The Climate of Fear


In a climate of fear, protection of human rights becomes extraordinarily difficult. It brings to the forefront the tension between the majoritarian principle of democratic rule and the humanitarian principle of protecting the powerless and marginalised. In that setting, protection of human rights presents its greatest challenges.


The maintenance of civil liberties depends on the delicate balance between the government’s authority and its self-restraint. That balance will be compromised if any of three conditions are satisfied. The first is when the political opposition is either weak or absent. The second is when the press is weak or compliant. And the third is when the life of the nation is at risk from civil disturbance or external threat (whether real or imagined). The first two conditions have existed in Australia, in varying degrees, for a decade. The third was delivered on 11 September, 2001.

The terrorist attack on the United States transfixed the world as the Twin Towers exploded and collapsed in a giant cloud. The nightmare image of the second plane finding its target may be the defining image of this new century.

The response of Western governments to the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001 might be the defining characteristic of the 21 st century

Adequate protection of human rights depends on a number of things. First, Parliament must exercise restraint in legislating where human rights are affected. They should recognise that human rights are a basic assumption in democratic systems, and that majoritarian rule does not justify the mistreatment of unpopular minorities.

In the wake of 9/11, ASIO’s powers have been greatly increased. They now have the power to hold a person incommunicado for a week forcing that person to answer questions on pain of five years’ jail. The person need not be suspected of any offence. The Australian Federal Police now have the power to obtain a secret order jailing a person for up to a fortnight, without a trial and without the person having committed any offence. They can obtain a secret control order, placing a person under house arrest for up to 12 months without access to telephone or internet. In each case, the person affected by the order is not allowed to know the evidence against them.

These laws betray the most fundamental assumptions of a democratic society.

The protection of human rights also depends on the Executive showing restraint and decency in administering laws which have the potential to affect human rights. In this, the Howard Government has a miserable record made all the worse by their hypocritical maundering about ‘family values’ and a ‘fair go.’

The idea of a fair go was nowhere to be seen when Attorney-General Philip Ruddock instructed the Department of Immigration to argue the case of Ahmed Ali Al-Kateb, who had arrived in Australia in 2000 seeking asylum. He was held in immigration detention. He was refused a protection visa. He asked to be removed from Australia, because he found the Woomera detention centre unbearable. Unfortunately, he could not be removed because he is stateless “ there is no country in the world to which he could be returned. The Migration Act provides that a person who comes to Australia without a visa must be detained and must remain in detention until they get a visa or until they are removed from Australia.

This is the mandatory detention regime. People held in detention have not committed any offence: they are held in high security jails because an Act of Parliament orders it.

What of Al-Kateb? They refused him a visa, but could not remove him from Australia. The ‘fair go’ Howard Government argued that Al-Kateb could be held in detention for the rest of his life if necessary. That argument was found by the High Court to be legally correct and constitutionally valid.

If nothing else about the Howard Government is remembered, let it always be remembered that they argued for the right to jail an innocent person for life.

‘Family values’ cannot be reconciled with the indefinite detention of refugee families in conditions which drive children to attempt suicide.

ASIO has vast powers and seeks, wherever possible, to avoid any scrutiny of its activity by courts. Mahommed Sagar has been held on Nauru by Australia for five years, even though Australian officials accept that he is a refugee. He has been adversely assessed by ASIO, and they argue that they should not have to reveal to him or to anyone what they took into account in deciding to assess him adversely. Despite this, Sweden has recently agreed to receive him. Their decision is an eloquent recognition of both the cruelty and the stupidity of Australia’s position.

The protection of human rights also depends on the public remaining aware of how important human rights are to the health of our democracy. It is easy to support the idea of human rights for ourselves, our family, friends, neighbours, and so on. It is less easy to stand up for the rights of the unpopular, the marginal, those we fear or hate.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Public sentiment about locking up innocent men, women and children in detention centres has shifted over the past few years. But the trigger for change was the revelation that Cornelia Rau had been wrongfully held in detention for about a year. Public outrage seemed to reflect the perception that she was one of ‘us’ not one of ‘them.’ Her rights mattered but, by implication, the rights of the others in detention did not.

Ruddock made himself popular during the 2001 election campaign by vilifying refugees. He created a climate in which they were seen quite wrongly as a threat to the community. When Howard and Ruddock lied about the so-called children overboard affair, and when they used the language of ‘border protection’ to justify the Pacific Solution, they deliberately created a climate in which the public were able to think that asylum seekers were people whose human rights did not count, if we wanted to stay safe.

That sort of thinking so easily influenced by Governments is profoundly dangerous to the cause of human rights.

The Howard Government has abandoned David Hicks. Several things are clear about the Hicks case. First, he is not alleged to have hurt anyone at all. Second, he has not broken the laws of Australia, USA or Afghanistan. Third, the most serious allegation against him is that, fighting with the Taliban (then the lawful government of Afghanistan) he pointed a gun in the direction of an invading force, as the American troops were. It is not alleged that he fired at them. Fourth, he has spent five years in Guantánamo Bay, mostly in solitary confinement. Fifth, the treatment he has been subjected to in Guantánamo Bay breaches the Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of prisoners of war and it breaches Australian and US standards for the treatment of criminal suspects.

Hicks now faces the prospect of a trial in front of a military tribunal which even the prosecutors have acknowledged will not be a fair trial. Howard, Ruddock and Downer remain supremely unconcerned about Hicks’s fate. They have done nothing at all to help him.

The conduct of the Howard Government is impossible to reconcile with the values and assumptions which are basic to our democratic system. By enc
ouraging a climate of fear, the Government has greatly expanded its own powers at the cost of individual rights and freedoms. By exploiting the climate of fear, the Government has been able to engage in terrible abuses of human rights which would not otherwise be tolerated, but they pass without complaint as ‘border protection’ or the ‘war on terror.’

The basic values of our democracy, so hard won, are always at risk. In a speech in Boston on 28 January, 1852, Wendell Phillips said:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty power is ever stealing from the many to the few The hand entrusted with power becomes the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot

He might have been speaking of the Howard Government.

The Victorian Government of Steve Bracks has begun a move in the opposite direction by passing the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. While the Charter cannot affect Federal laws, it serves as a timely reminder that human rights are fundamental. The Charter will affect the way legislators and bureaucrats go about their work; it will give the courts the power to identify legislation which breaches basic human rights and have the Parliament consider whether it wishes to persist in those breaches.

The Charter’s most powerful effect is that it puts the assumption of human rights to the forefront: they will no longer be an optional extra. It serves as an important reminder that human rights are for all people, not just friends and family the unpopular, the unworthy, the feared and despised are also entitled to be treated as human beings, because they are.

What is needed, however, is a Federal Charter of Rights. The major human rights abuses in Australia are committed by the Federal Government: indefinite detention of asylum seekers, even though they have committed no offence; secret jail orders; secret control orders; secret hearings in which a person’s fate can be blighted forever.

In December 2004, the UK House of Lords decided a case concerning UK anti-terrorist laws which allow terror suspects to be held without trial indefinitely. By a majority of eight to one, they held that the law impermissibly breached the democratic right to liberty. Lord Hoffman said:

The real threat to the life of the nation comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.

The Law Lords recognised what the public have forgotten: that human rights exist for the protection of everyone, and in doing so they also protect our basic values.

When Howard or his Ministers murmur comforting words about values, they are lying. The case of Ahmed Al-Kateb, and David Hicks; the treatment of Cornelia Rau and the victims of the Pacific Solution; and the hundreds of refugee children in detention camps all these things tell you what sort of people Howard and his Ministers are. If they can mistreat one unpopular group, they will mistreat another, and another.

Do not wait until it is your turn. Human rights matter, especially in a climate of fear.

This is an edited version of the Annual Oration, delivered at the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission on13 December, 2006

Find out more about New Matilda’s Human Rights Campaign here

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