Page 181 - Week 01 - Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Next page . . . . Previous page . . . . Speeches . . . . Contents . . . . Debates(HTML) . . . . PDF . . . .

Today is also a day to reflect on the massive disconnect that exists between political rhetoric and effective action by governments of all persuasions. As Mary Annual Glendon said, the chief obstacle to realising the principles embodied in the UDHR “is a feature of the human condition that appears, alas, to be universal: the gap between what we say we believe is right and what we actually do”. Consider the following quote from former US President Ronald Reagan:

For people of good will around the world, the UDHR is more than just words: It’s a global testament of humanity, a standard by which any humble person on Earth can stand in judgement of any government on Earth.

The UDHR may enable people to stand in judgement but it certainly does not empower them to enforce that judgement.

We have continued to see human rights abuses in countries such as Argentina, with the disappeared, and the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In more recent years, the world has stood by and watched horrors in Rwanda and now the Congo. We have seen democratic governments, including the US and the UK, engage in practices such as rendition. Often women and children are the most frequent victims of human rights violations. Rape has been used as a weapon, children have been forced into work or to become soldiers, and religion is misused to curtail the rights of women in countries such as Iran.

These examples are reminders that idealism and optimism are fine words and the passage and ratification of international human rights documents must always be tempered by a solid understanding of the immoral world of realpolitik and self-interest which continues to pervade international relations.

Australia too has been complicit in many human rights abuses in the past, either by its active involvement or by its silence. Our history is a source of both pride and shame, and both must be acknowledged. The black-blindfold view of history condemns us to repeat the mistakes of the past. In international law, countries are judged by their actions, not by their words.

Calls for the industrialised world to devote resources in a proactive way to address systemic problems which generate poverty, oppression and conflict are usually rejected as being unrealistically expensive. We are all witness to the huge disparity between military and humanitarian expenditure. A fraction of these expenditures would provide high-level security, safe water supplies, education, communications infrastructure, health care and housing for the vast majority of the world’s population. Does anyone seriously doubt that the world would be a safer place if the world were a fairer place?

At its root, the human rights doctrine, exemplified by the UDHR, is the legal crystallisation of the ethos of a fair go. We have retreated in Australia, under governments of all persuasions, from an assumption that governments and courts are moving inexorably towards embodying the ethos of a fair go.

Next page . . . . Previous page . . . . Speeches . . . . Contents . . . . Debates(HTML) . . . . PDF . . . .