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
Many readers will be familiar with these accusations. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers attracts well-publicised 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.
A country to be proud of?
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.
Actual moral performance
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, as seen here, here and here. Equally, it is a strong performer on governance values, democracy indexes and combined measures of happiness.
Why do such comparative measures matter? After all, what possible solace can it be to someone suffering from violations of their rights to recognize that other places are even worse?
Yet comparative measures are important. They can remind us that key parts of our system are working, and therefore that reforms must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. They can underscore that other alternative forms of government may risk a step backwards more than a move forward.
More generally, when we see how much every state struggles with protecting rights, we begin to conceive what a powerful moral challenge we have set for ourselves. In 1748 Montesquieu could observe that, despite ordinary people’s love of liberty, and hatred of violence, most peoples in the world lived subject to despotism. His words still ring true today. Constructing political systems, run by fallible, diverse human beings, that reliably protect rights is notoriously hard to do.
It is true that none of this will (or should) impress any single person or group actually getting their rights violated. Calling attention to specific rights-violations and demanding targeted reforms remains as important a task in a country like Australia as in Syria.
But as well as focusing on discrete issues that are going wrong, sometimes we all need to make over-arching judgments about whether the state warrants our support and allegiance. When faced with things that are going badly wrong, we need to know whether we need reform or revolution. If our problems are systemic, then we probably need the latter. And when faced with opportunities (such as sending Australian troops as peacekeepers to Timor-Leste, or securing a seat for Australia on the Security Council) we need to be able to judge the likelihood that our state actors will behave well, or whether they will abuse their power. Both these sorts of issues require over-arching appraisals of how the general system is working.
(Of course, we should equally pay attention to comparative measures when they give us less happy news. Comparative measures can alert us to ways that other countries have made improvements or resisted changes that have led to their better performance (e.g., in their treatment of refugees and indigenous peoples).
What explains this gap between the critiques and Australia’s actual rankings?
As I have already stressed, one can be comparatively a top performer and still be plagued with serious problems, including serious rights violations.
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, penny-pinching, ham-fisted or politicised responses to genuinely tough ethical questions.
I must stress that to say that X is not Y, where Y is horrifyingly bad, is not to say that X is good, acceptable, or even legal. Nor is it to say that we do not need to urgently change our involvement in X. X may be bad and we may need to do everything we can to prevent it. But the distinction between the wrongs of X and horrors of Y may still be important. For too often acts of horrifying evil do happen in our world, and our responses to such evils cannot be the same as the way we respond to more everyday failings. We need to preserve a language that expresses the urgency and consensus appropriate in the face of acts of genocidal evil and intolerant slaughter.
But the problem of hyperbolic assertions in discrete cases is only half the issue. Even when the problems are described in appropriately measured tones, the debate can still be skewed towards criticism. Political discourse, media and activism all tend to focus on 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.
Aren’t there benefits to this negative focus?
Even if the picture is skewed towards critique, real benefits arise. A negative slant can head off the natural tendency towards romanticizing 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.
But at what cost?
Hyperbole can undercut support for important causes when objective, balanced argument would work better.
Rather than changing their behaviour, 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, other countries can 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 often works better for achieving results (and if we really care about human rights, isn't that what really matters?). As Thomas Merton once said: “In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him.” If Merton is right – and nothing I have ever seen in my many years of debating morality with others suggests he is wrong – then moral outrage and a relentless focus on what is going wrong are utterly unhelpful ways of convincing people to do better. A much better policy involves stressing how much people are doing right, and how noble and tolerant many of their values and actions are, and then moving to consider whether the current problem-areas can be improved to the same standard.
Indeed, convictions about the high standards of one’s institution or community can themselves motivate a ruthless and energetic stance toward ridding that institution of wrongful behaviours or elements. Australia’s Army Chief, Lieutenant General David Morrison, now-famous speech on sexism in the Australian Army provides a striking illustration.
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, albeit uneven, human rights success story.
They should be inspired to go on living up to their status as one of the leading protector of human rights worldwide.
(A shorted version of this article was previously published at The Conversation.)