Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne has promised to use her position to defend human rights around the world but she has sometimes shown excessive caution in pushing the cause in our immediate region.
There are worrying signs that human rights are going backwards in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia.
Unfortunately, Australia seems reluctant to take the lead out of exaggerated concern that criticism of human rights will drive these countries into the arms of China.
Speaking out on human rights could indeed antagonise our regional partners in ASEAN where countries generally refuse to interfere in each other’s domestic affairs.
But as Ms Payne herself said recently at the United States Studies Centre: “Turning a blind eye to all human rights violations means accepting behaviour that undermines the foundations of international peace and stability.”
Australia’s weak response to the human rights situation in Cambodia contrasts with a much more forceful approach by the US and the European Union.
The US Congress this year slapped sanctions on the regime of President Hun Sen who suppressed the opposition and won a fake election last year.
Cambodia is also coming under pressure because the EU has launched a formal process which could lead to the loss of trade preferences within a month.
The pressure is producing some results. The regime last week released from house arrest Kem Sokha, an opposition leader, who has been in jail for two years on treason charges, although for now his political rights have not been restored.
Meanwhile another Cambodian opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, has sparked a series of diplomatic incidents in neighbouring Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia which he is trying to use as entry points to return to Cambodia from exile.
Australia should use this new round of diplomatic action as an opportunity to highlight Cambodia’s retreat from democracy and call for solidarity from ASEAN neighbours.
Australia should also be considering following the US and the EU in imposing targeted sanctions.
Australia has also failed to take a strong stand in the case of Australian citizen Chau Van Kham, whom Vietnam arrested 10 months ago and has just charged with “terrorism” for his role in Viet Tan, a human rights group that promotes peaceful opposition to the country’s Communist Party dictatorship.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison made an official visit to the country in September where he said he canvassed the issues but made no further comments.
Meanwhile, Australia refused to be drawn into allegations of human rights abuses when Indonesia’s armed forces suppressed separatists protests in the restive province of West Papua a few months ago.
Australia’s influence as a middle power is, of course, limited and it is harder to speak out in a geopolitical climate where China offers a model for development with no human rights strings attached.
Preoccupied with impeachment and US domestic politics, the Trump administration has also made things harder with its lack of focus on human rights and its short attention span in the region. The US sent only a low-level delegation to an ASEAN and East Asia summit in Bangkok this month.
Speaking out publicly is, of course, not the only option and sometimes pursuing action via discreet talks behind closed doors might be the best approach.
Yet if Australia is to speak out against China’s abuse of human rights of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang or the perilous situation in Hong Kong, it must show consistency and promote the same values here in our own neighbourhood.
- The Herald's editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here
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