Human rights occupy a curiously uncomfortable place in Australian foreign policy. Like liberal democracies the world over, Australia’s foreign policy is built on principles of freedom, equality, respect for democratic values, and the rule of law. As former attorney-general, George Brandis remarked at the launch of Australia’s bid for election to a coveted seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, “commitment to human rights is essential to the very nature of what it means to be an Australian.” Human rights, he went on to say, “are integral to what we Australians regard as our sense of nationhood.”

In one sense, this view has underpinned a foreign policy that is overtly committed to advancing human rights through multilateral institutions and bilateral dialogues, and that views human rights both as intrinsic goods and as a foundation on which peace and prosperity are built. It is a foreign policy that ultimately saw Australia win election to the Human Rights Council (2018–20), engage as an enthusiastic participant in assessing the human rights performance of member states through its Universal Periodic Review process, or UPR, and emerge as a vocal advocate for a range of issues including gender equality, abolition of the death penalty, freedom of expression, and the establishment of strong national human rights institutions.

Yet Australian foreign policy is also marked by a deep reluctance to impose values on others, to take consistent and decisive action against countries that systematically violate their populations’ human rights, or to speak up against some of the world’s most egregious abuses. Preferring quiet diplomacy to overt criticism, Australia’s self-avowed pragmatism has earned it a reputation for being soft on human rights, for letting economic interests override democratic principles, and for signalling tacit acceptance of repressive regimes that routinely violate human rights. It has been accused of “losing its voice” on critical issues heard the Human Rights Council, such as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population of Myanmar, where it recognised the “complex challenges” faced by Myanmar while other states openly condemned the actions as appalling human rights violations.

Partway through its tenure on the Human Rights Council, Foreign Minister Marise Payne reiterated Australia’s democratic commitment to human rights in its foreign policy: “Democracy, the rule of law, individual freedom and the right to all to dignity and respect — these values have guided Australians for generations. And these are the values which Australia as sought to promote as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.”

Please click here to read the full “Uptight and uncomfortable” article published at Inside Story, written by Griffith Asia Institute member, Professor Renée Jeffery.