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Shadow Minister discusses Australia's human rights policy

PRU GOWARD: The Opposition Leader, Dr John Hewson, has changed emphasis, it seems, in a major policy speech on foreign affairs - the occasion of the 1992 Royal Memorial Lecture in Adelaide. In his speech he talks about the need for Australia not to assume the role of moral school teachers, and when it comes to human rights, he says, we will not promote human rights in a narrow, legalistic way or as an end in themselves. Well, with me now is the Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Robert Hill. Thank you for coming in, Senator.

Senator, would you agree that this is a very big change in emphasis and certainly doesn't run with the conventional wisdom that Australia has quite a large part to play in promoting human rights?

ROBERT HILL: No, I don't think it's a change in emphasis, and it's not inconsistent with what we've been saying in the past, or a view that we don't think there's an important part for Australia to play in human rights. What we're interested in is outcomes. We think there's been too much rhetoric and not enough real attention as to how we can constructively contribute to an improvement of human rights, and we've suggested in the past looking to encourage Asian countries, for example, to co-operate to set up their own mechanisms, both convention and perhaps even in the future, a court. So really it's all about methodology to try and improve the environment for people in a region that is very difficult, in many ways.

PRU GOWARD: But isn't it this simple: we will not promote human rights as an end in themselves. I mean, human rights are an end in themselves.

ROBERT HILL: It's the outcome that we're interested in. What we're really interested in is seeing a genuine improvement, and then we look at ways in which that can be contributed. Now, we've learnt a lot. Dr Hewson and I went to China to talk to Li Peng after Tiananmen Square, because we said that you shouldn't cut off dialogue - the Australia Government decided to cut off dialogue. We've wrestled with the horrors of Burma and what happened in East Timor and so on, and have tried to develop ways in which Australia can be constructively helpful, rather than simply lecture, because lecturing doesn't work.

PRU GOWARD: But you say here we need to recognise - or Dr Hewson says - we need to recognise that minimum internationally recognised standards of human rights are not given the same meaning or the same priority in all countries. Is that another way of saying: Look, when it comes to this region they don't understand human rights like we do so we'll let them go?

ROBERT HILL: No. Within Asia they will say you need to put development first, because people who are hungry think about filling their tummies before they think of their human rights, and we understand that. That's why we say you can't separate the two. You develop a foreign policy to try to reduce poverty, and at the same time you educate foreign governments according to the international standards of human rights, the internationally accepted standards now, and you encourage methods that can achieve a better outcome.

PRU GOWARD: But what would it cost the Australian Government, for example, a massacre of students in an Asian country - what would it cost us to condemn that?

ROBERT HILL: Well, we should condemn it. That's one of the mechanisms. But we shouldn't feel better because we've simply condemned it. We've got to look at constructive ways in which we can contribute to a better outcome. And that's what Dr Hewson is talking about. He's saying we haven't, in the past, done enough. What we should do is go forward, further develop our aid programs to reduce poverty, concentrate on those areas, and then look at ways of encouraging mechanisms to develop within Asia at this next phase that are going to result in human rights.

PRU GOWARD: But there is a risk, isn't there, that Asian countries will interpret this as: 'The Opposition ... a Liberal Government will go soft on human rights; leave us alone'?

ROBERT HILL: Well, I certainly don't think so, and that won't happen, either. That's not the way ... we certainly start from the principle that we have no reason to be embarrassed about our principles and standards which have now been basically internationally accepted. But from there on we have to develop ways in which we can encourage these Asian countries to lift their standards. And the question is, it's all about methodology rather than feeling good because we simply protest. And it's that next phase that Dr Hewson was developing in his speech.

PRU GOWARD: Say, for example, we're coming up to the Dili massacre, the first anniversary of the Dili massacre. Do you think we'd jeopardise trade by raising this issue with the Indonesians again? Would a Liberal Government do that?

ROBERT HILL: Yes. Yes, and there's got to be follow through, and that hasn't been adequate in the past. We have to protest, but we have to take it one step further and look at ways in which we can encourage an improvement.

PRU GOWARD: What about Cambodia, though? You were very critical of the inclusion of the Pol Pot regime. Does that mean that there are some countries where you do consider human rights issues should come in front of, say, development issues?

ROBERT HILL: Well, as I said, they are linked. Pol Pot is a different issue. I certainly was uncomfortable with the concept of us embracing Pol Pot; I still am. And it has largely failed.

PRU GOWARD: Yes, as it's turned out.

ROBERT HILL: The Khmer Rouge have behaved in the way that I anticipated they would behave. But that is all part of the same mechanism. One aspect that is pleasing in the Paris process for Cambodia is that human rights was written into the agreement, and there are now human rights experts in Cambodia trying to provide mechanisms in place for the new Cambodia that will reduce the occasions of abuse of human rights. But I'm not sure whether they are educating Pol Pot to that effect.

PRU GOWARD: Well, just a little different, I am wondering - the Public Accounts Committee is looking again at Tax today. Does the Opposition leadership endorse Senator Bishop's approach to the Tax Commissioner and the issues that she's been raising?

ROBERT HILL: Well, Senator Bishop is a vigorous committee member that probes in a way that is proper for parliamentarians to do, and she's doing that in the Public Accounts Committee as she has done in the past. And I think that the outcome will really be determined by the evidence that she elicits.

PRU GOWARD: Senator Hill, thank you very much for joining Daybreak this morning.