The Guardian September 6, 2000


Editorial:
Where is the Howard Government heading?

Infantile, appalling, petulant, incredible, narrow-minded are just some 
of the adjectives used in the torrent of criticism that has met the Federal 
Government's decision to wind-back its relations with the various sub-
committees of the United Nations.

Particularly revealing is its decision not to ratify an optional protocol 
regarding discrimination against women that would allow complaints of 
discrimination to be heard by a UN committee. This decision not only 
illustrates the Howard Government's attitude to the UN but also to women's 
issues within Australia. It may have been sparked by its blindly stupid 
decision to override the right of a single or lesbian woman to assisted 
fertilisation.

The Government's attack on UN committees comes just as the United Nations 
General Assembly opens in New York. The session was preceded by a meeting 
of NGOs attended by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the President of 
the UN General Assembly.

Speaking to the meeting of the NGOs Kofi Annan said, "You are our best 
defence against complacency, our bravest campaigners for honesty and our 
boldest crusaders for change". He pledged to provide non-government 
organisations with greater access to the world body.

But there is more to the Australian Government's actions than just 
petulance in the face of the severe criticism that the government has 
received over the issues of the stolen generations, mandatory sentencing, 
women's rights, native title rights, and Aboriginal health issues. The 
Government's first response is to dismiss the criticism and to shoot the 
messenger.

Its second response is to restrict the visits of representatives of UN 
bodies and to provide information only when "there is a compelling reason 
to do so". This is an attempt to slam the doors and pull down the blinds. 
But what happens in Australia can no more be hidden from the eyes of the 
world's TV cameras and the Internet than what happens in other countries 
can be hidden.

Inherent in the Government's actions is an attack on the NGOs that play a 
prominent role in the political life of many countries today as critics and 
lobbyists. They provide a voice and a means of activity for tens of 
thousands of people on many important community issues.

The Australian Government has launched a campaign in the UN, together with 
other "like-minded" states, to change the rules concerning UN committees so 
that whatever governments say will be given precedence over the submissions 
of NGOs.

If such an attitude is to be pushed in the UN, how long will it be before a 
similar restrictive and repressive attitude is taken within Australia? 
Attempts to limit the effectiveness of NGOs are already to be seen in the 
Government's cuts to the funding of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait 
Islander Commission. ATSIC has taken its criticisms to various UN bodies 
and it is this that the Government is attempting to stifle.

The Government's arguments are an appeal to the unthinking and isolationist 
part of the electorate and it is worthwhile recalling that Pauline Hanson's 
One Nation voiced just such sentiments. In many respects, Howard has taken 
over her agenda.

The question of a reform of the United Nations is high on the agenda of the 
current meeting of the General Assembly and it is possible that the 
Security Council may be enlarged to include some Third World countries as 
permanent members. This could effectively break down the up to now, 
predominant weight of Europe and the United States in the UN.

This development would not be to the liking of these countries and it would 
fuel the already existing tendency for the US and others to by-pass the UN 
as was done in the illegal war against Yugoslavia, or the continued bombing 
of Iraq and the open interference into the internal affairs of many 
countries.

The Australian Government's present actions are a signal that it could shun 
the UN altogether if the organisation adopts policies that go against its 
arrogantly expressed interests and opinions.

Such a course would not only justify the charges of being infantile and 
narrow-minded, it would be highly dangerous for the people of Australia as 
well as for Australia's relations with the rest of the world and its 
standing in the international community.
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