Editorial Peter Whiting. Australia’s mixed record on human rights.

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3 July 2020

Photo Black Lives Matter Rally Melbourne 6 June 2020. Matt Hrkac. flickr cc.

Polls conducted over recent months indicate that voters are generally approving the way governments have addressed the Covid-19 pandemic. Our political leaders are enjoying, however briefly, a period of endorsement by their constituents. Another poll of a different sort, however, presents sobering outcomes on which our leaders need to reflect.

The Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) is a global collaborative project seeking to present human rights data in a form which allows for measurement permitting meaningful cross-national comparisons. The HRMI analyses data from international databases as well as surveying a large number of respondents operating in the human rights field. It reports its findings over 12 human rights. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines 30 human rights.)

As Australians might expect, we feature highly in some categories. In the field of economic and social rights, the right to health scores well, but the right to work performs far worse. Of concern, though, is that in this field, which also includes rights to food, education, and housing, Australia is fourth from the bottom out of 25 high-income countries. In the field of civil and political rights, Australia’s commitment to freedom from execution is very high, but the freedom from imprisonment and torture performs poorly.

Sadly, as we might also expect, when the groups most vulnerable to human rights abuse are identified, the stand-outs are Indigenous Australians and immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Greater than 80% of those surveyed believed these groups were at risk of having their right to health denied, and over 70% believed their rights to education and housing were not being met.

The value of quantitative tracking measures is that they provide data not only for cross-national comparison, but also for comparison over time. Negotiations are currently under way between Aboriginal peak bodies and the Government for agreeing to new targets for Closing the Gap, with strong focus on justice and housing. The recent Australian protests on Black Lives Matter highlight the need for increasingly ambitious and funded targets. Closing the Gap has its own methodology for measurement, but other groups of concern such as asylum seekers and refugees do not.

Sherry Balcombe provides a personal reflection on the Black Lives Matter protests, and sees signs of hope for an improved outcome for the next generation of Aboriginal children.

While the HRMI focuses largely on the rights of the person, we need also to focus on the communal aspects of which climate change is a pressing example. Bruce Duncan draws the comparison between Australia and the Amazon, and argues that we need to increase our efforts on the climate change issue, while also challenging growing inequality in Australia, and the economic and political policies which justify such inequity, resulting in poor education, healthcare, and life opportunities for many.

Peter Sainsbury challenges the Government’s policy of looking to natural gas to provide a route to economic recovery from the Covid-19-induced recession. His theme is also the subject of the article by Bill Hare and Ursula Fuentes, who argue that natural gas cannot function as a transitional fuel, and that Woodside’s Burrup Hub is misguided.

Brendan Coates also takes aim at Government recovery policy, arguing that social housing is the most efficient economic stimulus for the construction industry, and that investment will produce the most socially beneficial outcomes.

As a matter of historical accuracy called into question by statements made by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Thalia Anthony and Stephen Gray provide evidence of widespread government-sanctioned wage slavery in Australia, and the impact on Aborigines/Torres Straight Islanders and Pacific Islanders.

All these articles share a common thread with the proponents of the Human Rights Measurement Initiative. Each in its own way is urging policy makers to move from the narrow focus of improving GDP per capita to the broad goal of enabling people to flourish, to live their lives in safety, dignity and the ability to fulfill their potential.

Naïve it may be, it is my hope that the quantitative measure of human rights performance, accorded by tracking measures like the HRMI, will act as a beacon to governments around the world, and will see them commit to measures designed to improve their standing in the human rights league table. The researchers behind HRMI hope that the initiative will create a ‘race to the top’. Let’s hope they are right!

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