International Human Rights Day 2002

Human Rights in a Climate of Fear ... the significance of education for humanitarian citizenship

Tuesday 10 December

Presented by the Hawke Centre at UniSA in association with the International Human Rights Day SA Planning Committee

Keynote Speaker:

Margaret Reynolds, President of the United Nations Association of Australia
Chair of the Commonwealth Human Rights Advisory Commission
Member of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade NGOs Consultative Committee

Human Rights - Get it Right !

Human Rights Day this year brings with it a set of complex emotions at a time when we are trying to make sense of warnings about possible terrorist attacks while at the same time responding to the Bali tragedy which affected so many families and friends of young Australians.

It is not an easy time for earnest human rights advocates to promote the fundamental principles laid down in united national humanitarian protocols and conventions, nor does there seem much concern for those whose human rights are being denied.

There is a total preoccupation with the so called “war on terrorism” and political leaders in Australia and indeed elsewhere seem incapable of responding more strategically to the complex environment of the past twelve months.

It is of course naïve to deny that there are specific threats facing Australia and indeed the possibility of more innocent Australians being targeted when traveling overseas. No decision maker can ignore these harsh realities in responding to the current intelligence available here and overseas.

Yet there seems no preparedness to do more than go into an increased security mode without also considering fundamental changes in Australia’s foreign policy. It makes sense to ensure Australia take basic security precautions at airports, major landmarks and large public events. But is this all our government has to offer?

It should be obvious to even the most amateur observer of human behaviour that terrorism occurs when groups resort to extreme measures to either promote a “cause” or in “retaliation” for real or perceived persecution. A number of western world leaders want us to believe that war is “legitimate” because it is conducted by professionals whereas terrorism is random and targeted at innocent civilians. Yet we all understand that both authorised and unauthorised violence has the same effect on humanity!

The people of Australia have been trying to come to terms with the meaning of the Bali bombings. The horrendous loss of life, the shocking injuries and the random nature of the attack on young people, have left many of use with so many questions but so few answers.

Politicians, for a short time, set the tone with a period of grieving and a solidarity unknown in the Australian Parliament. The media, for its part, seemed to adopt a code of sensitivity balancing that fine line between giving the facts while maintaining respect for individuals and families. It was reported that a number of journalists abandoned their reporting responsibilities to join humanitarian efforts in the chaos of the immediate days following the disaster. No doubt editors were torn between frustration and admiration.

As time passes there is a demand for those answers. Why didn’t we know of more specific warnings publicised in the United States? Were Australians deliberately targeted or was it against westerners generally? Was this attack orchestrated from outside or is it part of the political uncertainty of Indonesia? How can we best prevent such an atrocity in the future?

Overwhelmingly the question we must answer immediately is to asses the impact of the Bali bombings on our foreign and defence policy. Greens Senator Bob Brown was a lone voice reminding us that we need to concentrate our attention on our region. It may have appeared a jarring note in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, but to many Australians it was stating the obvious.

While it is important not to jump to conclusions about links to other terrorist attacks and threats in the world, it is essential that Australia reassess its priorities and capabilities. Our history is littered with the tragic results of our following major powers to war. Whilst we must take a global view and play our part in world peace and security, there is an increasing concern amongst many Australians about the apparent enthusiasm of government to automatically endorse US priorities. We can play a much more constructive role in world affairs by working independently to promote preventative diplomacy and conflict resolution.

Australian defence personnel are renowned for their expertise as highly professional and respected peace keepers. They are well trained in mediation and conflict resolution. As a nation we can offer a wide variety of support in humanitarian intervention and reconstruction.

This is a positive independent face Australia needs to present to the world, and particularly in our region we need to be more responsive to our neighbours showing more tolerance and respect for their needs.

The Medical Association for the Prevention of War reported last week that it is

“… greatly concerned about statements containing dangerous declarations from our leaders regarding changing the UN Charter and weakening international law.”

Australians attempt to redefine self defence as a right to undertake unprovoked attack (a pre-emptive strike), undermines international security – especially when the international security community has not yet come up with a definition of terrorism.

An unprovoked attack, just in case, is as morally repugnant and detrimental to human security as suicide bombers. Australia should lead in pushing for accountability and hold criminals and terrorists accountable under the International Criminal Court, not advocate killing innocent people with “pre-emptive strikes”.


Media emphasis on current conflict is as selective as it is disturbing. Today’s Australian newspaper headlines illustrate the way in which national morale is being shaken and the cultural divide deepened.

“Asia’s Mosques call Australians ‘enemy’”

“No where safe, nothing sacred”

“Australia named as enemy”

“Losing friends in the neighbourhood”

“Suicide bomb plans may still be ticking”

“Baghdad nearly made N bomb”

Some of the stories themselves may objectively state facts that of course must be reported, but others are long on hypotheticals and quote only one side of the debate.

Meanwhile some gross breaches of human rights are not reported to us even though they relate specifically to the current focus on Australia’s international relationships. Last Friday in Launceston, Tasmania, a young mother opened her door to 6 Federal Government Agents - 3 Police, 2 Immigration Officers, 1 unknown individual rumoured to be from ASIO. She was escorted to her children’s child care centre where she collected her 3 children and then they were taken to her husbands place of work. The family was then interrogated about having fraudulent visas and within hours were flown to South Australia’s Baxter Detention Centre.

It seems their crime is to be among 900 Afghans who are accused of living in Pakistan prior to coming to Australia as asylum seekers. The Australian Government now maintains links with a Pakistan spy agency to try to prove these claims. Experts knowledgeable about this troubled region would understand the difficulty of trying to assess the rights and wrongs of people movements between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet Australia asks ever vigilante junior bureaucrats to determine the status of people whose lives have already been torn apart by torture, murder and war. We punish and vilify people of cultural difference who have dared to seek our assistance.

We cooperate with preparations for war against Iraq, while at the same time detaining the very people who have fled the ruthless regime we seek to destroy. Such are the almost manic double standards which pass by us, almost without comments or media scrutiny. Where is this frenzy of isolation and paranoia leading us?

What will future generations say about how we collectively responded to the need for a very special kind of leadership and understanding in these complex times?

In this climate of fear it is essential we challenge our leaders to seriously consider alternative policies which can offer Australians greater security now and in the future. Security takes time, commitment and patience in building trust. Security cannot be achieved through threats, tough talk or restrictive legislation. A secure relationship between individuals relies on understanding and respect. It is no different if the relationship is between nations.

Last week, neither Australian nor Malaysian Prime Ministers, Howard and Mahathir, demonstrated understanding or respect. Their language was carelessly aimed at populism at home rather than strategically protecting international friendship. Who can predict the long term effect of such intemperate clumsy rhetoric which will be filed away in the memories of so many of our neighbours?

Sadly, so much national and international debate relies on reactionary and retaliatory rhetoric rather than refrained reflection based on fundamental commitment to humanitarian law. Basic standards of human rights must be respected by all leaders if they are to be the way in which we build security and negotiate our way out of situations of conflict.

Yet it seems that too many leaders prefer to assume these must always be an enemy to ruthlessly destroy. They do not appreciate that the enemy “within” their own paranoia polarizes good and evil and prevents the resolution of conflict. There are plenty of accusations and condemnations, but no preparedness to consider why there is such hatred and extremism nor to attempt to discover how we prevent distressing disregard for humanity.

The focus of this forum is to try to find answers to these questions. We cannot change the world but we can attempt to influence our own community.

On International Human Rights Day 2002, we need to decide those priorities to which we personally can subscribe in promoting respect for individual human rights.

We need to strongly advocate a proactive commitment to humanitarian citizenship in our schools and universities, so that future communities respect individual human rights and understand that it is only by building tolerant communities and prevent misunderstanding that so often leads to conflict. Some of the questions we can start with in this debate are :

What is terrorism and how does it affect the Human Rights discourse?

Is Australia meeting its human rights obligations under international law?

Why is there such a paranoia about cultural difference in the current climate?

Is there a comprehensive program of human rights education in Australian schools and universities?

How do Australians become aware of basic standards of human rights practice in this country?

What are some of the alternatives for educational initiatives in humanitarian citizenship?

Areas of study and research

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