Howard Government scorns UN human-rights critics

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The Government of Prime Minister John Howard has launched an all-out attack on the human rights processes of the United Nations – to the surprise of nobody familiar with Australia’s record on protections for Indigenous people, immigrants, and women.

After getting complaints from Australian Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), UN human rights panels turned a spotlight on the vicious laws that govern race relations in this country, noting that Australia is in breach of numerous treaties and international law.
Stung by criticism from a growing number of world bodies, the Government hung up a “keep out” sign. Ridiculing the work of UN rights committees, it decreed that investigators will not be able to enter the country without a “compelling reason” – with the Government deciding what qualifies. In short, Australia will not allow any human rights probes that it does not agree to.

A lot to hide. The Government is desperate to conceal the full scope of its mistreatment of Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous children are still stolen from their communities as a matter of policy. In two states, jail sentences for minor property offences are mandatory, a practice aimed straight at Aborigines. Male prisoners, most of them Indigenous, are systematically tortured in Western Australian jails. Certain laws effectively allow State Governments to confiscate Indigenous lands. And largely as a consequence of Government actions like these, life expectancy for Aborigines is 20-30 years less than for other Australians.

These are horrors that UN officials now have condemned. But there is another outrage crying out for international attention: the cruel and illegal Government abuse of refugees.

Survivors of perilous journeys on foot and later by boat from places like Afghanistan and Iran are kept at remote desert prisons. People in these concentration camps, including children, are referred to by number and held indefinitely while their applications for asylum are processed. There is systematic sexual and physical abuse of women and a trade in children for sex that the Government has been covering up for months.

If refugees are “lucky,” they end up with three-year visas and get dumped in one of the State capitals with no money, no housing and no food. If they are unlucky, they are deported to almost certain death, as happened to three Somali men in November.

Women betrayed. The Government is also in hot water with the UN over women’s rights. Australia is refusing to sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which would set up a complaints procedure allowing women direct access to a UN tribunal.

Australian authorities actually drafted much of the protocol and actively lobbied for its adoption. Until, that is, international observers began discussing the John Howard regime as one of the worst in the developed world when it comes to trampling on the rights of its citizens and residents.

Many women, even staunch Government supporters, were incensed at Howard’s about-face. There is little doubt that women voters will turn on him in the next election.

Too late for circling the wagons. The United Nations is not a friend of the oppressed. Fundamentally, it exists to make the world safe for imperialism. The Security Council has the ultimate voice in UN policy, and, as the recent bombings of Yugoslavia and Iraq show, the council is little more than a global policeman following Washington’s orders.

Still, UN rights agencies provide an important forum for Indigenous nations and for people in countries with no domestic civil rights protections. Even though UN agencies have no enforcement powers, appeals to them are often the only way that injustices can air on a world stage. This publicity is important, because it allows international pressure to be applied to abusive governments and corporations.

At heart, the Government’s decision to lash out at the UN and not to sign the CEDAW protocol is a desperate attempt to suppress news of the refugee camp atrocities and prevent the voices of Indigenous women leaders from being heard globally.

The reason? Asian countries, already deeply unsettled by Australia’s regional bullying, might cut investment. The European Union, too, is happy to use rights violations as a lever in trade negotiations.

The Government and big business are afraid that Australia could end up being the South Africa of the early 21st century, isolated and in decline. Yet the establishment refuses to make a clean break with the old White Australia policy that has served Australian profiteers so well. So, like the Afrikaners, they prefer to circle the wagons and deny the reality that theirs is an unjust and thoroughly abhorrent racist regime. But this strategy is unlikely to succeed.

For one thing, Australian working people are stepping up their support for Indigenous rights. In December, a Melbourne march demanding that the Government negotiate a formal treaty with Aboriginal people drew about 600,000 demonstrators. And Australians are also becoming angry over the inhuman conditions of refugees.
Official stonewalling and denials simply aren’t working. The Howard Government is bound to find itself increasingly exposed and opposed – both internationally and at home.

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