maandag, maart 29, 2021

People have rights as well as duties - A conversation with Matthew Neuhaus, Australian Ambassador to the Netherlands

Faith in Human Rights - Online dialogue with Ambassador of Australian to Netherlands Matthew Neuhaus

'We're all in this together', states the UN's recommendation paper on improving human rights during Corona. It is not a reference to a well-known pop song, but a nod towards the global health and human rights crisis we’re facing today. Indeed, the pandemic has already deepened the plight of society’s least protected. We are forced to ask ourselves: Who is ‘we’? And are we truly ‘in it’ together? In light of these questions, the Initiatives of Change project ‘Faith in Human Rights @75’ seems more relevant than ever.

As part of this project, IofC organized an interview with Matthew Neuhaus, Australian Ambassador to the Netherlands and longtime friend of IofC, on March 10th, 2021. Willem Jansen, an IofC program coordinator, conducted the interview via Zoom, which was followed up by an in-depth Q&A. During this meeting, Neuhaus and the participants reflected upon the coronavirus pandemic and other human rights crises, such as climate change, the proliferation of chemical weapons and the rise of the far-right in Europe.

Covid Pandemic Situation by WHO RegionIn times of corona, developing and distributing vaccines now form the key strategy in fighting off the virus. This inevitably brings up human rights concerns. Who do we vaccinate first, and why? How do we ensure universal access to the vaccines?

How do we prevent discrimination against the unvaccinated? And to which extent do measures against corona violate our freedom?

This last question has been a key issue in our current national debate. As Neuhaus points out, the Dutch are deeply concerned about increased government control. He too foresees ways in which current measures against corona might cause concern. These lockdowns, he says, could change the way we interact with each other. He also points out that Great Britain has already put restrictions on its foreign aid. They have justified these restrictions by claiming that the costly pandemic measures necessitates other budget savings. However, removing all measures against corona is not the answer, Neuhaus says. Rights, he stresses, come with certain duties. ‘It is important that we eventually reclaim our rights and freedoms. But we also have an obligation to not make others sick’, he says.

His last point does not only refer to an individual duty, but to a collective duty as well. As his country’s representative to the Organization of Proliferation of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Neuhaus is involved in the OPCW’s global effort to eliminate chemical weapons. He and the OPCW aim to hold Syria accountable for its use of chemical weapons, and also Russia for alleged novichok use.

Australia is also determined to hold Russia accountable for its role in shooting down the MH17 aircraft in 2014. The incident, which was a tragedy for the Netherlands as well as Australia, resulted in the loss of 298 lives. ‘We want Russia to do the right thing in the pursuit of truth and justice for the MH17 victims and their families’, the Ambassador insists, implying that these negotiations with Russia are not always easy. ‘But the overwhelming majority of nations want better’, he concludes on a hopeful note.

The conversation turns to the issue of climate change, and how climate change could affect our human rights in the future. As Neuhaus puts it, climate change is an existential crisis. After all, climate change affects everyone on Earth, and not just the most vulnerable amongst us. The speaker, who is an expert on international law, believes that measures against climate change should be embedded in international law, both globally and locally. As a human rights advocate, he simultaneously warns against using these laws in a discriminatory manner. He adds, ‘People have to feel that you’re working with them, not against them. You can’t take away people’s forests without providing for their livelihoods.’

As his warning highlights, the concept of human rights is not only a legal and ethical construction, but a political one as well. The merit of human rights seems evident, but some critics have argued that the concept is idealistic, secular and self-serving. Perhaps there is a political motive behind accusing countries such as Myanmar and China of human rights violations. Is the concept of human rights, indeed, opportunistic and Eurocentric? Neuhaus disagrees, citing his experience in Africa and pointing to a simple truth. ‘It’s not just the Western countries that demand human rights’, he says. ‘It’s the people themselves. It’s something that everyone wants. The desire for human rights is universal.’

There is, of course, also a political dimension to the interplay between immigration and human rights. Australia has been criticized for its immigration policy, which mandates immigration detention for all illegal arrivals, including those claiming protection as refugees. In light of these criticisms, Neuhaus again stresses the importance of freedoms and duties. Freedom of mobility is a right’, he remarks. ‘But this freedom has to be managed to prevent abuse and allow nations to protect their borders. Human trafficking, for example, has caused great suffering.’ He also stresses that the immigrant has responsibilities as well as rights. ‘The immigrant needs to accept the values of its country together with its freedoms’, he says.

One participant elaborated on this connection between politics, the ‘other’, and human rights. ‘Some right-wing parties have a very selective understanding of human rights, meaning, human rights for some people, but not all’, she says. Another participant points out that freedom of speech is often used as a justification for denying some people human rights. How do we prevent the far-right’s problematic stance on human rights from gaining momentum?

To the speaker, the solution is both personal as well as political. He stresses that it is important to keep the memory of the atrocities of World War II alive so we don’t repeat them.

www:joodsekindereninkampvught.nlHe cites the Children Remembrance Memorial in Camp Vught in the Netherlands, which commemorates the deportation of 1269 children to extermination camps in June 1943, as an example. International law provides solutions as well. ‘International law helps define what is acceptable within wider freedoms’, he says, drawing attention too to the work of The Hague based International Criminal Court in addressing impunity.

Moving beyond ethics, politics and international law, Neuhaus and the participants finally reflect upon the humanity behind human rights. According to the speaker, human rights are not only about law but also about how we behave. And perhaps that is what it all boils down to. Lotty Wolvekamp, chair IofC Netherlands, concludes the Q&A by lamenting the loss of respect in political dialogue and society. Touching the very ‘human’ core of human rights, she says, ‘You cannot have human rights without respect for the other.’

Shereen Siwpersad


* More about the project Faith in Human Rights