Policy file: Human Rights Day

Abundant abuses, but a shortage of attention

Martin Blaszczyk

Government and governance, International relations, Law | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

14 December 2017

The responsibility to protect human rights has largely disappeared from the top of the international agenda, Martin Blaszczyk writes.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates its 70th birthday next year and the UN has launched a year-long campaign in the lead up to Human Rights Day on 10 December 2018.

While highlighting progress since its adoption, UN Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged that “in practice recognition of the inherent dignity and equal rights of human beings is still far from universal.”

No places in the world today emphasise this understatement more than Syria, Yemen, North Korea, and the border region of Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

It is hard to identify which of the 30 articles of the Declaration have not been violated in the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, including the right to a nationality and the right of return. The latest weapon in what the UN has called “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing” has been systematic rape, an atrocity documented by aid groups and media outlets including the Associated Press and the Times of India; while the latest consequence is child trafficking.

In Syria, it is also children who have borne a “disproportionately lethal impact” of the civil war, with one study cited by The Guardian estimating that one in four civilians killed in the country in 2016 was under the age of 18. The situation of children and other civilians in Yemen is now so desperate that one UK human rights group has called on its government to “prosecute” Saudi Arabia for its role in the crisis. For its part, the Saudis’ own media arm, Al Arabiya, does not cease to focus on Iran’s role in the Yemeni war, as well as its record of internal repression and foreign interference.

Meanwhile on Policy Forum, Sarah A Son points out that the intense attention being paid to North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests shouldn’t distract from its continued violent oppression of its own people – abuses well documented in the seminal report of the UN commission led by Michael Kirby.

While these top human rights violators continue to attract the occasional spotlight, a cursory examination of current campaigns run by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reveals a surprising array of issues in countries including Western democracies. From the deportation of Latin American migrants from the United States, to China’s repression of dissidents and the shackling of mentally ill people in Ghana, the two advocacy bodies paint a dismaying picture of injustice and woe spread across the globe.

Most recently, the world has been reminded of the continuing scourge of slavery and people trafficking. CNN has reported that young men are being ‘sold’ in Libya for about $US400 as migrants become trapped in the country and “as smugglers become masters, the migrants and refugees become slaves.” This shocking development prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to declare at a recent EU-Africa summit that a concert of European and African countries had “decided on an extreme emergency operation to evacuate from Libya those who want to be”.

When it comes to people smuggling, Australia has not escaped international scrutiny regarding the fate of the remaining refugees on Nauru and Manus Island, even as it was elected to the UN’s Human Rights Council for the first time in October. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, clinicians David Isaacs and Alanna Maycock are outraged that Australia is “wilfully damaging children’s health to deter others from seeking asylum.”

It isn’t that the West no longer cares about human rights. For example, The Independent reports that two-thirds of Conservative voters in the UK want a “significant” role for human rights in British foreign policy, while 45 per cent said Britain should never give aid to countries that have poor human rights records.

But in a world anxious with uncertainty, and exhibiting increasing authoritarian and isolationist tendencies, the responsibility to protect human rights has largely disappeared from the top of the international agenda.

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