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We Can Still Uphold Human Rights In A Post-Truth World

Human rights are everybody’s rights.

30/11/2016 5:23 AM AEDT | Updated 30/11/2016 5:23 AM AEDT
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New Yorkers shocked and angered by the unexpected election of Donald Trump as President leave messages on colored note paper on the wall of the Union Square subway station in Manhattan on November 22, 2016.

It's natural to feel concern for the state of human rights, following the result of the U.S. presidential election, Brexit, and the rise elsewhere of populist, authoritarian regimes and political parties.

The underlying sentiments and the explicit statements that have propelled these movements are a rebuke to the values underpinning human rights: fairness, equality, the rule of law and the protection of vulnerable people.

We have heard supporters of these movements say they feel their opinions and their human rights have been ignored for too long. This is a time to remind the champions of those movements that human rights belong to them as much as to anybody else. Human rights belong to everyone equally. Human rights are about inclusiveness, not division. One person's rights do not need to be sacrificed to enable someone else to enjoy theirs.

In the U.S., Donald Trump won on the back of a campaign full of threats and dark promises: mass deportations, a ban on Muslims entering the country, the embrace of torture and assassinations as policy, and the arrest of his political opponent. He demeaned women repeatedly and has been heard bragging about sexual assault. And he reduced political discourse to an endless string of personal insults and attacks.

The Brexit campaign played heavily on fear of migrants and refugees, and across Europe there is a rising trend of political leaders banking on intolerance, anger and fear for their own gain.

Closer to home, the recently elected president of the Philippines has launched a deadly war on drugs that has seen more than 4,000 people killed arbitrarily at the hands of police and vigilantes, with near-total impunity. President Duterte laughs off concerns about human rights, and his popularity acts as a shield against mounting criticism.

In Australia, our government has taken its cruel treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers to new lows, by attempting to ban for life those who have tried to enter by boat. Calls for marriage equality and greater respect for the rights of LGBTQ Australians continue to fall on deaf ears in the wake of the welcome defeat of the Government's harmful plebiscite bill.

Against this global backdrop, some politicians and members of the media in Australia have decided now is the time to have another crack at undoing the civil hate speech provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Let's be clear: The right of freedom of expression does not outstrip people's right to be defended from hate speech. It is always a balancing act, and for over 20 years the Racial Discrimination Act has gotten that balance right. To chip away at the Racial Discrimination Act now is heading in a dangerous direction.

What we are seeing, around the world, is an attack on the fundamental principles of human rights.

First, we need to understand who and what are at risk in this environment: Individuals, information, and the public institutions built to protect them both.

The concept of human rights arises from the recognition that every person deserves equal treatment and equal protection under the law. It's a reasonable proposition, one that most Australians would accept at face value. And yet we need only look at the dismal situation on Manus and Nauru, which the Australian government continues to defend and justify, to see a complete rejection of that idea.

These are individuals whose rights are being denied. The same goes for those in the LGBTQ community who would like to marry the person they love. The same goes for indigenous kids across Australia who are being locked up at rates far beyond the average, being detained without trial for unacceptable periods, and some being subjected to unthinkable and horrific mistreatment, seen recently on the Four Corners program on the Don Dale detention centre.

Information also is under attack. Those who present information that contradicts the official story are shouted down and their evidence dismissed. When, for example, ABC's Four Corners aired a report on refugee children on Nauru -- a place notoriously difficult for most journalists to visit -- the network was forced to defend itself from accusations of bias and misreporting. In a similar vein, our recent report on Nauru, which concluded that conditions there amounted to torture, was rejected outright by the Prime Minister.

It is fitting -- but also frightening -- that Oxford Dictionaries has chosen 'post-truth' as the word of 2016. They define the term as "relating to, or denoting, circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief".

The rule of law and the search for justice are entirely reliant on facts and evidence. When these things lose their value, we are all in trouble.

Institutions and mechanisms designed to protect individuals are under attack. The government's undermining of the Australian Human Rights Commission through budget cuts, public criticism and relentless attack of its leadership represents a serious threat to the idea that an independent rights watchdog serves a public good.

The silencing of staff working under government contracts on Manus and Nauru, meanwhile, is a red flag that political leaders are willing to manipulate the law and freedom of speech to any degree necessary to keep its abuses secret.

In this climate of secrecy, authoritarianism, xenophobia and fear, we are hearing from more Australians that they feel they are not being heard, or protected or respected, while others are granted special treatment. This should never be the case: human rights are everybody's rights.

We need to actively pay attention to those who feel that they have been left out of the conversation or that they are ignored at the expense of narrow interests.

Human rights are not, and have never been, the exclusive domain of the left or the right -- they are there to redress the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless, between the angry mob and the silent victim.

It's our job and our purpose to defend and advocate in particular for those whose rights are most urgently at risk, or who are seeing erosion in multiple areas of their rights. It's our job to speak truth to power and to advance the ideals of fairness and equality in whatever incremental ways we can.

The many attacks on these efforts we see today around the world are alarming. But they should also strengthen our resolve to fight injustice, abuse and discrimination.

Some would have us believe the events of the past year represent the beginning of a new historical phase. If that is the case, it's more important than ever to remember the history that established the need for human rights discourse, promotion and protection, and to hold on to what we believe in, and what we know is true.

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