Australia has a long and complicated relationship with the United Nations. On one hand we’re a founding member and the 12th largest budgetary contributor. Over the last 70 years we’ve sent 65,000 troops on UN-led and sanctioned missions. On top of this, we’re seeking election to the Human Rights Council in 2018, and to the Security Council in 2029.
And yet on the other hand, we seem to ignore almost everything they tell us. Most recently, Premier Colin Barnett rejected the UN’s calls to withdraw an anti-protest bill currently before the Western Australian Parliament. Along with domestic groups including the Greens and Unions WA, the UN has voiced concerns about the law’s vague terminology and its exclusion from the presumption of innocence. The Premier dismissed these concerns on the grounds that Australia is “not some despot country in Africa,” and that therefore, Australian protestors need not fear that their rights will be abused. Needless to say, protestors – especially human rights activists – are not convinced.
Mr Barnett’s comments are not the first of their kind. Around this time last year, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that “Australians are sick of being lectured to by the UN,” about our asylum seeker policy. These ‘lectures’, spanning decades, warn that conditions in offshore detention, as well as our detention and resettlement policies themselves, contravene our human rights commitments. Organisations such as Amnesty International and the Australian Human Rights Commission have validated the United Nations’ concerns, but they too are largely ignored and dismissed. This could be accredited to the stubbornness of the “stop the boats,” policy, except that our intake of UN-certified refugees from camps around the world is also notoriously low. Last year, Australia unexpectedly announced an additional intake of 12 000 UN-certified refugees to help with the Syrian crisis, but according to the Refugee Rights Action Network, we’ve only taken 20 so far, and it could be next year before we take any more.
Asylum seeker policy is not the only bone the UN has to pick with us. Other highlights of the ‘Lecturing Australia’ series include inaction on racism, Islamophobia and LBGT+ rights; the Northern Territory Intervention and ongoing over-incarceration of Indigenous Australians; and a lack of commitment to renewable energy targets. We might get some points for our stance on Syria, which became more accepting of a diplomatic solution late last year, but we are staying vague: Australia supports an “internationally unified” response, but the UN is not the only pathway to that. The United States is still determined to militarily intervene as part of its War on Terror, and just as with Iraq in 2003, they are seeking a “coalition of the willing” in the face of UN disapproval. If past military action by Australia is anything to go by, we will probably be part of that coalition if it ever gets off the ground – UN be damned.
All this is not to say that life in Australia is in fact on par with that in the poverty-stricken dictatorial warzones and failed states to which Premier Barnett alludes, nor is it to say that we should blindly obey the United Nations in all things. The UN is not without flaws: for example, its entrenched power structures ignore rising powers such as India and Brazil, and marginalise numerically superior African and Asian countries. For these reasons and others, including hypocrisy and a lack of enforceability, some commentators argue that the UN is, if nothing else, irrelevant. They suggest that, as a sovereign nation, Australia can do whatever it wants, and it’s just too bad for the rest of us if what it wants doesn’t match up with the meaningless bits of paper we’ve chosen to socially construct as untouchable.
To those people I would say the UN is not irrelevant to the people it tries to save and give voice, such as asylum seekers and Indigenous peoples. The UN is not irrelevant to history, as a lasting if imperfect monument to global political cooperation. Most importantly, the UN is not irrelevant to Australia itself. We want to be accepted. In fact, we expect to be accepted, we even expect to be praised. Clearly, we put stock in their ideals and authority. We’ve signed documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture, and we’ve even ratified them, a separate process, because that’s how committed we like to think we are. And yet, when we have a policy that clashes – for example, the Malaysia Solution – we remove internationally recognised human rights law from our own, instead of changing our policy. The United Nation’s rules and structures may be imperfect, but there comes a point where Australia has got to start putting our money where our mouth is instead of biting the hand we expect to feed us.
Words by Jasmine Ruscoe
Art by Natalie Thompson