Australia’s international development NGOs have united to sound the alarm on the growing repression of peoples’ rights and freedoms in Australia’s region and have called for Australian foreign policy-makers to more vigorously address the disturbing trend.
In a resolution passed unanimously at the national conference of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) in Sydney – proposed by Save the Children and Oxfam Australia – NGOs agreed to press the Australian Government to strengthen Australia’s foreign policy by “advancing the grounding values of political, economic and religious freedoms”.
Speaking following the passing of the resolution, ACFID CEO, Marc Purcell said:
“For 13 consecutive years the world has seen a decline in political rights and civil liberties and the space for civil society has been attacked and curtailed.
“Global reports show only 4% of the world’s population now live in countries where freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are respected.
“It is in Australia’s region where some of the most egregious repression has occurred. Extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, human rights violations in Myanmar and the imprisonment of opposition leaders in Cambodia are the tip of the iceberg. This growing repression is a threat to Australia because it sets the scene for greater conflict and a more unstable region.
“Australia must act with its international partners, use its position on the UN Human Rights Council to champion universal human rights and call out violations.”
ACFID has welcomed last week’s speech by Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke MP, in which he emphasised that Australia would make clear where its values are threatened but has called on the Government to more actively address violations of freedom of expression, worship and association by investing in strong civil society through Australia’s Official Development Assistance Program.
Purcell added: “Flourishing and vibrant civil societies in our backyard makes Australia less vulnerable to geographic, climatic, economic and political crises. Australia’s development cooperation program can sharpen its game in arresting the trends we are witnessing.”
ACFID’s members operating in the Asia-Pacific region have witnessed shrinking space for civil society and the state repression of human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and experienced restrictions on access for international humanitarian workers.
Mat Tinkler, Acting Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children Australia, the NGO proposing the resolution said:
“Civil society organisations are central to a functioning democracy but we’re increasingly seeing them silenced by governments.
“Raising human rights concerns or being critical of government policy shouldn’t put funding for vital services or humanitarian aid at risk.
“To achieve long-term, sustainable change, civil society organisations must have the ability to participate fully and advocate vigorously without fear of retribution.”
Oxfam Australia Chief Executive, Lyn Morgain, – who seconded the resolution – said it was crucial to a functioning democracy that non-government organisations were able to promote human rights, fundamental freedoms and good practice through advocacy.
“A vital test of any democracy is the ability of the people to express views that are not shared by the government.
“Without the ability to influence policy and social attitudes, Oxfam would simply not be able to deliver on its mission here and around the world.”
“ACFID members are facing an increasingly restricted environment in many countries where we work, which challenges our ability to hold governments to account while providing critical services, such as healthcare, and humanitarian assistance,” Ms Morgain said.