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What is happening in Ukraine should matter to every Australian

Rights and Freedoms


There is almost 13,000km between Australia and Ukraine. It is literally on the other side of the world.

Given the vast distances that separate us, it would be easy to claim that what happens there has nothing to do with us.

That Australia should focus instead on the many challenges we face at home and leave the rest of the world to deal with their own problems.

That would be a grave mistake.

From a human rights perspective, there are three key reasons why what is happening right now in Ukraine should matter to every Australian.

The first is that the overwhelming human cost of war should always matter. Any country that unilaterally chooses to inflict the horrors of war on another deserves to be met with universal and unequivocal condemnation.

In any war, it is innocent civilians who inevitably bear the highest cost. This is already being seen in Ukraine, with reports of residential areas, kindergartens and hospitals being struck, newborn babies needing to be shifted from a neonatal unit to a makeshift bomb shelter, civilian casualties already in the hundreds, and over 150,000 civilians fleeing Ukraine since the Russian invasion began.

To be clear, this is an unprovoked invasion by Russia. The actions of Russia are a clear breach of international law and the United Nations Charter.

Even though they are oceans away, the human suffering in Ukraine is not the suffering of a foreign peoples. Humanity needs to stand as one against such an unjustified act of aggression. Australia must stand ready to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine who will be the most deeply impacted and in urgent need of our support.

The second reason is that there are significant, and growing, ties between Australia and Ukraine. Our countries share a strong belief in the importance of freedom and democracy, and there are over 40,000 Australians of Ukrainian descent.

At the forefront of every Australian’s mind should also be the support provided by Ukraine when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by Russian-backed separatists over eastern Ukraine in 2014. All 298 passengers and crew on board, including 38 Australian citizens or residents, lost their lives.

The ongoing support provided by Ukraine – whether through initially recalling its parliament to allow foreign police to access the site, or its commitment to the Joint Investigation Team alongside Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and the Netherlands – has deepened the friendship between our two nations.

The third reason is perhaps the most important from a longer-term perspective. What is happening in Ukraine has broader strategic significance that reaches well beyond the borders of that country alone.

Both Ukraine and Australia – like many small and medium-sized nations – rely upon the rules-based international order for security and stability. If might is right, then our countries simply will not prosper, and our place in the world becomes significantly more precarious. Russia’s actions directly challenge the very foundations of this system.

It is this rules-based international order that supports our efforts to strengthen human rights and freedoms across the world. The modern universal framework for human rights is far from perfect, but it has contributed to a flourishing of individual rights and freedoms that is unparalleled in human history. Russia’s actions undermine this framework.

The stark reality is that if human rights in Ukraine merely exist at the whim of a ruthless autocrat from a foreign land, then the foundations on which all our human rights rest are profoundly weakened.

We need to recognise the reality that not all countries share Australia’s commitment to universal human rights. In fact, there is a growing tension in the world between democracy and autocracy as guiding values. While we are correct to see human rights as universal, we need to understand that they are not inevitable. The growing democratic decline across the world means that human rights and individual freedoms are increasingly under challenge, and need to be defended by all countries with a common belief in their intrinsic value.

The direct challenge that Russia’s attempted invasion of Ukraine poses to the rules-based international order means that what is happening in Ukraine is not just someone else’s problem. This is a moment that needs to unite us all.

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