Australia maintains its sanctimonious stance on human rights

Dec 15, 2021
Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics
A diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics will make no difference to China's policies. (Image: AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

The diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics is just the latest example of Australia’s rank hypocrisy in criticising rights abuses by other nations.

The recently announced diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing by Australia has all the features of a political win for the Coalition government. It came on the back of its allies also refusing to send diplomats to the 24th edition of the games, it received bipartisan support from the Opposition and it has the added bonus of making Australia look strong on the issue of human rights. It is this last point, however, that remains an issue of dishonesty by Australia. For the country has a very uneasy relationship with human rights — both at home and abroad.

East Timor

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre — a horrific act of violence in East Timor by the occupying Indonesian forces that resulted in the deaths of more than 270 civilians. It was only after journalist Max Stahl risked his life to video the massacre that anyone even become aware of it. Australia’s foreign minister at the time, Gareth Evans, derided the acts as an “aberration” rather than an act of state policy. This was despite Indonesia having illegally occupied the island since 1975 and eventually causing the deaths of over 200,000 East Timorese.

The Australian‘s Greg Sheridan, who has been hawkish in his criticism of China and in calling for Australia to expand militarily in the region, opined of the Santa Cruz massacre that “even genuine victims frequently concoct stories”. At the time, the current editor-at-large of the national broadsheet, Paul Kelly, called the Indonesian leader Suharto a “moderate”, and both men championed a closer relationship between Australia and his regime.

In more recent times, Sheridan has lent his support to Hungarian leader Viktor Orban and the current Polish government, led by the ironically named Law and Justice party. Like Suharto in Indonesia, both have been accused of undermining the rule of law, fascist behaviour and cracking down on dissidents. None of these human rights abuses have caused the Australian government, or the News Corp papers, to offer any calls for diplomatic boycotts.

Diego Garcia

In a recent article, academic Binoy Kampmark contrasted the verbal rhetoric of US President Joe Biden, who stated that “standing up for human rights is in the DNA of Americans”, with his nation’s armament and expansionist policies in the Indo-Pacific region — something that Australia has consistently derided China for. This hypocrisy can best be seen in the behaviour of Australia’s two closest allies, the US and the United Kingdom, on the small island of Diego Garcia.

The island is now no more than a militarised atoll in the Indian Ocean, owned by Britain but occupied by the US military. It recently was mentioned as being one of the CIA black sites used for “nefarious activities” — the illegal torture regime enacted during the “war on terror”. John Pilger’s documentary Stealing a Nation showed how the entire native Chagossian population, which numbered over 2000, was exiled from the island between 1967 and 1973. The native people were sent to Mauritius to make way for an airbase that provided a platform for US bombers to strafe South-East Asia during the Vietnam War and which is now a permanent American military presence in the Indian Ocean. The base has also been used to house cluster bombs as a way of avoiding British parliamentary oversight.

In 2019 the United Nations International Court of Justice found that Britain should return the islands back to Mauritius. The judge described the occupation as “an unlawful act of continuing character”. Britain derided the findings, retorting it would give up the islands only when they were no longer required for “defence”. The UN General Assembly affirmed the court’s findings in May 2019 but was rebuffed by both Britain and the US. This act of defiance was unquestioned by the Australian government despite the obvious breach of human rights in not allowing the native Chagossian people back to their homeland.

At home

In Australia itself, contention around human rights issues remains unwaveringly prevalent. The Human Rights Measurement Initiative found that Australia ranked fourth last out of 25 high-income countries in the “quality of life” category. This measurement included the right to education, food, health and housing.

The report found that Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers and refugees were especially vulnerable to gross human rights violations. Furthermore, Indigenous individuals continued to be highly discriminated against and this was exacerbated by heavy-handed policing measures during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Many scholars also noted that Indigenous Australians faced arbitrary arrest and imprisonment at much higher levels than non-Indigenous Australians.

Despite being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949, the White Australia policy was not retracted until the 1970s and this has had a direct influence on the inequality faced by Indigenous Australians. According to Human Rights Watch, Australia’s policy of offshore detention of asylum seekers and refugees remains “one of the most inhumane means by which these individuals are processed prior to entering the country”. All of these issues continue to be prevalent in Australian society.

The diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics serves little actual purpose as China’s policies in regard to its Uyghur population will no doubt remain unchanged. It will, however, allow both the Australian government and the hawkish writers that support an aggressive foreign policy in the region to wax lyrical about Australia supporting human rights — without enacting any tangible change. Australian athletes will still compete in China, and presumably Australian footballers will still go to Qatar next year if they qualify for the FIFA World Cup. The abuses in those countries won’t be altered by a lack of Australian civil servants in Beijing and Doha.

The failure to address human rights violations by its allies and at home is just as pressing for Australia as any other nation. It isn’t whataboutism to say that without moves to substantially fix these issues, claims of hypocrisy against Australia will continue unabated.

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