Perpetrator of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide. Documented serial violator of international law and the most fundamental human rights. Complicit in territorial aggression.
All these accusations, and countless more like them, have recently been made by mainstream commentators, respected academics and official international figures.
Of whom do they speak? Australia, of course.
But does such insistent, brutal critique create a misleading picture of actual moral performance?
Relentless, powerful criticism
Most readers will be familiar with these accusations. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers attracts well-publicized accusations of crimes against humanity and prompts serial reports of its serious breaches of human rights. Australia has recently been accused of racist and discriminatory acts of cultural genocide, ethnic cleansing and “acts of war” for proposals to remove basic services to its remote indigenous communities. Australia’s (lack of) action on climate change allegedly amounts to crimes against humanity and its involvement in Middle East conflicts is tantamount to the crime of aggression.
Meanwhile, major human rights reports highlight a “grim outlook” for Australia.
It is little wonder that respected international figures should thus mention Australia in the same breath as brutal regimes like Islamic State (IS), Syria and North Korea.
With all this in mind, you might be surprised where Australia sits in global human rights rankings. Australia consistently places in the very top echelon of such rankings. Equally, it is a strong performer on governance values, democracy indexes and combined measures of happiness.
There is a reason desperate refugees flood to Australia, rather than flee from it.
What explains the gap?
Of course, one can be comparatively a top performer and still be plagued with serious problems. But instead of using language appropriate to talking about serious problems, commentators routinely invoke notions of horrifying criminality. Through talk of genocide and atrocity, commentators often fail to distinguish between, on the one hand, savage slaughter and full-throttle repression and, on the other, rash, botched, insensitive, unilateral, ham-fisted or politicised responses to genuinely tough ethical questions.
Equally, the debate can be skewed towards criticism. Political discourse, media and activism are all prone to invoking crisis, sensation and scandal.
Even academia is not immune. Social “critique” rightly bears a special place in academic life, but can direct attention towards what is going wrong, rather than what is going right.
Some of these practices — for example, politicians’ confected outrage — are lamentable. Other practices, such as academics and independent bodies speaking truth to power, are vital. Nevertheless, these many different phenomena combine to paint a misleadingly depressing picture of the country’s moral landscape.
Even if the picture is skewed towards critique, real benefits arise. A negative slant can head off the natural tendency towards venerating one’s own community. Such a tendency can tempt us towards ugly nationalism or delusions about inherent cultural superiority.
Having high local expectations can also help secure important reforms and prevent complacency. For example, by congratulating ourselves on our high global rankings, Australians might spurn the call for new human rights legislation — even though this might be a powerful method for responding to the serious problems we do face.
What’s the cost?
Hyperbole can undercut support for important causes when objective, balanced argument would work better.
Rather than changing their behavior, people might switch off from critique. They might see the United Nations and human rights itself as nothing but unrelenting sources of shame and rebuke.
So, too, can other countries easily brush aside Australia’s entreaties to respect rights and international law. Who are we to preach to others — like Russia or Indonesia — if our own brand is irreparably tainted (as Iran recently queried)?
But perhaps the most serious ramifications of this cultural phenomenon lie in the potentially corrosive effect on ordinary people’s moral character.
Like every society, Australia needs to encourage reasonable allegiance and commitment to its social and political processes. We are all shocked when young people choose to betray Australia’s values by joining a genocidal regime like IS. Yet our own “public relations” efforts showcase our flaws, not our successes.
If people give up on the society around them, then they can tend to excuse their own moral failings and self-righteously disconnect from political life. Why play fair if the system is corrupt?
Finally, while it can feel good to scold wrongdoers, encouragement sometimes works better for achieving results.
In the current environment, Australians would struggle to feel any kind of “cultural ownership” of human rights. This is a real shame. From the most inauspicious beginnings, Australians have built their country into an extraordinary human rights success story.
They should be inspired to go on living up to that status.
Hugh Breakey is a moral philosopher at the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law at Griffith University.
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