(Sydney) – – Australia’s new Coalition government should ensure that its “Asia first” foreign policy puts human rights at the forefront, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The new prime minister has suggested he will have a regionally focused foreign policy, adopting a “more Jakarta, less Geneva” approach and giving priority to the Asia-Pacific region.
Human Rights Watch outlined a range of foreign and domestic policy issues and made recommendations for the Australian government to protect human rights abroad and at home.
“Australia should recognize that a secure Asia-Pacific region depends on countries working together to address human rights problems,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Abbott shouldn’t give other countries in the region a free pass on human rights, just as he shouldn’t neglect important rights issues at home.”
The countries covered in the letter are those in Asia where a strong Australian human rights foreign policy can make the most difference: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. Human rights concerns in these countries include crackdowns on freedom of expression, assembly, and association; repression of religious minorities; and failure to hold security forces to account for torture, killings, enforced disappearances, and other abuses.
During his election campaign, Abbott said that the coalition’s foreign policy would be “designed to protect and project our reputation as a strong and prosperous nation and our values as an open liberal democracy.”
Promotion of these values should include publicly raising human rights concerns with foreign leaders, Human Rights Watch said. Yet in bilateral meetings in Indonesia and on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last week, Abbott failed to raise human rights concerns with Indonesian, Chinese, and Vietnamese leaders. He instead discounted Australia’s human rights role, saying: “We will say our piece when there are major human rights abuses taking place but, generally speaking, it’s not the job of the Australian prime minister to stand up and give lectures to the wider world.”
Human Rights Watch also made recommendations to the Australian government on several important domestic policy issues, specifically asylum seekers and refugees, disability rights, and same-sex marriage.
“Governments shouldn’t be afraid to speak frankly with their neighbors when they see an opportunity to improve human rights,” Pearson said. “Of course the message will be strongest when the government is seen as walking the talk that it gives overseas, and that means addressing the limitations of its own human rights record.”