Australia (and in particular Labor icon Herbert Vere Evatt) was instrumental in drafting key elements of the source documents for the UN, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So it would be interesting to know what Doc Evatt would make of contemporary Australian attitudes to human rights. 

Of course the world is a more complex place than it was in Doc Evatt's day, but I still like to think that human rights should be considered...well, universal. And that Australia would be willing to stand up publicly to countries that failed to uphold those rights. We have of course done that on numerous occasions, but with our recent election to the UN Security Council we will be forced to consider human rights issues in areas we have been able to ignore previously.

A good starting point would be in the Arab world, and in particular Bahrain, where decades of religious discrimination has led to regular uprisings, including a particularly bloody episode 18 months ago. While the minority Sunni monarchy called for an independent commission of inquiry into events, it has faced criticism that the inquiry was all for show and that religious discrimination and an unwillingness to reform remain. Human Rights Watch has been particularly scathing in its criticism. 

Which brings me to the Australian pledge. In his recent address to the 21st regular Session of the UN's Human Rights Council, Foreign Minister Bob Carr notes that Australia (1:57 mark) argued for the inclusion of what became known as the 'Australian pledge' that eventually formed Article 56 of the UN Charter. It called for joint and individual action to ensure, among other things, 'universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion' (my emphasis). 

Senator Carr says this without any hint of hypocrisy as he sits next to the delegate from Bahrain, whose country's lack of respect for the human rights of its Shi'a majority is a matter of historical record.

Still, Carr is not alone in his silence on the issue. Kevin Rudd, his predecessor and rather vocal proponent of Australia's middle power diplomacy, doesn't appear to believe that the Australian pledge needs to be applied universally. In his recent address to an ANU conference on change and continuity in the Middle East, the religious discrimination practised by Bahrain, a regional ally of Australia, didn't rate a mention.

Rudd, like Carr, said 'our foreign policy is also animated by universal values of freedom, fairness and international law.' Universal, that is, unless you are an ally. Then they become subjective values, not to be spoken about in polite company. Mr Rudd even traveled to Bahrain last week to speak at the annual IISS Manama Dialogue, an event bankrolled by the Bahraini Government.

I understand all about realpolitik and have written about Australia's silence on the issue of Bahrain previously. But if we are to be true to the ideals encapsulated in the 'Australian pledge', then the Foreign Minister should be talking publicly about those who don't uphold it, and members of parliament such as Kevin Rudd who speak at conferences sponsored by governments that don't uphold that pledge should either not attend or use it as a forum to remind those same states of their responsibilities under Article 56 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is what activist middle powers should aspire to.

I wonder what Doc Evatt would have made of it all.

Photo by Flickr user Al Jazeera English.