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Universality of Human Rights: address to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's National Conference, Sydney

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by the

Minister for Foreign Affairs The Hon. Alexander Downer MP

to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s National Conference to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universality of Human Rights

Dockside Conference Centre Sydney, 9 December 1998

(Check Against Delivery)


The Universality of Human Rights

Speech by the Hon Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s National Conference to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the Dockside Conference Centre, Sydney, 9 December 1998.


Ms Zita Antonios, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen.

I am very pleased to be able to attend this Conference, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Australia has a long tradition of supporting human rights in the UN: indeed we were one of eight countries tasked with the drafting of the Universal Declaration by the newly established United Nations after the horrors of World War II.

While I want today to speak to you about the Declaration - and, in particular, the universality of the principles it contains - 1 thought that later in my speech I might also outline some of the Government’s recent actions to promote and safeguard human rights.

But there is one Government initiative I’d like to mention at the outset, if I may. And that is to announce that later today on my behalf Australia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Penny Wensley will be signing the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Last June - just six months ago - when I opened discussion at the Diplomatic Conference in Rome on the Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, such an outcome was by no means certain.

Australia can be proud of the role it played as Chair of the like-minded group throughout the difficult negotiating process which led to this important outcome. The establishment of the International Criminal Court will be a great day for Australia and like-minded countries who have led the fight to ensure that the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity will one day be brought to justice.

Advancing the cause of human rights is, as you here will know better than most, a long and arduous road to walk. The achievement of milestones such as this should, however, give us all confidence that the road does have a final destination.

The universality of human rights

Today, at this event to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, I would like to address the issue of Australia’s approach to human rights and human rights diplomacy.

Our starting point is that human rights are universal. The right to freedom of association and freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence and the right to vote in free and genuine elections by secret ballot are rights which should be respected around the globe. These are rights to which every person should feel entitled, whether they live in Surabaya or Sydney, New York or Nairobi. These fundamental human rights


enshrined in the Universal Declaration should and must have no respect for national boundaries.

When the Universal Declaration was drafted in 1948 with its timeless language, the human rights concerns of that day were the same as those we are discussing today. Human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration are not an evolving notion - they are clear and they are precise. They are intended to be the means to allow people around the world to live freer and more fulfilling lives. And they are universal.

There are those who would challenge the universality of the rights set out in the Declaration. Usually the challenge is couched in terms of cultural relativism, arguing either that, in developing economies, economic and social rights are more important than political and civil rights. Then there are those who argue that a preoccupation with civil and political rights threatens to undermine the social cohesion of a more communitarian tradition.

In our own neighbourhood, this argument is often linked to an appeal to "Asian values", but exactly the same kinds of arguments have in fact been used in relation to Africa, Latin America, and even Eastern Europe.

Let me make my point clear. For too long there have been people in Asia and elsewhere who have clung to the misguided notion of "Asian values" as a justification for clamping down on democratic movements or the natural inclination of people to participate in the democratic process. They have also used so-called "Asian values" as an excuse for not allowing for an appropriate evolution of an open civil society. It is only an open civil society which can be inclusive, tolerarif and truly outward-looking.

The development of civil society is the second aspect of our approach to human rights. The point is that to develop properly, a successful society needs many foundations. It needs strong institutions and guiding principles to operate as a cohesive yet flexible entity where debate and criticism are allowed to flourish. Such institutions include a free and open press, an independent legal system and an accountable government. Without them, people are held back and prevented from fully developing their potential. And when this happens it is the societies and the countries they inhabit as much as the individuals concerned, that lose out.

Elections are one of the most fundamental of these institutions. Governments of genuinely free countries win legitimacy by being elected by popular opinion under a form of broadly representative voting. In these circumstances the will of the people has been expressed. The government they have voted into office is accountable to them through the various other institutions that are part of a civil society and is again at a future time accountable through the ballot box. The opposite to democracy breeds resentment and despair because it lacks public accountability and therefore credibility.

Let me add here though that it is not enough for governments merely to hold elections to qualify as democratic. If they follow those elections by erecting barriers to civil society - such as suppressing dissent, hobbling the judicial system, cracking down on the media, inhibiting transparency they are weighting the scales unfairly and undermining democracy.

That lack of transparency was arguably, more than anything else, the underlying reason for the Asian economic crisis - the greatest economic crisis of a generation. The lack of financial and prudential rigor that comes naturally to a transparent civil society was missing across much of the region as it chased a dream of economic well-being at the expense of real democratic advances. It should be noted here that Australia - one of the most open and transparent democratic societies in the region - now has an annual growth rate of five per cent and has just concluded an election process.


Out of the ashes of the regional economic crisis, Indonesia, I am pleased to say, is now evolving into a more open and accountable society, where ideas are contested and criticisms aired. Indonesia is a society in transition moving towards what must be its most democratic election since 1955. The painful lessons of the crisis are being learned and implemented. As I have often said before, the regional economic crisis will no doubt hurry along the opening up process for a number of societies affected, but the changes in Indonesia may well be more dramatic than elsewhere, given that the crisis there has been particularly severe. Australia stands ready to help the development of the process in any way it can.

In Indonesia, we are confident that our program of assistance to the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights, Komnas HAM, will be put to good use given that it has proven its effectiveness when confronted with a multitude of human rights issues since its establishment. I congratulate Mr Marzuki Darusman, Vice-Chairman of Komnas HAM, who is participating in this Conference, for his personal efforts.

I would also like to make particular mention of the Indonesian Government’s recent undertaking, in its Human Rights National Action Plan, to ratify a number of major international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. President Habibie’s Government deserves particular praise for this step. More broadly, Indonesia’s reform process and especially the successful holding of free and fair elections next year, will underpin the transition to a situation where human rights are accorded greater respect than they have in the past.

Openness and accountability stimulate debate and criticism - policy-makers are not always comfortable with this and on occasion it does slow down decision-making. But they do make for better policy and they lead to a freer society and greater economic flexibility. Moreover by improving the information and the equity available to everyone, they enrich the lives of all of us and that is what the Universal Declaration written fifty years ago seeks to guide us towards.

Let it be said that authentic conceptions of freedom have long been found throughout Asia, where they have developed from many diverse cultures and societies - the idea of freedom is not just a Western import.

W e’ve seen how that can turn a society around - for example, in the Republic of Korea, where two short decades ago the notion that there might be a free and fair election was simply a dream, let alone the idea that a political dissident might one day end up being President. It is worth quoting the words of that one-time political prisoner, Kim Dae Jung:

"Actions infringing upon the dignity o f human beings should not be tolerated. Regional or cultural characteristics should no longer serve as excuses fo r the violation o f human rights. We must uphold what history has already proven, that human rights is a universal value."

While the current crisis in the region has provoked an upsurge in domestic criticisms of traditional political approaches in some regional countries, regional democratic movements and challenges in fact pre-date this and have arguably grown out of the economic success that the region has enjoyed for several decades. One should not be surprised that concepts of freedom and human rights in Asia should take on more prominence as living conditions have

improved throughout the region. As people become less concerned with their very subsistence, are better educated, and have greater access to information, they become both aware of their own social and political needs and of the alternatives that might be available to them. Indeed, this is the very process that societies in the West have passed through in developing their approaches to the concepts of freedom and human rights.


This process is self-reinforcing - greater freedom in the political sphere can enhance freedom in the economic sphere, and vice versa. If you don’t have a free society, if government policy-making is not open and contestable, the decisions made are likely over time to deteriorate in quality.

Australia’s promotion of indivisibility of all rights

I’d like now to outline some of the concrete actions our Government has been taking to advance the cause of human rights in our own region, and globally.

We have a very simple starting point when it comes to the promotion of human rights. Whatever we do, we want to be effective. Megaphone diplomacy has no place for us in this debate. There is no real point apart from the self-serving one in my issuing a condemnatory press release and then going to bed at night knowing it was of no real value to the people whose rights we are trying to protect and promote. This debate is not about whether I feel good about myself for shouting a few slogans and getting a nice headline in the domestic press.

The issue here is whether Australia has effectively promoted the ideals proposed by the Universal Declaration. I believe we have done so in practical and realistic ways.

We believe that national institutions established in conformity with international human rights standards, and taking into account different national circumstances, are one of the most practical and effective vehicles for the promotion and protection of human rights. A key strength of such institutions is their ability to reflect to a significant degree the different culture and local conditions of the societies in which they are established, while at the same time remaining faithful to international human rights standards. We have therefore made promotion of such institutions a pillar of our policy.

That approach has, for example, shaped the development of our human rights dialogue with China. Our two countries have together developed a detailed and comprehensive agenda for action, with broad-based participation by experts from a range of relevant agencies. We have agreed on a "Joint Program of Cooperation" which incorporates a comprehensive program of human rights technical assistance. While we remain concerned about the human rights situation in China - just yesterday, for instance, we made representations to the Government in Beijing regarding our concerns about the treatment of Xu Wen Li and members of the China Democratic Party - the progress we have achieved demonstrates the dialogue has made a difference on the ground and can encourage the Chinese to move forward on human rights.

Within our region, I take great personal satisfaction in the establishment this year of the Centre for Democratic Institutions based at the Australian National University as the domestic flagship of our approach to good governance.

The CDI under the directorship of Roland Rich will, I believe, make a very practical and useful contribution in assisting the development and strengthening of democratic institutions in developing countries, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

Last week, I announced in Parliament new guidelines which will provide a clear and practical framework for supporting human rights activities through our aid contributions. This framework ranks civil and political rights equally with economic, social and cultural rights and places a particular emphasis on the creation of durable institutional capacity to promote and protect human rights.


The 1998 Budget also provides for a five-fold increase in funding for the Human Rights Fund compared with last year’s Budget. Part of this funding is allocated to HREOC for its work as the Secretariat for the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. Established in 1996, this body has become a vibrant, collegiate force in the regional human rights system and an example of how institutions from countries with different cultural and religious backgrounds can work together in the pursuit of universal human rights goals. Australia has contributed $275,000 since 1996 to finance its establishment and operations. This work has proved very effective and I am pleased to announce today that funding for it will increase to $225,000 a year for the next three years.

Also today, I am particularly pleased to launch the latest edition of the Human Rights Manual produced by my Department as a training tool for Government officials involved in human rights work.

I hope it will additionally prove useful to the Australian public interested in these issues and their contemporary legal and policy framework. Copies of the Human Rights Manual have been made available to participants at this Conference.

As a further recognition of the fundamental importance of human rights education as a tool for protecting and promoting human rights, the Government has endorsed the establishment of a National Committee of Human Rights Education. The establishment of a National Committee demonstrates Australia’s commitment to playing its part in implementing UN recommendations, for activities for the Decade of Human Rights Education between 1995 - 2004. V

The Attorney General and I are also committed to revising Australia’s National Action Plan on Human Rights and will commence work on this, including the process of consultations, shortly. The recommendation from the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights that all States consider drawing up National Action Plans on Human Rights emanated from a proposal put forward by Australia.

We led the way by being the first country to prepare and publish in 1994 a National Action Plan - and have updated it several times since. We believe that National Action Plans provide a blueprint for the future as well as a valuable check and balance list for governments.

Our commitment - deeds, not words

That brief outline of recent activity illustrates several different aspects of our Government’s approach to human rights.

First, we have ensured that consideration of human rights has been brought into the mainstream of our foreign policy agenda, and placed squarely in the context of our overall bilateral relationships.

Second, our approach is guided by the practical benefit that proposed activities can bring to the people most in need, not by the possibility of providing a good throw-away line for the evening news.

We are not interested in dealing with human rights issues through the megaphone. We want the satisfaction of knowing that someone will really benefit from our activities, not the smug self-satisfaction that we have managed to put a flea in someone’s ear, even if to no result.


We have therefore unapologetically taken a very outcomes-oriented approach to all our human rights activities, whether bilaterally or multilaterally, or through our aid program.

There is much to celebrate on this 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, but there is also much yet to be realised. The Government will steer a clear course to promote and protect all human rights equally.

Let me finally assure you that Australia will continue to work with ou” closest neighbours and the international community at large to make all human rights a reality for all in the new millennium.