Human rights at home and away
Human rights abuses happen everywhere, including Australia. Amnesty International has today released a report on human rights, which is critical of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and Aboriginal people. Claire Mallinson discusses the report’s findings and takes a look at the effect of digital media on the fight for human rights.
When Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released after 15 years under house arrest late last year, one of the first things she commented on was how she had missed the digital revolution.
That may be so, but the digital revolution did not miss her. When she stepped out on to the balcony of her home she was greeted by a sea of supporters, mobiles phones held aloft and eager thumbs pressing buttons. Within seconds her picture could be seen on web sites, the internet and 24-hour news channels around the world.
This year from the streets of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Syria and Yemen the daily images of thousands of ordinary men and women defying tanks, military snipers and armed troops were streamed to millions of people around the world via digital media.
Day after day they stood in defiance of those who have ruled them for decades, saying: “enough is enough”.
These ordinary men and women simply asked for political, religious and economic freedom – freedom to work, freedom to be educated, and freedom to live in a society that allows them to speak their minds without fear of being arrested, beaten, tortured or possibly killed.
Arguably, not since the end of the Cold War have so many repressive governments faced such a challenge to their hold on power.
Protesters in North Africa and the Middle East have shown that human rights gains are not “granted” by governments but seized and won by the people.
Despite what some governments might say, human rights are indeed universal; these protesters are proving that everyone deserves and craves freedom of expression, and an end to social and economic injustice.
Indeed, we have seen remarkable diversity and unity among protesters of different ages, backgrounds, and political and religious affiliations, with a notably prominent role played by women, whose voices have not been heard for generations.
We have seen governments responding with familiar and long-standing methods of repression – excessive use of force, mass arrests and torture – but this has often only made protesters more determined for change.
Since Amnesty International came into being 50 years ago the message has remained the same even though the method of delivery has changed.
Fifty years ago, when London lawyer Peter Benenson began a letter campaign to urge governments around the world to free men and women being held for their political or religious views, the message was delivered via telex, radio, first generation television and newspapers.
Today that message can be delivered live to millions of people around the world.
However, those who fight against human rights also have access to the technology and are using it to counter human rights activists. And if that does not work they resort to what they know best – brute force.
Today Amnesty International issues its annual report – The State of the World’s Human Rights - published in more than 25 languages and covering 157 countries from the most affluent to the desperately poor.
In the Asia-Pacific the report highlights the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
It reviews the jailing of Chinese dissident and writer Liu Xiaobo for his role in drafting Charter 08, a manifesto for a more responsive and inclusive government in China. And the life sentence handed down to Indian doctor and activist Binayak Sen for criticising both the Indian government and Maoist groups for the spiralling violence in central India.
In Australia, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Amnesty International has been critical of the Government’s treatment of asylum seekers and its own indigenous peoples.
Last year, for example, the Government reinstated the Racial Discrimination Act but only partially restored protection of human rights. The Act had been suspended in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities since the 2007 government intervention. Disproportionate imprisonment rates for Indigenous Peoples continue to blight Australia’s human rights record.
If you are Aboriginal, you are 14 times more likely than a non-Indigenous person to be put in jail. Twenty years after Australia’s most significant inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody, people are still waiting for justice and most of the recommendations sit unaddressed.
Short-term solutions continue to be the hallmarks of refugee policy in Australia.
Given that it is legal to seek asylum, an end to mandatory, offshore and remote immigration detention is well overdue. In the last few days we have seen the Government announce a deal in which it will send asylum seekers to Malaysia.
If Australia is to ensure it is not complicit in abuse, any bilateral agreement with Malaysia must include an agreement that it stops caning, ends torture and signs the Refugee Convention.
Even so, we at Amnesty International remain optimistic. Events this year in North Africa and the Middle East have shown powerful governments, which have underestimated the burning desire of people everywhere for freedom and justice, that they must now back reform rather than the politics of repression that went before.
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