Australia Redefines Hypocrisy And Human Rights In Bid For UN Position

30/09/2015 11:27 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
KENA BETANCUR via Getty Images
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop speaks during a press conference after the Security council meeting at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on July 29, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

They say you have to have a thick skin to work in Australian politics. I think a lot of people underestimate just how thick.

Last week, the Australian Government was reportedly seeking a place on the United Nations Human Rights Council for two years from 2018. And this morning, the HuffPost reports Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced they were also seeking another stint on the Security Council, for 2029-30.

This sudden United Nations love fest is laced with bitter irony, on several fronts.

In Opposition, the Coalition mocked attempts by the Gillard government in 2012 to win a temporary seat on the Security Council, with Bishop telling reporters at the time: "... there really has been no justification for the benefit that will accrue to Australia by pursuing a seat at this time."

But win a seat Australia did, although Labor wasn't around long enough to enjoy it. Bishop, ironically, took up that seat shortly after her party won power in 2013. Now, in government, apparently winning a spot on the less powerful UN Human Rights Council is a 'must do'. And having another crack at the Security Council is also a pressing concern.

Breathtaking hypocrisy aside, Australia's bid for a position on the Human Rights Council in particular should be treated by the international community with the same disdain Australia has treated the UN, and human rights more generally.

Allowing Australia to join the UN Human Rights Council would be like letting a fox loose in the hen-house, such is our own recent record on human rights. And you don't need to go back centuries to see it. Try going back a few years and decades.

In 1992, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people proved our prior ownership of land in the Australian High Court during the Mabo decision, the Labor-led Australian Government simply moved the goalposts.

By 1996, the new Liberal-led Australian Government moved them even further, introducing the Wik amendments which sought to provide, in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, 'bucketloads of extinguishment' of our rights to land.

In 2004, the Australian Government abolished the democratically-elected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission on the false pre-text that it was corrupt. A subsequent leak of cabinet documents revealed ATSIC was poised to win a High Court challenge against the government. Abolish the litigant, beat the legal humiliation.

ATSIC was replaced with a group of hand-picked Aboriginal advisers. Democracy, apparently, isn't always good for everyone.

In May 2006, the Australian Government lobbied Canada to reverse its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada fell into line, and subsequently joined Australia, the US and New Zealand in voting against the Declaration.

A year later, the Australian Government launched the Northern Territory intervention, a policy which sent the Australian Army into Aboriginal communities in remote parts of the Northern Territory on the pretext of a 'national emergency' -- Aboriginal men were running rampant, abusing Aboriginal women and children.

They never found the 'paedophile rings', but they did manage to more than quadruple the rate of attempted suicide and self-harm in Aboriginal communities over the next five years, along with causing widespread starvation in Aboriginal communities when they restricted access to basic welfare entitlements.

By the time the Liberals left office, they had delivered a decade of budget surpluses in excess of $100 billion. At the same time, Aboriginal Australians remained mired in poverty. Unmet need in Aboriginal housing in the Northern Territory alone was more than $5 billion, and underfunding of the Aboriginal health budget had reached half a billion dollars every year.

In 2008, a new Labor-led Australian Government finally did endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And the very same week that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was basking in the glory, his Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, was expanding the Northern Territory intervention and endorsing secret advice from her bureaucracy that did away with the need to consult Aboriginal people over the policy, because the government was unlikely to get the 'informed consent' that the UN Declaration demanded.

This is the same Australian Government that delivered a 'national apology' to the Stolen Generations with no reparations, despite promising to do so while in Opposition. The same Australian Government that, while in Opposition, promised to move Australia Day to a date that doesn't celebrate the dispossession and slaughter of my people. In office, of course, they did nothing.

In 2009, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, James Anaya, visited Australia to see for himself the effects of the Northern Territory intervention. Professor Anaya was both angry and appalled, and he labelled the policy overtly racist. Anaya was subsequently described by then Opposition spokesman on Aboriginal affairs, Tony Abbott as an "armchair critic".

By the time Labor left office in 2013, they legislated to extend the NT intervention for another decade.

Enter the Liberal-led Abbott Government, which immediately defunded the only national representative body of elected First Nations leaders, and then re-formed the board of hand-picked advisers first conceived in the Howard era.

This was just prior to the Prime Minister describing Australia as 'nothing but bush' before the arrival of the British. It was also just prior to the Prime Minister supporting the forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities, because living 'on country' was a "lifestyle choice".

As we sit today, the only substantive (and I use the term loosely) national Indigenous policy centres around delivering constitutional recognition to the First Australians. Even so, the Australian Government recently rejected a request from Aboriginal leaders for an Indigenous-led summit to formulate a collective national position before taking it to non-Aboriginal Australians.

It's ironic, because most Aboriginal people want a treaty and our sovereignty recognised, as opposed to meaningless recognition in the only national constitution on earth that still contains 'race powers'.

And of course, throughout all of this, our nation has continued to jail Aboriginal people at world record rates.

Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in the early 1990s, incarceration rates have sky-rocketed. My people today are not only the most jailed people in Australia (we make up 3 percent of the population, but more than 25 percent of the national prison population) we are also one of the most jailed people in the world.

Western Australia has the highest Indigenous jailing rate on earth, and no state or territory in Australia jails black males at a rate less than South Africa did in the dying days of Apartheid.

And while so many of our people rot in jail, many more die preventable deaths, and suffer preventable diseases, like trachoma, a terrible eye disease that has been eradicated in many third world countries.

Aboriginal people in remote Australia have the highest recorded rates of rheumatic heart disease on earth, a preventable condition caused by desperately poor living conditions.

So bad is Aboriginal life that our excess mortality rate is equivalent to that of a sheep in an Australian paddock, such is the important economics of keeping livestock alive, as opposed to keeping blackfellas alive.

This is all set against a backdrop of a colonised nation with no national land rights legislation. NSW, to its enduring credit, has what Professor James Anaya described in 2011 as 'the world's best land rights legislation', but the rest of the nation is a barren wasteland when it comes to one of the most basic, fundamental Indigenous rights -- a right to our land.

And all of this, of course, is only how Australia treats its First Peoples.

We treat those seeking asylum even worse, by holding them in indefinite detention in other countries, and by branding them 'illegals' for claiming their basic right under the international law to seek asylum from persecution.

Our policies are so repugnant that, in the face of the growing crisis in Syria, the New York Times was motivated recently to warn the international community that they could not afford to adopt the "unconscionable" approach adopted by Australia of indefinite, mandatory detention.

At the risk of labouring the point, I think it's pretty obvious that our recent human rights record should disqualify Australia from a position on the Human Rights Council.

But given how bad it is, what is truly staggering is our arrogance in even seeking the position in the first place.

The skin Down Under is very thick indeed.

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