What is Australia’s Role in the World?

Human rights, foreign policy and Australia’s national identity: why aren’t we talking more about Australian values and identity this election campaign, asks Phil Lynch

Of the myriad issues inadequately covered in the election campaign thus far,  Australian values and identity — and the question of how these values shape the way we understand our role and responsibility in the world — rank high.  In the leaders’ debate, for example, the only discussion of Australian foreign policy and our place in the world arose in the context of the “Timor Solution” and the war in Afghanistan.

This is not the way things should be.  With real leadership, elections present an opportunity to tap into admirable but often latent aspects of national identity, a concept explored by Canadian political scientist Alison Brysk in her new book, Global Good Samaritans: Human Rights as Foreign Policy. Why, Brysk asks, do a small number of countries sacrifice their national interest to promote human rights and help strangers? Her answer is simple: they don’t. Instead, she explains, countries such as Sweden, Canada and the Netherlands have nurtured national identities that have a deep commitment to human rights at their core. Global good samaritans, Brysk posits, see the “blood, treasure, and political capital they contribute to human rights as an investment, not a loss”. Both at the local and international levels, they have learned to see themselves, she says, “as interconnected members of a community that works best for everyone when human rights are respected”.

What I’d really like to see in this election is our national leaders appealing to and mobilising the most constructive and admirable aspects of Australia’s national identity and committing to the nation’s development as a principled, persistent, fearless and forceful human rights champion in the region and on the international stage.

Certainly, we are well placed to be an effective human rights promoter. We are democratic and politically stable. We are globalised and multicultural. We have an active and well networked civil society. We enjoy low levels of social stratification and high levels of economic development. We are a secure regional middle power.

We also have much to gain from pursuing the human rights agenda and much to lose in failing to do so. The positive side of the ledger includes the development of more stable and predictable international and regional policy environments, enhanced international credibility and diplomatic capital, strengthened policy coherence, and the mobilisation of universal, unifying national values. Conversely, a failure to multilaterally address urgent human rights challenges, such as climate change and food and water insecurity, will have grave implications for global, regional and national peace, security and development.

What then, could Australia do to most actively and effectively contribute to the agenda of making human rights a human reality in the 21st century?

As a first step, Australia should develop a comprehensive strategy on human rights and foreign policy. That strategy should mainstream human rights across all areas of Australian foreign affairs, including aid, development, trade, investment, migration, environment, business and security. It should contain concrete measures and commitments to promote and protect human rights in the region and internationally. Such a policy could enhance our international reputation as a human rights leader and build significant diplomatic capital.

Australia’s 2013-2014 UN Security Council candidacy could be a flagship for this policy. As a Security Council candidate, we should commit to taking a principled, persistent and consistent approach to human rights internationally and to ensuring that our domestic policies and practices are human rights compliant. We should use our Security Council candidacy to promote our national interest in international human rights, the rule of law and good governance.

Australia should similarly take a proactive and principled approach to the UN Human Rights Council, whether as an active observer state or member. We have an important role in ensuring the Council fulfils its mandate, and achieves its potential, as the leading multilateral forum for the discussion, promotion and enforcement of human rights.

Both through the Security Council and other international and regional bodies, including trade and financial institutions, we should push a fearless and forceful human rights agenda. This agenda should address existing human rights challenges – including poverty, financial instability and inequality – and pursue progressive initiatives, including operationalisation of the responsibility to protect, the abolition of the death penalty, the advancement of Indigenous peoples globally, and the regulation of business and human rights.

It is often observed that human rights begin at home. The fulfilment of human rights at home is inextricably linked with our national identity and our capacity and ability to promote human rights abroad. Domestic human rights protection must be recognised as a core aspect of any comprehensive and coherent foreign human rights policy.

In order for Australia to adopt not only a principled and consistent, but also effective, approach to human rights in international affairs — from the death penalty, to child labour, to people trafficking, to a regional solution on asylum-seekers — human rights must become core business in internal affairs. As US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently recognised, “By holding ourselves accountable, we reinforce our moral authority to demand that all governments adhere to obligations under international law.”

Australia’s status as the only Western democracy without a national human rights law undermines our authority and legitimacy on international human rights issues and in regional human rights dialogues. A national Human Rights Act — rejected by the Rudd/Gillard Government – could promote more responsive and accountable government, improve public services, and enshrine fundamental values such as freedom, dignity, respect and a fair go. Perhaps most importantly, however, a comprehensive national Human Rights Act could provide a framework for international, regional and domestic policy coordination and create a “virtuous circle” in which a constructive national identity is mobilised which places human rights at the centre of our internal and external affairs.  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has played precisely this role, placing human rights at the centre of both Canada’s self-perception and external engagement.

Australia has what it takes to be a human rights promoter at home and abroad.  For Australia to realise our potential, however, will require real political leadership and legislative and institutional reform, Most critically, it will require the mobilisation of a national identity that values human rights every bit as highly as beaches, barbecues, boomerangs, the Anzac spirit and the Ashes. That is the opportunity that this Federal Election presents and the responsibility that the next Australian Government confronts.