KICKING off a diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia this week, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared her intention to “emphasise the importance of upholding human rights and the rule of law in democratic societies.”
Under Bishop’s leadership, Australia is gunning for a seat on the next UN Human Rights Council.
Professedly democratic Singapore – which has been ruled by the same party since 1959, still practices corporal and capital punishment and places authoritarian restrictions on freedom of speech, expression and association – is perhaps a bizarre choice of location to begin such a trip.
— Julie Bishop (@JulieBishopMP) March 14, 2017
The imprisonment of controversial blogger Amos Lee in 2015, then underage, clearly flies in the face of democratic and human rights norms. But Singapore’s harsh repression of free speech doesn’t only impact its own citizens.
Last year, 23-year-old Australian citizen Ai Takagi was given an eight-month prison sentence whilst pregnant for sedition. Takagi had allegedly published misreported content on the website she edited, The Real Singapore.
Bishop has said she will raise extrajudicial killings of drug dealers which are of “deep concern” to Australia whilst in the Philippines later in the trip. But in the wealthy, financial powerhouse of Singapore this week, human rights and democracy conveniently took a backseat to business.
Promoting democracy or arrogant finger-pointing?
Australia is one of the longest running democracies on the planet with a strong history of civil and political rights. Democracy watchdog Freedom House rated Australia on its Freedom in the World Index in 2017 an impressive 98 out of 100.
With democratic systems eroding rapidly all around it – from Thailand’s plummet into military dictatorship to the Philippines’ virtual abandonment of the rule of law – Australia is uniquely placed to play a role in promoting democracy, liberal values and human rights in the region.
On Monday, Australia’s foreign minister delivered the Fullerton Lecture for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, in which she discussed geopolitical challenges for the Asia Pacific going forward.
Controversially, Bishop said she hoped Trump’s America would come to “play an even greater role as the indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific,” while urging “non-democratic” states like China to submit to the existing “rules-based international order.”
Jerry Nockles of UNICEF Australia called Bishop’s speech “tremendous” for “rightly placing liberal values at the core of Australian foreign policy.”
But not everyone was so impressed.
A Chinese government think tank labeled Bishop’s speech “arrogant finger-pointing.”
An Op-Ed in Chinese state media Global Times boldly proclaimed that “the system advocated by Bishop in which the US should play an even greater role will not address problems, but will intensify confrontation with China.”
Equally worrying is Bishop’s own suggestion that the administration of Donald Trump – who openly supports torture – has undermined faith in American democracy by spreading baseless accusations of voter fraud, and who routinely attacks the news media – could be an effective champion of democracy in the Asia Pacific.
Would love to see the chain of reasoning that led @JulieBishopMP to conclude Trump paying more attention to our region would be helpful.
— Paul Barratt (@phbarratt) March 13, 2017
If Australia were truly serious about promoting democracy in its region, it would invest itself in developing the democratic institutions of its partners across Asia.
Instead, Australia continues to cut aid funding to strategic countries in the region where it could use its soft power to promote civil liberties, political rights and democratic values. Out of all wealthy OECD countries, Australia is most rapidly decreasing its development assistance spending.
In 2015 the government reduced its aid budget by AUD1 billion – with major reductions in its assistance to the emerging democracies of Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.
Amid a diplomatic row, Australia was seen to punish Indonesia – the world’s third largest democracy, currently grappling with a rise in intolerance and extremism – with a 40 percent reduction in development assistance.
Human rights start at home
When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addressed the UN General Assembly at a special refugee summit in September last year, he used it as a chance to promote Australia’s credentials for a seat on the Human Rights Council.
“We are committed to providing principled and pragmatic leadership… both through our actions at home, and our advocacy and cooperation abroad.”
Indeed, Australia huffed and puffed abroad about the death penalty when two of its citizens were executed for drug crimes by Indonesia in 2015.
Yet Australia’s own human rights record at home – namely its treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and its Aboriginal people – has come under sustained criticism by transnational civil society and numerous UN bodies in recent years.
Democracy and human rights are inextricably linked. If Australia is truly serious about defending the liberal order across the world and promoting democracy, it should start by cleaning up its own performance when it comes to human rights.
According to a report from Turnbull’s own government, Australia is currently failing to meet almost every target set for improving the lives of its indigenous population, including infant mortality, school attendance and employment.
Indigenous Australians’ life expectancy remains 10 years lower than the overall population, while rates of incarceration are dramatically higher. In 1987, a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody investigated deaths and rights abuses of indigenous inmates over a period of 10 years. It issued 330 recommendations – few of which have been implemented to date.
A scandal involving the abuse of predominantly Aboriginal children at a juvenile detention centre in the Northern Territory last year prompted the Turnbull government to announce another royal commission.
Yet Australia’s infamously harsh treatment of people seeking asylum remains relatively unchanged.
Defending rights when it’s convenient
Australia on Tuesday came under fire for its failure to properly condemn Burma’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. A spokesperson for Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre slammed the government’s statement as “hopelessly weak… no doubt reflecting the Australian trade interests.”
When Trump’s so-called “travel ban” on refugees and Muslims came into effect in January, world leaders lined up to criticise the policy. Other allies of the US including Canada, the UK, France and Germany all condemned the move.
While Australian citizens took to the streets to protest Trump’s freeze on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US, the prime minister was reserved. Turnbull merely stated that “it’s not my job as Prime Minister of Australia to run a commentary on the domestic policies of other countries.”
To be fair, such criticism would have been hypocritical given that Australia’s government recently attempted to impose draconian “life bans” on asylum seekers attempting to enter the country by boat.
Time for leadership
In its State of the World’s Human Rights report for 2016-17, Amnesty International stated that “Australia has made a proud commitment over the last 40 years to refugee resettlement, a non-discriminatory migration program and a strong policy of multiculturalism.”
“If Australia is serious about being a human rights leader, it must lead with consistency. Our Government can’t be saying one thing on the one hand and commit to some human rights agendas such as global abolition of the death penalty, while carrying out policies of deliberate abuse and staying shamefully silent in the face of atrocities on the other.”
Australia undeniably walks a tricky line between turning a blind eye to rights abuses and being dismissed by Asian neighbours as another rich western country speaking out of turn.
But pandering to Trump’s America and selectively defending human rights when it suits the national interest will do nothing to promote liberal democratic values in the Asia Pacific.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent