Elaine Pearson is the Australian Director of Human Rights Watch.
As a graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school, Elaine is a global expert in human rights law and has worked all over world – including stints at the United Nations and various NGOs.
Elaine joined Misha Zelinsky for a fascinating chat about the intersection of democracy and human rights, the fate of Hakeem Al Arabi currently detained in Thailand, China’s use of hostage diplomacy and its muslim reeducation camps, whether autrocrats are winning the global PR battle and what role Australia has as a middle power in global diplomacy.
Misha Zelinsky: Elaine Pearson, welcome to Diplomates. Thank you for joining us.
Elaine Pearson: Thanks for having me.
Misha Zelinsky: So, you’re the head of Human Rights Watch in Australia, so a lot of places we could start, but it seems a good place for us to start the conversation might be the news related to the young soccer player, Hakeem, who’s now been detained in Thailand. Maybe you could just give us a bit of background about that before we start to discuss it?
Elaine Pearson: Yeah, sure. I mean Hakeem al-Araibi went on a belated honeymoon to Thailand in November with his wife. He’s originally from Bahrain. He got refugee status in Australia in 2017, and when he got off the plane in Thailand, he didn’t even make it to Bangkok, or anywhere, because a squad of police were waiting for him. And what had happened was that there was an Interpol red notice out for him, which was actually a massive screw up. Interpol should’ve never issued the red notice because he’s a refugee, but he was sentenced in absentia in Bahrain for a crime that he says that he didn’t commit, to 10 years in prison, for supposedly vandalizing a police station. So since that time, Bahrain has basically issued an extradition request. Interpol got rid of the red notice, because as I said, it should never have been issued. And he’s sitting now in Bangkok jail, awaiting, basically the trial for extradition proceedings to be carried out.
Misha Zelinsky: And of course he is a refugee in Australia, subsequent to the Arab Spring in Bahrain. And so he came to Australia when?
Elaine Pearson: He came to Australia in 2014.
Misha Zelinsky: Right. And he’s a permanent resident, but not a citizen?
Elaine Pearson: He is a permanent resident. Actually, he was days away from being able to apply for his citizenship. And at the moment, there are moves underway to file those papers and make him a citizen, because we feel that that might strengthen his hand in dealing with the Thai authorities. But in any case, whether he’s a permanent resident or a citizen, he should be returned to Australia. He should not be returned to a country that he fled persecution from, and was found to be a refugee from.
Misha Zelinsky: So he was just days away from applying to be an Australian citizen?
Elaine Pearson: That’s right.
Misha Zelinsky: Wow, that’s really scary for him. So, a little bit about, why has this captured the attention of so much, so why is it such a big deal for someone to be arrested in an airport the way that he has, to be sent to face charges? I mean, is that something that you’d be worried about or is it not a big deal? I mean …
Elaine Pearson: Well, I think it’s a really shocking case, and I think it’s very scary for people who flee their home countries, think that they’re then safe in a country like Australia. He then subsequently spoke out against a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, who’s a president of the Asian Football Federation, and it’s because of his criticisms of the Bahrain government that he feels like he is being punished. That’s really what this is about, and that’s why this case, I think, will have really global ramifications, because it means that if he was sent back to Bahrain, anyone who’s been found to be a refugee who comes an authoritarian country, will have to think twice before taking holidays to third countries, because of the risk that something like this potentially could happen to them.
Elaine Pearson: As far as Thailand’s concern, unfortunately, Thailand has a really horrible track record of collaborating with countries like China, Bahrain, in the past, Cambodia, Vietnam, and basically sending back their citizens on the result of these extradition requests, and many cases, these people have been activists who, yes, may have been convicted on national security charges, but I think there’s very big concerns about how those people were convicted, and whether those people actually committed these crimes or whether these are people who were thrown in jail, basically for peaceful acts of free expression.
Misha Zelinsky: And what about Bahrain’s record in human rights? I mean, it’s not a country that’s really got strong rule of law despite their guarantees, as I understand it, coming from the leader of the country. It’s a place that if you had fled from it, you would have valid concerns, would that be right?
Elaine Pearson: Well, yeah. I mean, Human Rights Watch has reported on the torture in Bahrain’s prisons. We issued a big report just a few years ago. There were five deaths in custody as a result of torture in, one year alone. So this is a country that has a really big problem with basically torturing dissidents, in order to get forced confessions out of them. So the claim by the Bahraini government that, we have an independent judiciary, he should just come back here and face charges. Look, in the last time that Thailand send someone back to Bahrain, the person was beaten so badly, before he even got off the plane at Bahrain’s airport, that he had to be hospitalized. So that’s why we’re so worried about the fate of Hakeem, if he was returned to Bahrain. And he says that he was tortured before, so we have no reason to believe that it would be any different this time, if he’s sent back.
Misha Zelinsky: And, one of the things I’m never clear about, I mean, I think you hear about Australian’s being detained, well what’s the role of the government here? Because we’ve got people … you’ve got similar emissaries like [Fozzy 00:05:03] going over there to intervene, and we’ve had the soccer unions getting involved, and the player’s association. What’s the role of the government here, because I think people think, well, the diplomats will come in and save it, but how easy is that? I mean, is that more difficult than it seems, once you actually been in custody in another country?
Elaine Pearson: Well, it can be quite difficult. I mean, our government tends to adopt a sort of quiet diplomacy approach. Often when these cases come up, they’re dealt with very quietly, behind closed doors, with our government believing that that’s the best way of resolving these matters. But in this case it’s a bit different, and part of it is because there was a massive screw up on the part of the Australian Federal Police, who actually notified the Thai police about the Interpol red flag.
Misha Zelinsky: So that came from the AFP?
Elaine Pearson: That came from the AFP. I think it’s an automated systems, but in any case, they should have obviously checked his status and realized that he was a refugee. And I think because of the intense pressure from the media on this case, from FIFA, from the football groups, actually the Australian government has taken a much more robust and public stance, and I think that’s really important. But there are many other cases actually, where the Australian government is dealing with similar cases of people being wrongfully detained abroad, where they haven’t had such a strong response. I mean, there was James Ricketson, for instance, last year in Cambodia, he was eventually released but he was also someone who was tried and convicted on espionage charges, and unfortunately spent many months in a Cambodian prison.
Misha Zelinsky: And so, just before we act, because I’m keen to talk about some of the detainments, how is Hakeem? I mean, how is he coping? This would be a terribly … I mean, I can only imagine what he’s sort of fearing in terms of being in a Thai prison, in of itself. And then the prospect of being sent somewhere where you fled political persecution, I mean how is he doing, given the circumstances?
Elaine Pearson: Well, he’s not doing that great. I mean, the conditions, as you can imagine in Bangkok jail, are not particularly good. He’s been a bit sick in recent weeks, he’s sharing a cell, I think, with about 35 other people. He’s also extremely worried about his wife. I’m in pretty much daily contact with his wife, who’s here in Australia, but you know, she’s also terrified about what’s going to happen to her husband, and she was with him when he was arrested, but has not been able to have direct communication with him since, because he’s not allowed to have telephone calls.
Elaine Pearson: So, they are now allowed to pass messages to one another, but obviously, he is extremely scared that he’s going to be sent back, and he’s really worried about spending the next few months in prison. The next court date is not until late April. April in Thailand is incredibly hot. I mean, it’s hot enough … I’ve lived in Bangkok, in an apartment without air conditioning. You can just imagine if you’re in a jail cell with 35 other people, how uncomfortable that is going to be. And clearly he shouldn’t be there. He should be back in Australia with his wife, and playing football with his team.
Misha Zelinsky: And, how hopeful are we that we can get a positive resolution for him?
Elaine Pearson: Well, it’s unknown. I mean, I think the great thing about this case is there has been so much support and pressure coming from the Australian government, also from the international diplomatic community. They turned out in force at his extradition hearing, last week. But I think, in any case there’s big questions around, why the Thai government seems to be prioritizing and entertaining this extradition request from Bahrain, and why it would be prioritizing that relationship, over its relationship with Australia. Because clearly, Thailand and Australia also have a very long relationship.
Elaine Pearson: Australia has provided a lot of security training, development aid, over the years. Obviously, a lot of Australian tourists [crosstalk 00:08:52] Thailand every year. So, it makes you wonder what incentives the Bahraini government has offered, or why, basically, Thailand is doing this. The Thai government’s now saying, they put out a statement recently where they said, this is a matter between Australia and Bahrain, and Australia and Bahrain should sort it out, and we just want to win, win result for everyone, which obviously is kind of ridiculous, because there can’t be a win, win result. Someone’s going to have to lose here.
Misha Zelinsky: Well, that’s why effectively, you can only be in one country at a time. So-
Misha Zelinsky: Indeed. Well, I mean, keep up the good work and no doubt, I think a lot of Australian’s obviously sending a lot well wishes, but you talked a lot about the high profile this case has but of course there are other Australians being detained around the world. Is it getting increasingly dangerous to travel the world as an Australian, or any sort of citizen from a Western democracy, into perhaps places that are more autocratic? I mean, because there are a number that you can think of.
Elaine Pearson: Well, I mean I have to say it just somehow seem that way a little bit. I mean, in recent months there have been a number of these high profile cases. China in particular, there’s the case of the Australian writer, Yang, who was detained just a few weeks ago in China. Obviously, there’s been a number of Canadians, including some really high profile Canadians who’ve been detained in China. I don’t know if it’s actually increasing, but I guess in a globalized world, people are traveling more and more, and I think we are seeing authoritarian governments basically becoming more aggressive, in the stance that they’re taking. And particularly if they see people as potentially a threat to national security, because they’ve spoken out, that this is one way of, I guess, lashing out at those people. So I think, the people who are particularly at risk, are people who are dual citizens or who have come originally from authoritarian governments, and if they’re visiting that country again.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah. So you’ve raised a Chinese example, and one of the things that people discussed, is the Chinese detainments of both the Canadians, and obviously the young Australian … Yang, the blogger, came hot on the back of a decisions made in relation to, Huawei’s banning from participation in telecommunication networks, in Australia and other countries, but also the arrest of the CFO of Huawei in Canada. That kind of sort of retribution, arguably from China, or and a payback of detainment of people, where they’re effectively holding people hostage, how concerned should we be about that?
Elaine Pearson: We should be very concerned about it. I mean, I think this kind of hostage diplomacy … I mean, in some sense, it’s not new tactics from China. We have seen them use these tactics before. There was the case of Stern Hu, which Australians might remember, an executive from Rio Tinto, who was detained I think for nine years, in China, over allegations of bribery and I think sharing state secrets. But while all of that was unfolding, obviously Rio Tinto was also having it’s issues with the Chinese government. But, now it seems like the Chinese government is becoming increasingly bold, and even more blatant, in the way that it’s going after people.
Elaine Pearson: And it is unusual, I think, that it has chosen to go after Yang at this point in time. We don’t really know why, but I think we’re very concerned that he’s someone that they’ve been saying is being held in residential detention. That doesn’t mean house arrest. That means he’s being held in an unauthorized place of detention, where sometimes quite frankly, the conditions can even be worse than in regular jails and prisons in China. And he could be held up to three months, in residential detention and that could be extended for another three months. So potentially, we’re looking at six months without him even having access to legal representation, family and friends, and so on.
Misha Zelinsky: Which is terrifying when you think about it. So, comparing and contrasting, because Hakeem, who’s currently detained, it’s a global story, national story set in Australia, but a global story because of the football component. You’ve got a situation with another Australian, in another country. Why is there so little attention, comparatively, and now of course it’s been reported, but not nearly to the extent as it captured public imagination, and are we doing enough as firstly, from a discourse point of view, but is the government doing enough, and why is it different when you can contrast Thailand and China, is it the countries involved, or something else?
Elaine Pearson: Well, I guess Thailand is a lot more open, so obviously, people have been able to go to Thailand. Thailand’s media has a lot of foreign correspondents being able to report on Hakeem’s case. Foreign correspondents have actually been able to go to the jail and talk to Hakeem. Thailand hasn’t prevented that from happening. Whereas in China, we don’t even know exactly where it is that Yang is being held. There’s very little information, it’s very difficult for journalists that work in China to get information about this case. So they are different, I guess, in that way. But obviously, yes, I mean we think also the way to address these cases is to bring more pressure to bear on the Chinese government.
Elaine Pearson: And I think many governments, including Australia, have been very reluctant to criticize China about human rights abuses, about detentions of human rights lawyers in China, but also of our own citizens, of Australians, are precisely because the Chinese government has so much clout, and it’s so powerful. And so at the end of the day, I think that’s also a big reason why we haven’t seen the prime minister speaking publicly about letters that he’s written to the Chinese government, in the way that he has spoken publicly about letters that he’s written to the Thai government, on Hakeem’s case.
Misha Zelinsky: It does make you wonder, because I mean, I always think of Hillary Clinton’s off the record comments about arguing with China, that it’s hard to argue with your banker, given the debt situation and underwriting of the US economy. And for Australia perhaps it’s hard to argue with that best customer, and when you look at the trade relationship, but should the government be doing more, irrespective of … is it possible to ignore those kinds of realities, or did they have to be managed in that way? Because some people will say, well, there’s no real … words are bought in diplomacy, and you’ve got to sort of talk quietly, but is that beneficial in these situations, or is it better to, for lack of a better phrase, blow it up in the media?
Elaine Pearson: I don’t think a quiet diplomacy is enough. And look, quite frankly, until Hakeem’s case was blown up in the media, the Australian government had not been as responsive on this case. It was really the public attention that this case brought, the fact that football associations we’re getting so involved, that really upped the ante in terms of the Australian government’s response. But no, I mean I think, look, where, China is concerned, it’s not like a very strong robust, response from Australia will necessarily win Yang’s freedom, but I think the danger of not speaking out, is that China will become more and more emboldened, to take these actions, because there’s no repercussions. And so, I think it’s actually really important that Australia have a more robust policy of speaking up on human rights issues, so that it doesn’t come as a shock to the Chinese government when the Australian government does speak up in cases like this.
Misha Zelinsky: Good. You’ve actually just touched on the next thing I want to talk about, which is a human rights record in China. And, you’re right, we don’t talk about it much at all. So, one thing that I’d be … and I know Human Rights Watch has done some work in this area, about the situation related to the Uighurs in the Xingang province. Are you able to get a little bit of background about that, and then we can perhaps talk about that issue in a little more detail? Exactly what’s going on there, in respect to the camps?
Elaine Pearson: Yeah. I mean, the situation of Uighurs in China, has always been dire in some respects. They’re in a far western province of China. Uighurs and Turkic Muslims have always been somewhat viewed with suspicion, by the Chinese government, but the repression really has been turned up a notch in recent years with the establishment of these political reeducation camps. And so now you’re looking at a situation where you have more than a million people, according to the UN, detained in these political reeducation camps. These are arbitrary detentions, so there’s no court. You can’t protest your detention. You don’t know how long you will be there, and living life in the camps, it’s very militarized. They’re forced to sing Chinese songs, they’re forced to pledge their allegiance to the Chinese state, and it’s really about eradicating any sense of Muslim identity or Uighur identity, and effectively trying to brainwash these people to become loyal Chinese subjects.
Misha Zelinsky: I mean, that’s terrifying. I mean, a million people in a reeducation camp, to be forced to pledge allegiance and give up their religions. I mean, these are the sort of things we haven’t seen, globally, for a very, very long time. Why are we not talking about this? I mean, again, we’re talking, and we should be talking about one Australian detained, in a Thai prison, but a million people detained in reeducation camps in a large country, is really quite scary. So why isn’t that not anymore attention?
Elaine Pearson: Well, it’s a very good question, and I mean certainly, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty and a bunch of organizations, are really trying to up the profile of what’s happening, and try and get governments to address this issue. So at the moment, we just launched the campaign, we wanted the March session of the Human Rights Council, governments to issue a resolution which would force the Chinese government to allow a fact finding mission, to come to China to look at the situation in Xinjiang, particularly with regard to the political reeducation camps.
Elaine Pearson: The problem is because the Chinese government is also a member of the Human Rights Council, a lot of governments and it’s … it tends to retaliate against governments. Frankly, a lot of governments don’t want to take on China, and so they don’t want to support resolutions like this because they’re worried that the Chinese government will retaliate, financially. A lot of countries in the world, involved with the belt and road initiative, and frankly that’s been a very effective way for the Chinese government to buy the collaboration and complicity from a lot of governments.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah. Just before we turn to that, because I think that’s really a fascinating topic, about Chinese assertiveness in the region. The other thing I’d love to get your take on, because you talked about Chinese, this urge to control its population. They’re very autocratic regime, obviously, very controlling of the media, but this latest thing, and maybe you could talk a little about this concept of social credit. And when I first read about it, the notion that you can … they’ll basically be scoring everyone for everything that they do. Jaywalking, whether or not you pay your bills on time, if you’re polite to people and then everyone has this score. It’s sort of almost like an Orwellian nightmare, or for your younger listeners, it’s something from a Black Mirror episode, and literally was an episode of Black Mirror. So, I mean-
Elaine Pearson: It was.
Misha Zelinsky: … Tell us a little bit about that because, that is legitimately scary.
Elaine Pearson: Yeah. I mean, the social credit system has been rolled out in China over the last few years. I think they expect it to be fully operationalized by 2020, and it’s basically a big data system that collects a whole lot of information, and scoops it up. So it could be all sorts of things as to whether you parking fines, court orders, what kind of shopping you do, where you go out, who you’re associating with, what kinds of comments you’re making on social media. And it basically uses that information to give you a score, and it determines whether you are a trustworthy member of Chinese society, in which case you will be entitled to all sorts of benefits from the Chinese state.
Elaine Pearson: Or if you’re in the untrustworthy a category, then you might actually have trouble in booking flights, or booking a fast trains to get around. And you know, it also has repercussions in terms of your social credit score for applying for government jobs, or if you want to send your kids to a good government school. So it is extremely scary, that the Chinese government has embarked on the system. I think it’s part of the broader efforts of the Chinese government to have this mass surveillance state. And unfortunately, because China is becoming increasingly totalitarian, there’s no real way for Chinese citizens to really object to this, because if they do, they likely to bend themselves, find themselves in jail.
Misha Zelinsky: Or with a low score.
Elaine Pearson: Or low score, indeed.
Misha Zelinsky: And so, in terms of, so if the ability to protest these things internally in China is difficult, and we’ve seen in the past with Tiananmen Square, where attempts have been made, that the dissidents have been brutally crushed, but also the hunting down of people that blog online, or tweet online, and the great firewall of China, I mean so, it really falls to other countries to call out this sort of behavior. So, can you talk a little bit about the way that China tends to sort of bully it’s neighbors, or coerce its neighbors, into silence? And we’ve talked about trade and that kind of bilateral nature, but you know things like the BRI with diplomacy, where China lends money for projects of questionable value, and then when they can’t pay it back, they either take the asset or reach some sort of accommodative arrangement with you. I mean, how worried are you about that as an organization, when you look at human rights, globally, and in China?
Elaine Pearson: Oh yeah, I mean we’re extremely worried about it. I think we’re seeing that happen all over the Asia Pacific. I think now, Australia for many, was the biggest donor to Papa New Guinea, but now that’s been dwarfed by China. But most of the money that the Chinese government is giving to the PNG government, is not aid, it’s loans, and it’s for infrastructure projects. And so I think there are real questions about what happens when that money has to be repaid. But the fact that China has this ongoing, with so many different countries around the world, it means that it is also effectively able to buy the silence of these countries when it comes to raising human rights violations. So when we were talking a bit about Xinjiang, this is happening to a million Muslims, you would think that Muslim majority countries would be concerned about this, because this is happening to their brothers and sisters. And in China, they’re not even allowed to say Salaam alaikum anymore. They have to say nǐ hǎo, because if they say that, they might get sent to a political reeducation.
Misha Zelinsky: Right.
Elaine Pearson: But we’re not seeing the criticism coming from these governments, because many of these governments are also indebted to China. I was just in Indonesia a few weeks ago to talk to the Indonesian government about this, because we saw the Indonesian government really show a bit of leadership on the Rohingya issue, ethnic Rohingyas and Muslims. And as you might remember, many of them had to flee to Bangladesh because of the Myanmar militaries mess campaign of rape, murder and arson. And in that case you saw countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, really taking a stand and calling on the Myanmar government for accountability. But, Myanmar and China, I guess, are two very different beasts, precisely because of China’s economic clout. And so actually it’s been much, much more difficult to get governments to speak up about what’s happening in China right now.
Misha Zelinsky: And so, thinking about the way that typically human rights has been led by liberal democracies, are you concerned about, and is the organization concerned about this sort of increasing divide where, so leaving aside China, but increasingly divided between countries that are democratic and countries that are either autocratic, or democratic in name only, we’re starting to see increasing divides emerge, when you look at the countries that have recognized the new president of Venezuela, they’ve tended to fall along the lines of countries that are broadly democratic, or countries that are broadly autocratic. What is the role of that, in the human rights discourse, and how important is democracy to civil liberty?
Elaine Pearson: Yeah look, I think that’s a great question. And I think democracy is really important to civil liberties. I don’t think you can have … it’s very hard to see how you could protect basic civil rights of free speech, freedom of association, free press, if you don’t have a democratic system or a way in which you can raise … basically call for your rights. I think we’re very concerned about the sort of sweeping populist, autocratic movement around the world, and I think we’re seeing democracies, even the established ones, are really fraying at the edges.
Elaine Pearson: And the rise of these populist leaders, they’re coming to power because I think they see the world as a complicated, difficult place. They were able to really tap into the fears of a lot of people, and they’re basically scapegoating minorities, and here it might be asylum seekers, in other places it’s migrants or Muslims. In other countries, it might be LGBTI people. And I think the other thing that they do is they really erode away the checks and balances that we need in place in order to defend our basic civil liberties. And so, it’s eroding away a free press, an independent judiciary, a vigorous civil society. And we’re seeing that happen all around the world.
Misha Zelinsky: And, so you just touched on media there, which I think is a really important one, because media model is collapsing of the exact same time we’re seeing these problems emerge. I mean, and then there’s a further complication, I think around sort of social media, and then you kind of got this post truth, this fake news phenomenon, so what’s real, what’s not? Do you find that it’s kind of almost like a propaganda, it’s like a almost an autocratic propaganda playground, because you can always contest what’s true and what isn’t, what’s real, what’s not, and increasingly it’s very difficult to source what actually is the case. And so, quality reporting from areas that are subject to human rights abuse is becoming increasingly difficult, if you can obtain it at all. Do you find that to be the case?
Elaine Pearson: Yeah, I think it is becoming a bit of a propaganda war now, in some ways. And I think in the past, Human Rights Watch use to diligently do it’s reports, put its reports out there and then we would kind of think, well, the facts speak for themselves. But frankly, that’s not enough anymore. So it’s also about getting visuals. It’s about using video. It’s about effectively using social media to get your message out there, because otherwise, I think there’s also so many counter narratives around the world. But I also think, we are seeing that certain sources of information that are considered accurate, that are considered independent, are actually even more important in this world today, that’s being dominated by fake news and by spin.
Misha Zelinsky: Because there’s that saying which is, a lie gets around the world before truth even has time to get out of bed and put on his pants, or something – I probably butchered the quote, the quote. But that’s even more true now with social media and the way things can quickly be spread. I mean, do you think in this battle, are the autocrats winning this PR battle? I mean, I think increasing you look at polling and even in advanced democracies, in Australia, you taking the example where, young people had to be convinced that democracy is the best model, which is quite scary. I mean, do you think we’re winning or we’re losing this fight, in very broad terms?
Elaine Pearson: Yeah, I mean it’s hard to say. I mean I think, look, working for human rights organization, you have to be an optimist. You can’t be a pessimists because we work on pretty depressing subjects. So, I mean I think the good thing … I think we were at a really low point, particularly after Trump won the US election, and I think at that point it did seem like, you know, all of these autocratic leaders, also in Europe, were basically coming to power and how we going to stop this? But that’s not true.
Elaine Pearson: I mean we have seen some positive stories in Malaysia, in the Maldives recently, where they’ve been able to oust authoritarian governments through having democratic elections. And even looking at the US midterms, I mean, I think that’s another example that gives us hope. But ultimately, it is up to people to vote for the type of leaders that they want. And I think, the Philippines is an extremely concerning example, where Duterte didn’t even hide about extrajudicial killings. He openly flaunted that he wanted to kill people who were involved in the drug trade, and-
Misha Zelinsky: He made it a virtue as a part of his platform-
Elaine Pearson: Yeah. And unfortunately he maintained a lot of popular support, despite those positions. So, I think now we seeing, in the Philippines, some of the independent media that were really reporting quite strongly on the war on drugs, also facing a lot of problems from the Duterte government. So I think it’s a matter of being vigilant, everywhere. And I think it’s also about ensuring that the way in which we fight back against these autocratic governments, might be trying to get more people to come out and protest, getting people to understand the impact that this has on their rights, and I think we are starting to see that around the world. I mean, even in places like Poland, I think the fact that you had the judges protesting and saying, no, we’re still going to come to work, you can’t just dismiss us, was actually really moving. And in Hungary too, you’ve seen massive protests against Orban. So it’s not like people are just suddenly sitting back and accepting, suddenly, these more repressive governments.
Misha Zelinsky: That’s a really interesting point. And it’s good to hear some positive news sometimes, because we do often focus on the negative. But yeah, again, we’ve sort of talked a little about the contest between democracies and autocrats, and the old divide of … the old cold war divide, but what’s the role of values projection in foreign policy? Because, I mean we talk a lot about hard power, and things in a national security frame, about cyber security and military and alliances. But what’s the role of values projection in it, and also, how much is it dependent on western credibility, and has some of that eroded over time, that we can’t really talk about these things as confidently as we once did?
Elaine Pearson: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s definitely some truth to that, that if you’re going to talk about respect for international law, and get other countries to agree to that, then you also need to apply those same principles at home. And we have seen basically hypocritical governments, from the US to Australia, on a number of these issues. But I think the role of values in diplomacy is incredibly important. And even if you read the foreign policy white paper that came out, it talks about the need for an international rules based order, and how Australia’s interests will best be protected in a region that respects the rule of law. Well, if you want a region that respects the rule of law, then it is about also promoting those values, because you’ve got the Chinese government at the other end, throwing all its cash around, in a lot of these countries in this region.
Elaine Pearson: And so I think, it is really important for democratic countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea. It’s not simply, I guess, the place of Western governments to be speaking out for these things, certainly at Human Rights Watch, we’ve been investing more in middle power countries, not just western countries, because we think that they’re really crucial to the global fight to press for human rights. So it depends, a really good case example, the Japanese government gives massive aid all around the region, yet never has really raised human rights concerns. It never comes with any conditionality attached. So we’ve certainly been working with a Japanese MPs, to talk about the importance of making sure, at least in the aid packages, that there is some human rights benchmarks, or human rights monitoring that they’re doing, and trying to get the Japanese government to be a little bit more outspoken on some rights issues.
Misha Zelinsky: Okay. So you mentioned Australia, so circling back to us again, which we sort of started, I think it’s a good time to talk about it. What is Australia’s role in maintaining … we’ve said, and it’s very clear that Australia benefits, middle size economy, we’re down at the bottom of the world. We benefit from a liberal rules based order. What’s our role in maintaining that? Do we have a role? I mean, how does a middle power navigate this sort of uncertain times, where there’s these sort of emerging tensions between titans, globally?
Elaine Pearson: Yeah, so look, I mean I think, it’s about standing up. Consider having a consistent principal position on human rights, and standing up for those values, and those principles, wherever they under threat. And this doesn’t mean megaphone diplomacy, or … I hate that term because the whole idea that you would shout at someone through a megaphone, obviously is never going to be effective.
Misha Zelinsky: We do it at the unions, but …
Elaine Pearson: But maybe not, maybe not in senior meetings between prime ministers and foreign ministers. And it doesn’t mean lecturing other countries, but it also means finding ways to support civil societies, support human rights defenders, to support the lawyers and people in those countries, who frankly are under attack for their views. And so it might be simple things like, you know, inviting them to embassy functions, providing support to organizations who really need that work to document human rights abuses. But I think it’s also calling governments out, when people are unfairly prosecuted, or when political prisoners go to jail, and showing governments that the Australian government cares about these values.
Misha Zelinsky: And so, I mean, I think Ozzie’s often wonder, when we look at the world, we think, do we really matter? We’ve got our alliances, and they kind of taking care of us and the world and we just sort of ride along. Does our opinion matter in this space? Are we seen as a serious player in the human rights space? I mean, how much should we care about this, and what’s our influence, in a realistic sense?
Elaine Pearson: Yes, it totally matters. I mean, I think particularly now, given that the traditional countries that spoke up very strongly about human rights, for better or for worse, the US and the UK, they’re pretty absent now. The US is completely absent on a Trump. The UK is totally preoccupied by Brexit. That leaves the EU. Canada has been pretty good, in raising these issues, but I think that really sort of opens the space for middle power countries like Australia, and particularly in the Asia Pacific region. I mean, Australia is a really important player. It has important trade and security relationships with a lot of these countries.
Elaine Pearson: It’s provided a lot of aid over the years, and so our voice does matter. But I think it’s not just about Australia speaking up on its own, it’s actually about Australia working in coalition with a bunch of other governments, and especially if you’re dealing with a very strong, powerful country like China, it’s not going to be effective if it’s just Australia raising its concerns on its own. But in a case like Yang, I think it’s effectively trying to get joint demarches by embassies, getting other embassies to also speak up, and speaking with a united voice on these issues.
Misha Zelinsky: Well, I think it’s been a really fascinating chatting, and we could talk all day about this, well I certainly could. I bore people to death with my podcast. But, so the last question I ask everybody, so Ozzie’s get asked … so the mirror version, but foreign guests get asked which Australians they’d invite to a barbecue, so three foreigners at a barbecue at Elaine Pearson’s house. Who are they, and why?
Elaine Pearson: Three foreigners at a barbecue? Well, I think I would have to say Kofi Annan, because yeah, I have long been a fan of Kofi Annan. But at the other end of the spectrum, I would probably love to have Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister there, and he had her insights as a young female leader of the country. And then, maybe because this is a podcast, Ira Glass, who does, “This American Life”, I just feel like I’ve listened to his voice for so many years, I would love to have him around for barbie.
Misha Zelinsky: Very good. A podcaster, a politician, and a diplomat. It would be a great time to be a fly on the wall there. I’d like to record that barbecue, it would be a very fascinating-
Elaine Pearson: Well, maybe I’d let you come along too.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s kind of implicit in the Diplomates title I’m coming, but no, thank you so much for joining us tonight. It’s been a fascinating chat. Appreciate it.
Elaine Pearson: Thanks, Misha.
Misha Zelinsky: And we are done.