to create conditions for their effective implementation. Along with many other states we paraded our record as a signatory to conventions, and did little else. Most European states, on the other hand - inspired to prevent a recurrence of the horrendous abuses of the 20th century - introduced real mechanisms for protection, thus gaining a higher human rights standing than ours. With Obama’s refreshing commitment to strengthen the UN system, a stance echoed by Kevin Rudd, there is now a real prospect of a change of direction. The global economic crisis has emphasized that the desire to reform our ethical standards is now an imperative, not just a good thing. Eleanor Roosevelt’s haunting 1948 pronouncement of the UDHR as a ‘Magna Carta for all Mankind’ is, hopefully, no longer wishful thinking.

Here I might dwell a little on my own experience. I can claim to have taken a fairly early interest in the international human rights movement, even before 1968 when the covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Social Economic and Cultural Rights were adopted by the UN General Assembly, in effect beginning the process of enshrining the standards set out in the UDHR in international law. Seven years earlier I was posted to Portuguese Timor where I was confronted by the oppressive nature of colonialism. In 1968 I was at our embassy in the Soviet Union where human rights protection scarcely existed, and where I was confronted with some abuses, such as the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia..

Australia, by comparison, seemed a paragon of democracy, but I was soon to encounter some troubling aspects. When I became a senior adviser on foreign affairs to the Federal Parliament (our version of the US Congressional Research Service) I was soon dismayed to learn that few parliamentarians took any interest in human rights, and quickly realised that our own practices were flawed, especially in relation to the rights of women and the treatment of our indigenous peoples. To most parliamentarians human rights abuses happened over there, but never here. The new conventions were a curiosity, of little relevance to Australia with its proud democratic traditions.

However, my concerns about such matters had been aroused much earlier, firstly at Hiroshima near where I was stationed as a soldier in the aftermath of its devastation by the first atomic bombing, resulting in killing of a genocidal nature. It was further aroused when I was in East Timor as consul in the early sixties, where I was confronted by the stifling impact of colonialism on subject peoples. Then later in the USSR I witnessed how a totalitarian system suppressed those basic freedoms, so cogently outlined in the UDHR.

But by far my most compelling experience in this field was about the illegal seizure of East Timor. During Indonesia’s 24 years of occupation just about every human rights abuse was perpetrated, and, as it happened, I was able to investigate and report on some of the worst cases. East Timor was, however, not just about the denial of self-determination, killings of a genocidal nature and brutal oppression in general. It exposed our own lack of commitment in the one situation where an Australian response could have changed the course of history. My reports failed to move governments to take any action to stop gross abuses that are now well documented.

The affair highlighted the vulnerability of a nation of negligible significance in the diplomatic, strategic and economic priorities of larger states like ours. Compassion, like influence, it seemed, was a privilege to be bestowed on the larger members of the international community. Most shamefully – and rarely admitted - we helped make this illegal annexation possible. To my constant disappointment and shame, apart from a few speeches there has never been any real acknowledgement by Australian political leaders of its shameful failure to meet its obligations as responsible member of the international community. We did not even try to persuade the Suharto government to end its onslaught of oppression and senseless killing, when government agencies were well aware of what was going on. My own efforts were scorned by the governments of the time, and my own career suffered accordingly, leaving me with a lingering hurt, and shame that a nation I had served in war and peace had behaved so badly, even cowardly.

My problems were miniscule, however, when compared to the ordeal of victims of these injustices, which I am still trying to do something about. Australia’s official position did change radically in 1999, ironically largely shifted by those who had hitherto given little support to East Timor, a move driven by mounting public concern. While our support in 1999 was timely and critical, in a subtle operation we then proceeded to gloss over our past delinquency. Also in order not to upset the Indonesian establishment too much, Australia actually discouraged moves for an appropriate investigation into the responsibility of TNI commanders for gross human rights violations. And so, not only did those responsible for some of the worst atrocities in this region in the past half century escape unscathed, in this way we also helped set back Indonesia’s democratic transformation.

As I see it, effective action to protect human rights is now largely up to us citizens. In our political system the force of public opinion has gained strength. Thanks to the media and, in particular, to opinion polls, your views are not only important at election times. Legislators are today under constant pressure, and the government that fails to listen will soon find itself in danger. As it should be, custody of our democracy, our national conscience, is by no means the property of our legislature; it is shared with a better informed and more watchful community, alerted by the invaluable services of organizations like ETAN. And so, Eleanor Roosevelt’s prediction in 1948 that the UDHR would become a ‘Magna Carta for all humankind’ is moving towards becoming a reality.


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