The United Nations is making enemies again. Last week, yet another government has announced that it is ready to reassess relations with the world body after being criticized for domestic human-rights policies. This time, however, the complainant is not one of the usual offenders — China, Sudan, Iraq, Yemen are regulars — but Australia. Canberra’s blast at the U.N. is a mistake. It makes the government of Prime Minister John Howard look petty and short-sighted. It undermines Australia’s bid to play a larger international role and it undercuts U.N. authority and the rights it represents.
The source of the controversy is recent U.N. criticism of Australia’s treatment of Aborigines and asylum seekers. Australia’s 430,000 Aborigines are the country’s most disadvantaged group. They make up only 2.3 percent of the population, but they have much higher infant-mortality rates and much lower life expectancies than other Australian citizens. The world body has criticized the federal government’s handling of Aboriginal land rights and mandatory sentencing laws in effect in two states that seem to target crimes committed by Aborigines. The result is harsh jail sentences for trivial offenses. In at least one case, an Aboriginal youth committed suicide while incarcerated.
In response to the criticism, the Australian government announced that it would cut back contacts with the U.N. and would not ratify a protocol to the Convention on Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said U.N. committees would not be allowed to visit Australia, nor would they be given information unless there was a compelling reason to do so.
Mr. Howard said the new relationship does not represent a turning away from U.N. principles. Instead, he claimed that it was designed to assert Australian authority over its domestic affairs.
Australian officials complain that the U.N. committees have the wrong priorities. They argue that the groups are too easily swayed by nongovernment organizations and do not pay enough attention to democratic governments. Disputes over Aboriginal rights, they claim, pale beside arbitrary arrest and detention, restrictions on speech, assembly and movement and other denials of human rights. That is not true as far as Aborigines are concerned. Even on an abstract level, the idea that some human rights are more important than others is nonsense. Moreover, cutting off contact with U.N. groups and contesting their legitimacy is a funny way of shoring up those institutions and the rights they they are designed to protect.
Australia can dispute the facts of a given case. Canberra has every right to challenge interpretations of international law. And indeed, the disputes over Aborigines’ rights are long and tangled. Australia has grappled with this problem for decades; that effort alone is proof that there is no simplistic solution. Nonetheless, to question the U.N.’s very ability to scrutinize a nation’s domestic practices and to measure them against international yardsticks makes a mockery of those standards. It is precisely because they are human rights, universal by definition, that the U.N. can demand adherence by all nations. The assertion that these are domestic issues of no concern to the U.N. is the very same claim that habitual abusers make. It is unworthy of Australia to join that select crowd, or to support their argument.
These recent events are especially disconcerting because Australia has worked so well with the U.N. in the past. That is only natural: Australia is a middle-ranking country, and U.N. activities offer it a convenient and effective platform to assume a higher international profile. When Australia took a leading role in the East Timor peacekeeping operation it was acting under the world body’s authority. Canberra cannot question the legitimacy of one arm of the U.N. without eroding the authority of others.
Canberra has been a vocal supporter of international law in general and human rights in particular. That stance has won it plaudits from human-rights advocates, as well as the gratitude of the oppressed around the world. This most recent fit of pique discredits that proud history.
The correct response would be for Canberra to acknowledge the U.N.’s right to criticize and then remedy failings on its own. That would strengthen international legal standards, support the U.N. system and set a powerful example for other countries that violate those norms — and distinguish Australia from other offenders who fail to act. That is what the world has come to expect from Australia.
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