The Canberra Times
Friday, August 24, 2007

WHO WOULD have thought that India would be tutoring Australia on protecting individual human rights? Yet here we have the case of the Indian Government reminding its Australian counterpart of the importance of the rule of law and due process in the case of Dr Mohamed Haneef.

The case highlights the importance of a proper balance between civil liberties, individual human rights, and the responsibility of the state to protect citizens from terrorists. Indians have to understand the Howard Government's shrill and desperate efforts to blacken Haneef's reputation within the context of increasingly edgy domestic Australian politics. But having done so, India too can draw some important lessons on the meaning and practice of good governance.

Polls have shown the cumulative corrosion of the public's faith in the honesty and integrity of Howard after a decade of rule on the basis of slippery statements and dog whistling. He is consistently seen as too old, desperate and devious. But as long as Labor had a series of unelectable leaders, the desire for change from the Howard style of politics did not translate into voting preferences for Labor.

Then suddenly in Kevin Rudd Labor had an instant and so far enduring winner. For months now Labor has enjoyed a solid, landslide winning lead in all opinion polls. Government ranks could well be decimated. Panic has made them even more desperate, and in frustration they have turned to the familiar tactic of character assassination.

They have tried digging dirt and flinging mud on Rudd. Each time, the mud has stuck to the throwers, reinforcing people's firming beliefs about the government being peopled with unlovely characters.

In this broader context, Haneef was too tempting and seemingly too easy a target. But they forgot the first rule of muck-raking: if you find yourself in the hole, stop digging. The more furiously the Government has dug the deeper is the hole it has dug for itself.

The latest example was the selective release of Haneef's police interviews. His lawyers have released the full transcripts of the interviews, which shows firstly that there are perfectly innocent explanations for all his actions, secondly that he tried on his own initiative to contact the British police to clear up his association (is there another example of an alleged terrorist contacting authorities like this?), and thirdly that the government and the police were being deliberately deceitful in the selective release of extracts.

Let's begin the lessons with the last point. When one party releases extracts, side with the party that wants to release the full document: they are not the ones with something to hide.

Second, faced with competing visions of the same event, side with almost any group against the politicians. Like the Bush administration, the Howard Government doesn't do apologies: tough is never having to say sorry for mistakes never made.

All of this goes a long way in explaining why politicians are held in such contempt and so commonly reviled. Why would ordinary Australians, with their deep-seated scepticism towards pollies, want to hand them power over the careers and lives of people without external oversight and accountability?

Third, the need for scepticism in claims by governments that they are safeguarding public safety against the threat of terrorism, not jeopardising human rights or curtailing civil liberties. They get away with it, repeatedly and in far too many countries, because we fall into the trap of believing that the government is sacrificing someone else's rights to protect our security. No: they are expanding their powers or covering up their mistakes and embarrassments by whittling away our rights. Eternal vigilance does not come at the price of liberty.

Fourth, the importance of an independent, fearless and robust judiciary prepared to uphold the rule of law. More crucially against the Indian backdrop of never-ending litigation, to do so promptly. In India many victims are fortunate to get judicial redress within their lifetime; some may be lucky to get it in God's lifetime.

Fifth, the importance of a free, instinctively sceptical and investigative press. The holes in the Government's versions of events were instantly picked by inquisitive and questioning journalists who did their homework instead of merely recycling government press releases and background briefing.

Sixth, the importance of a robust civil society. As in Pakistan, the legal fraternity challenged the government on fundamental matters of principle, used its well-honed forensic skills to telling effect in shaping the public debate, and demonstrated its commitment to justice in a manner and with a tenacity that brings honour to the profession.

And finally, the vital role that citizens can play in engaging with public issues and ensuring that justice is done and seen to be done. No sectarian identification along the lines of race, religion, caste and so on, but solidarity with a human being unjustly hounded by a bumbling police and a mean-spirited government.

When can we Indians be confident of like injustices producing similar outcomes in India? Do we dare have the dream?

About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.