The Carr Doctrine? Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed some of the contradictions of Australia’s recent foreign policy agenda.  At the end of the blog, I argued that under new Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, there is an exciting opportunity to articulate a vision of Australia in the world that could expand upon the vision that Carr presented in his maiden speech to Parliament:

Running foreign policy is not just about protecting our national interest although by every tenet of diplomatic doctrine that comes first.

It is also being an exemplary global citizen when it comes to protecting human rights and the world’s oceans.

Carr’s vision of foreign policy speaks to the constructivist agenda in International Relations – ‘evidence of progressive moral change in world politics lies in the very raising of our ethical expectations which themselves can be demonstrated over time’ (Richard Price 2008: 303).  In short, it speaks to the idea that in the long-run our own national self-interest is best served by endeavouring to support a safe, harmonious environment for everyone else.  If foreign policy is perhaps the only branch of politics that permits the articulation of vision beyond the three-year election cycle, we have some luxury to debate what Carr’s foreign policy vision could entail.

As I argued in the first part of this blog, promoting security and economic foreign policy engagement amongst the great powers has not always been Australia’s forte.  The stakes for powerful countries are simply too high and Australia lacks influence on these issues for very understandable reasons.  But there are many areas of policy where great power interest may be less sharp or well defined and in these areas Australia could make a lasting contribution.  There is some track record. Australia championed the 8 hour working day, was second only to New Zealand in recognising women’s suffrage, the signatory state to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees that brought the instrument into force. It had a relatively generous refugee intake scheme for decades and made an early and enduring commitment to the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  Of course, there is a dark side as well: Tampa, Iraq and collusion with rendition spring to mind as recent examples.  But on balance, Australian governments have tried to be a force for good which is why perhaps the time is right to make promoting human protection a theme of Australia’s foreign policy. This could help us maintain, as Price suggests, a strong ethical expectation of ourselves at home and abroad.

What is human protection?  As United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon argues:

Human protection is a subset of the more encompassing concept of human security. The latter reminds us that the security of “we the peoples” matters every bit as much as the security of states. Human protection addresses more immediate threats to the survival of individuals and groups.

Human security has received a negative wrap.  It is increasingly perceived as a wishy-washy term at risk of not engaging anyone at the table where important decisions are made.  The phrases ‘soft’ and ‘non-traditional’ are used to explain human security.  Such terms are unhelpful and misleading.  Its ambition is important and directly connected to the security of nations. States are the core actors that can make an individual secure.  In turn when individuals feel safe the state itself is a stronger and more security institution. We know that if a child goes to school and manages to stay there until grade 7 she can advance her family’s income twofold when they become an adult.  Children with mothers who have received primary schooling are more likely to survive infanthood and more likely to attend school themselves.  Education and maternal health equality are key to societies breaking through perpetual violence and poverty.  These ‘soft’ issues make people and states secure by creating opportunities.

But states don’t always make people secure, in fact, when states do not live up to their responsibility to protect populations they are the key source of insecurity.  When human protection as a goal and as a responsibility is abandoned, other states have a responsibility to step in. But we can do more than that – states can create the foundations for strong human protection before we must face the dilemma of intervention or hand-wringing.

Geostrategic changes loom with the growing power of the BRICS.  There are new political and social shifts undergoing in the Middle East that will have to be navigated.  The environment is changing, natural disasters are likely to occur more often, sea levels are rising and basic food items and fuel will become scarcer and more expensive.  Vulnerable societies will be most weak to these changes, people will seek asylum in more stable states and conflicts will erupt.  There is nothing new in these forecasts, but the point is that human protection issues will be at the forefront of global politics the 21st century and Australia is in a unique position to address them.

Here are some modest contributions that Australia might make:

  • Convening an International Commission on the (legal) Protection of Persons in the event of Natural and Man-made Disasters. There has been astounding progress made by the International Law Commission in a three-year study on this area.  There has been intense discussions during this study about the relationship between protection and responsibility, the role of the state versus the international community and specific mention to the following: the Responsibility to Protect, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 and the ASEAN Charter discussion on coordinated disaster response and management.  However, it seems there is a lull in high level political engagement with the Hyogo Framework and, particularly, with ensuring momentum is alive in the UN General Assembly for recommending action to be taken on the findings of the ILC study.  The issue needs a champion – a good global citizen to keep it moving forward.  Australia, given its location and experience, is well placed to lead such a Commission, perhaps with a key neighbour such as Indonesia.
  • The decision by the Foreign Minister (and his advisory team) to make his first visit one to the country holding the ASEAN Chair for 2012 – Cambodia – was a masterstroke. Following this visit with drop-ins to Viet Nam and Singapore helped give credence to our claim to take relations with ASEAN seriously. Our relationship with ASEAN members states is vitally important and thus should publicly reflect more than just economic trade talks and bilateral frameworks about people smuggling.  We share the same geostrategic concerns, constraints and opportunities.  We share cultures, experiences and education.  This region also is very comfortable with discussion ‘human security’ issues in their formal and informal talks.  Funding an annual ASEAN Secretariat managed dialogue on human protection – starting with shared experiences of creating national human rights institutions – would be an important contribution from Australia and provides an excellent forum for Australia, if in attendance, to share as well as learn.


  • Finally, Carr is correct to engage with the promotion of human rights at the international level.  Economic and social rights are deeply connected to political and civil rights.  States that have human rights institutions, abide by civil and political rights, and stable democratic governments are more likely, not surprisingly, to function better in addressing horizontal and vertical economic inequality.   They are more likely to be politically stable and safe: we have found in our study on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities, that just the presence of national human rights institutions dramatically improves the potential for a state to mitigate the social and economic conditions that can fuel conflicts.  Most of the Millennium Development Goals should, hopefully, be met in 2015.  This is an astounding outcome, but there is much work to be done.  Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the work yet to be done requires not just the commendable achievement of targets such as primary schooling for all children, halving maternal and infant mortality and ensuring clean drinkable water; but ensuring people have the right to demand that these targets be met.  A framework of Human Rights Goals, entailing a set of rights that all legislations must introduce by a target date, would require governments to be held to account for when they fail to do so.  Achieving core human rights targets is an ambitious target, but is worth the discussion and one that Australia could aspire to lead with the aim of progressing social, economic and political equality for all peoples and nations.

The idea of a Carr Doctrine is perhaps a little whimsical and certainly doesn’t fit comfortably with the humility that I would suggest Australia adopt in its foreign policy devoted to the theme of human protection.  But as Mark Beeson concluded in his article, ‘given that countries such as Australia really do have compelling reasons to try and change the way the world’ such ambition of the likes of Carr, and Rudd before him, is not just understandable it is admirable.  Moreover, it is possible.  I have advocated our potential to lead in human protection and to explore the opportunity for partner engagement through three areas that I feel are core to human protection concerns: protection of persons in the event of natural and man-made disasters; ASEAN dialogue on human protection; and Human Rights Goals.  This is one suggestion.  I hope to see many more.

Sara Davies – Human Protection Hub

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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