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Is Australia a morally backward society?

By Outsider

On 16 October 2017 Australia was elected, uncontestedly, to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The General Assembly elects the members which occupy the 47 seats. The Assembly takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges in this regard. The term of each seat is three years; no member may occupy a seat for more than two consecutive terms. The seats are distributed among the UN’s regional groups as follows: 13 for Africa, 13 for Asia, 6 for Eastern Europe, 8 for Latin America and the Caribbean, and 7 for the Western European and Others Group.

Ms Emily Howie, Director of Advocacy and Research at the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne, said that Australia, compared with some other new members, would be well positioned to press for positive reforms on the human rights council. “But its cruel treatment of refugees will continue to haunt and stymie Australia’s efforts during its term. It can’t truly lead on human rights while it is blatantly breaching international law.” (Australia to be elected to powerful UN human rights council, The Guardian).

The Australian Government campaigned globally for its position, promising that it will promote gender equality; good governance; freedom of expression; indigenous rights; and strong national human rights institutions. It promised to advocate for the global abolition of the death penalty. In the bland offering which is traditional of ‘respectable diplomacy’, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that “Australia will bring a principled and pragmatic approach to our term on the human rights council.”

Translated into serious English the words ‘principled’ and ‘pragmatic’ clash – but this is the customary discourse of the Coalition. It is made up of characters usually very comfortable and relaxed (sport types – don’t you know?) always ready to compete for the World Doormat Cup. When such characters speak they are more interested in the echo of their voice than in the voice of the people. They are not so stupid as to avoid the customary praise of the ‘intelligence of the Australian people.’ Most of the populace believe that the holders of the Coalition reins are the most suitable around the joint: about three/fourths of the government since ‘federation’ have been ‘conservative’. The light-feathers from the other right wing of the turkey which is the Sub-Tropical Westminster System struggle to imitate in neo-liberal fashion. Every once in a while, mainly when things get difficult, they are ‘given’ their chance.

On 19 October Australia was required to submit its human rights record for examination before the UN’s Human Rights Committee, a committee consisting primarily of independent human rights experts from across the globe.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee is a United Nations body of 18 experts which meets three times a year for four-week sessions (spring session at UN headquarters in New York, summer and fall sessions at the UN Office in Geneva) to consider the five-yearly reports submitted by 169 UN member states on their compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and any individual petitions concerning 116 States parties to the Optional Protocol.

The Committee launched straight in accusing Australia of chronic non-compliance with its international human rights treaty obligations. It singled out Australia’s refugee policies. Committee members described these as cruel, disturbing and shocking.

Just a day before the Committee met, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees sounded the alarm over the Australian Government’s intention to close the Manus Island Detention Centre and the means by which it was to be effected: “A lack of proper planning for the closure of existing facilities, insufficient consultation with the Manus community, and the absence of long-term solutions … has increased the already critical risk of instability and harm. Having created the present crisis, to now abandon the same acutely vulnerable human beings would be unconscionable. Legally and morally Australia cannot walk away from all those it has forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The UNHCR encourages the Government of Australia to prevent the looming humanitarian emergency.”

That statement came even before then Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, decided that the best means of effecting the closure of the Manus Island detention camp was to deprive those justifiably concerned about their safety in the wider PNG community of food, water and power.

In its fifth report on Australia, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, savaged asylum policy. It declared its alarm at the Government’s punitive approach to asylum seekers arriving by boat. It expressed deep concern about the policy of mandatory offshore detention. This detention, it observed, had continued despite informed reports of the harsh conditions that prevailed in the island detention centres, including for children. “These conditions included acute isolation, overcrowding, limited access to basic services like health care and education, sexual abuse by service providers, acts of intimidation, taunting and provocation, and frequent acts of serious self-harm. The Committee recommended a halt to offshore processing, the complete closure of the island detention facilities and the repatriation to Australia of those found to have been entitled to refugee status.”

“It’s not just refugee policy that has become the subject of intense international concern.” noted Professor Zifcak. “For example, the UN Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee recently criticised our country’s policies towards our indigenous peoples severely. While congratulating the Government in this context for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan, the National Framework for Protecting Children and the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women, the expert committee deplored the pervasiveness and persistence of indigenous people’s disadvantage.

It expressed its concern as to inadequate consultation with indigenous peoples in relation to the policies and programs that affect them. It criticised significant funding cuts to indigenous health and education programs and to non-governmental organisations established to alleviate indigenous economic and social disadvantage. It noted the legal difficulties confronting indigenous people when making land claims under the Native Title Act. It recommended that indigenous peoples be accorded constitutional recognition and that the Uluru statement be given serious consideration. So much for that. [Emphasis added]

The Committee urged the Government to refresh the Closing the Gap strategy; to ensure that the principle of free, prior and informed consent be embedded in legislation affecting aboriginal rights and entitlements; and to promote and apply the principles enshrined in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” (Spencer Zifcak, Australia elected to UN Human Rights Council – despite international condemnation, John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations).

Before the United Nations Human Rights Committee Australia was excoriated for its “chronic non-compliance” with the Committee’s recommendations, drawing particular condemnation over the mandatory detention of children and the same-sex marriage survey.

Professor Yuval Shany, a scholar of international repute who holds the Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in Public International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is the Committee’s vice-chair, said that it was “unacceptable” for Australia “routinely [to] reject” the Committee’s views, or “self-judge” international human rights treaties, telling Australia it could not “pick and choose” which laws it sought to follow and which rights it wanted to uphold.

Australia’s lack of implementation of Committee findings was “completely off the charts for the Committee,” Professor Shany said. “It’s incredible for a country that claims to have a leading role in global human rights.”

While Australia had a “generally strong record” on human rights, Professor Shany said that it had “very little to be proud of” in addressing failings identified by the Human Rights Committee and other national and international bodies.

“There seems to be a misunderstanding of the purpose of the views of the Committee – they are not an invitation to respond … they are an articulation of a specific duty to take action on Australia’s obligation under the covenant.” … “While the function of the human rights council is not as such a judicial body, the views … are characteristic of a judicial decision … [and] represent an authoritative view.” … While we can accept, in some cases, delay, because changes take time especially in implementing domestic legislation, it is unacceptable for a state to almost routinely fail to implement the views of the Committee and in essence challenges the expert nature of the Committee.” [Emphasis added]

The Committee made particular reference to the government’s dismissal of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report The forgotten children, which found that immigration detention centres were a “dangerous place for children” and called for a royal commission into the mandatory detention of children. (The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014)).

The then Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed the report as a “blatantly partisan politicised exercise.” The Committee was especially troubled that the then Human Rights Commission chair, Professor Gillian Triggs, was asked by the Attorney-General – with an improper and unprofessional suggestion/bribe – to resign before the report was published.

Australia’s marriage equality postal survey was also criticised. A committee member, Professor Sarah H Cleveland, is the Louis Henkin Professor of Human and Constitutional Rights at Columbia Law School told the Australian delegation: “Human Rights are not to be determined by opinion poll or a popular vote.” [Emphasis added]

Other issues addressed by the Committee included domestic violence, transgender rights, the sterilisation of intellectually disabled women and girls, and the impact of anti-terrorism laws on civil liberties.

The position of the Australian delegation was that the implementation of the Committee’s views would have to be an area where the Committee and the government “respectfully disagree.” This is unctuous nonsense! Australia, the Committee was told, does not regard the views of the Committee and other treaty bodies as legally binding. This is nonsense, albeit not so unctuous.

Ms Amy Frew, a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre of Melbourne, while in Geneva for the hearings, said that Committee members were clearly dismayed at Australia’s disdain for the Committee’s expertise and processes. “The condemnation shows how far we have strayed from the promises we made to uphold the civil and political rights of Australians and people in our care.”

“It is surely ironic – noted professor Allan Patience – that soon after Australia secured a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council the Turnbull government rejected a proposal for an advisory body that could help address the appalling Indigenous human rights record of successive governments in this country. Turnbull’s limp excuse for rejecting the idea was that it would not win the necessary support it would need at a referendum to provide the appropriate constitutional framework for the advisory body.”

This is not the sole problem, but a fundamental one. It comes with others.

“Politics in contemporary Australia displays ever-congealing levels of moral backwardness. In addition to our cruelty to asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, we have pig-ignorant vested interests blocking the need for a coherent national energy policy, the reactionary stupidity of the same-sex marriage postal survey, mindless support for tax-payers to underwrite the monster Adani coal mine, persistent ideological obsessions with neo-liberal economic policies confecting the worst social inequality ever, indifference to the dying of the Great Barrier Reef, and a foreign policy framed by Australia being “joined at the hip” with the United States.

But the over-riding moral backwardness of contemporary Australian politics is glaringly evident in the country’s failure first to understand, and then to sensitively and effectively address this country’s disastrous human rights record on Indigenous affairs.” … “The on-going treatment of Indigenous Australia by white Australia is a deep evil in the heart of this country’s politics. The one measure against which Australia should be – and is – being judged regionally and internationally is the way we so callously disregard the human right of First Australians.” … “The Turnbull government’s rejection of this historically unprecedented proposal [the ‘Voice’ to Parliament advocated at Uluru in May 2017] is evidence of its moral backwardness. Turnbull should have seized on this idea and made it a signal policy defining his prime ministership.” … “This country urgently needs to come to grips with the human rights issues affecting our Indigenous peoples.”

And in one last savaging sentence Patience concluded:

“It’s time for this country to awake in fright from its moral backwardness. And the first thing we need to act on is fully restoring the human rights of every Indigenous Australian, forever.” (Is Australia a morally backward society? John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations).


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  1. AnnaMargaret

    why the anonymity? who is outsider?

  2. Joseph Carli

    Solid piece..hitting the boundary many times…People want commitment, not just words..action, not just verbosity…We need people who are on the receiving end of this outrage to be the one’s who deliver justice..and justice DONE..and SEEN to be done!

  3. babyjewels10

    The UN condemns then rewards Australia with a seat on the HRC?

  4. Freethinker

    Excellent article a good read for those that support the Coalition and the ALP in some instances regarding refugee polices and border protection..
    We cannot blame only the government, there is a great proportion of Australian that support this behavior and voted according.

    On the note of guys, in the news: Labor has ‘no plans’ to change law allowing religious schools to fire gay teachers

  5. Jack Russell

    Yes, we are morally backward.

    With the brief exceptions of a couple of governments who tried, against all the odds and all the pushbacks, we have, from the beginning, retained the overlords of the colonial/penal colony mentality … with all the vile attitudes and activities that define it … in our governing and legislative institutions, from day one to now.

    Yes, we are morally deficient.

  6. Florence nee Fedup

    I don’t believe we are morally backward. I do believe many of our politicians, especially from the right side of the divide are.

  7. Freethinker

    Florence nee Fedup, what about the people that are voting for these politicians?

  8. Chris

    “Yes, we are morally backward.

    With the brief exceptions of a couple of governments who tried, against all the odds and all the pushbacks, we have, from the beginning, retained the overlords of the colonial/penal colony mentality … with all the vile attitudes and activities that define it … in our governing and legislative institutions, from day one to now.

    Yes, we are morally deficient.”

    +1000 Jack Russell

  9. clarelhdm

    This article begs the question though: Why on earth did the UN give Australia a seat on the Human rights committee? We never deserved one, we were vilified for our policies re refugees and Aboriginal Australians, and yet it made no difference. All sound and fury, signifying nothing. No wonder our disgusting politicians just ignore the UN, it is acting like a toothless tiger

  10. Chris

    Freethinker… don’t blame us. We were screwed from day one. And, when all the ‘citizens’ have to vote, some will just tick the box rather than thinking about who would be best to govern. The system is designed to give us the result we have, unethical, morally corrupt men and women who work in their own interests and not ours.

    If it weren’t compulsory, the outcomes would be different. And, don’t shine a light on the USA, their ‘system’ with an electoral college, primaries and the like is likewise designed to work for those with the money. That is, not us.

    Thanks mate, I appreciate your posts on this site

  11. Freethinker

    Chris, I respect your point of view, however I cannot accept the excuse that because the vote it is compulsory it is Ok to tick the box without not be responsible for their action.
    Just electing Abbott’s government and re-elect his team again under a ” leader” that was part in the previous government is enough for me to put the government and those that have elected them in the same basket.
    I also have to vote and will never will vote for them, or for an opposition that is good enough or a better option.
    Endorse them is agreeing with their acts.

  12. Cool Pete

    The UN is correct to condemn Australia and I believe that Australia should be penalised until the ill-treatment of asylum seekers is rectified.

  13. Michael Taylor

    Why the anonymity? Because ‘Outsider’ is a public servant.

  14. Andrew J. Smith

    The UN is a broad church of national and private interests, especially when one considers the infamous ‘oilgarch’ family who gifted the land for its transfer to and set-up in Manhattan presumably for influence; same ones behind the Population Council…. the present LNP govt. would be right up their alley.

  15. Chris

    Freethinker, thanks. Yes TA was and is one of the worst I can think of.

    But, I am not excusing people for not treating their vote responsibly. Just saying that I know people who will always vote for Labour or the LNP, not because they have thought about it, just because whatever and because they want to avoid getting a fine. If the fine is the issue, then I don’t want those people voting at all. Stay at home. Look at the people who have reelected BJ, many won’t hear a bad word about him and he is the caricature of largesse and what’s in it for me. But many people can’t see it and It’s not as though we get any good alternatives at the ballot box. None of us, me included, want to get out there in a real sense, join or start a party, and advocate our points of view. Even my missus says I don’t want to know (the truth)…

    Australians are not dumb, but they are not smart when their news is not curated, when they don’t seek out views here and elsewhere that aren’t on the tv, radio or papers.

    I’ve been voting since the late 70s. It’s only now that I realise that none of the choices I was given were even worth voting for.

    Australia’s treatment of those who come here by boats has been appalling. Doesn’t matter which government you talk about. Boat people all had enough money to fly here, they just couldn’t get a tourist visa and a passport. Many have died and the politicians that made the decision to incarcerate them, at great cost to taxpayers, have blood on their hands.

    There will be a reckoning, there always is when people do horrid things.

    thanks again for your thoughts.

  16. Matters Not


    why the anonymity?

    Because the ‘arguments’ advanced have nought to do with who advances same. Thus the lack of a name matters not?

    Is AnnaMargaret a pseudonym? A typo? Who cares? More importantly, how does the question asked contribute to anything – other than idle curiosity?

    Chris – optional voting favours the ‘conservatives’ – those who don’t want any change.

    PS – those who vote for Labour aren’t people who vote in Australia. Here they have the option of voting for Labor . Just sayin..

  17. Chris

    thank you matters not.

    Conservatives? What does that even mean? When you are not offered a choice, you stick with the devil you know. It’s choice we don’t have given that big money owns the cs, whether they pretend (lie) to be liberal, left, right, conservative or whatever.

    And yes, I do know the difference between Labour and Labor and there are reasons the ALP chose the latter. Calling me out on a slip is, well, a good point.

    At least in Labour land, the head of the party is chosen by the members of the party and not by the MPs. Laborlite they are, beholden to the gold they all line their pockets with.

  18. Kronomex

    It’s not the country as a whole that is morally backwards it’s the current government that is both utterly morally and politically corrupt. As the old adage goes, “The rot starts at the head.”


    short answer ‘Yes’. But not to mention any other form of backwardness like cultural and intellectual. Its a wasteland inhabited by complete philistines controlled by pastoralists and miners. No mention of the persecution and vilification of the unemployed. Could go to town on that surely. Great article.

  20. johno

    Would have to agree with freethinker and definitely think we are morally backward.

  21. Glenn Barry

    Unfortunately I believe the question now required is how morally bankrupt is Australia?


    Until the Australian people have a bill of rights, more stringent arrangments for the accountability of politicians and strong anti corruption laws the morally bankrupt will continue to inhabit the halls of parliament.

  23. ace Jones

    Un is a collection of burnt out corrupt pollies and public service rats . They have stood by whilst innocent pple have been slaughtered/starving
    in their thousands. They are enablers of dishonesty, and deceit, starvation and wars across the world.

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