Charter of rights the road map we need in dangerous times

Charter of rights the road map we need in dangerous times

In the wake of the atrocities that occurred in Paris we need our fundamental freedoms more than ever, writes Rob Hulls in the Australian on 20 November.

France declared a state of emergency and closed its borders. President Francois Hollande announced the nation’s response would be “merciless’’ and that a bombing campaign would be swiftly launched.
Other European countries are following suit — pulling up the drawbridges to what, understandably, they consider a serious threat.

This latest horror, of course, is a replica — albeit on a Western stage — of what the people of Syria, Iraq and other nations have been experiencing for many years. The attacks in Paris occurred against a backdrop of unprecedented numbers of asylum-seekers continuing to flee this kind of indiscriminate violence. Australia has decided to welcome 12,000 of them over the coming year.

Yet this welcome is conditional. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who expressed compassion for the asylum-seekers he met in Syria, remaining stony faced about the plight of others trapped in appalling conditions on our own watch.

In the week preceding the Paris attacks, Australia faced a barrage of criticism over its treatment of those who, just as terrified and in just as much peril, attempt to seek refuge by boat. More than 100 countries (North Korea, Iran and China were among them if we were looking for a reality check) lined up at the UN Human Rights Council’s Periodic Review of Australia’s human rights policies for the opportunity to have a crack, so many that each one could be allowed only just over a minute to air their concerns.

Simultaneously, as if according to script, the subject of these concerns rehearsed itself as desperate detainees rioted on Christmas Island following
the death of an Iranian man. Teargas was ultimately employed to restrain them.

So what does this latest convergence of events — a pattern played out increasingly frequently — tell us? Certainly it confirms that we live in confusing and frightening times. No one can pretend that the path will be an easy one as we stray further into uncharted terrain.

If the road ahead is uncertain, however, this means we need a map — particularly so when, by some sleight of hand, those who flee this terror are so readily conflated with those who wield it.

More than ever, we need fundamental principles to guide us. We need these principles when determining how to prevent any threat on our own soil. We need principles, not a religious recitation (“we’re saving lives at sea, we’re saving lives at sea, we’ve stopped the boats, we’ll turn them back, we’re saving lives at sea’’) so that the attacks in Paris do not give rise to the indiscriminately punitive approach emerging in some states in the US. We need guidance to help us starve, rather than feed, home-grown radicalisation. We need a map so that we do not wander haplessly into the abyss that - Islamic State itself has dug for us.

A national charter of rights and responsibilities would act as that map in times like these — steering a course between ensuring that our community is safe from harm and that vulnerable people are not subject to additional harm on our watch. A national human rights instrument would save us from the pitfalls, cautioning against ghettoising Muslim communities, against propelling young people into alienation so that radicalisation seems the only viable option. A national human rights instrument would prevent us from cementing the very dichotomy that Islamic State wants to create, from emerging as the raging giant on which its propaganda relies.

In other words, a national human rights instrument — similar to the ones operating in Victoria and the ACT and which looks likely in Queensland — would not only send a signal of the kind of society we want to be, but act as a highly pragmatic device to limit our more self-destructive instincts.
Floundering on without one, we may lose sight not only of our destination, but who we are and where we’ve been.

If that is the case, then any attacks by the forces of terror — whether random or highly organised, whether past or yet to come — will have done far more damage than we realise.

Rob Hulls is director of the Centre for Innovative Justice at RMIT University.

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