As you might expect, the Australian Council of Civil Liberties (report here) has attacked Philip Ruddock’s remarkable claim yesterday that the UN Convention on Human Rights requires the government to suppress civil liberties in order to fight terrorism.

Certainly,
the contrast with the government’s past disdain for UN conventions is
striking. But even the civil libertarians seem to have missed the most
important point about Ruddock’s argument: that it fundamentally
misunderstands what human rights treaties and the like are all about.
We
don’t need a human rights treaty or a bill of rights to tell us that
governments should be protecting the citizens’ lives – that’s their
job. The point of a bill of rights is to constrain the way governments
go about doing their job. It tells them that whatever else they do,
they must ensure they do not themselves violate peoples’ rights – it’s
a statement that the ends do not justify the means. In other words,
human rights treaties are not there to protect us from terrorists, or
from one another, but to protect us from government.

Ruddock’s
view sets up a moral equivalence between government actions and
government failures to act, but a moment’s thought shows that this is
absurd. If the police fail to prevent a murder, it’s unfortunate, but
it happens all the time – it’s not a human rights issue. But if the
police kill innocent people, it’s a much more serious matter, because
it puts us at risk from the very agency we have established to protect
us.

If one thought that Ruddock really believed his own
argument, it would be disturbing that we have an attorney-general who
could muddle up such basic issues. It is much more likely, however,
that he’s cynically making whatever argument he thinks will serve the
immediate purpose, and trusting that the media will be too incompetent
to expose him.

Sadly enough, he’s probably right.

Peter Fray

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