Fulfilling Australia’s Human Rights Obligations

If I were Attorney General, it would be an historic moment, as I would be the first female Attorney-General in Australia.  Janet Reno served as first female Attorney-General in the US from 1993-2001; Minka Harms was appointed the first female Attorney-General in Germany in 2006; Kim Campbell served as as Canada’s first female Minister of Justice and Attorney-General from 1990-1993; Margaret Wilson served as the first female Attorney General in New Zealand from 1999-2004; and the UK appointed Dominican-born Baroness Patricia Scotland of Asthal QC, the first black female Attorney General in 2007.  In Australia, despite three women now having been appointed to the highest court in the land, the office of Attorney-General has never been held by a woman. Along with Australia being the odd one out for not having had a female Attorney General, Australia is also the only western Democratic nation not to have a Human Rights Act.  So as the first female Attorney-General my first action would be to ensure that Australia joins the club of western democracies and enacts a National Human Rights Act that provides comprehensive human rights protection for all peoples in Australia.

Ensuring Australia is fully equipped to meet its international human rights obligations would be my main priority.  Having brought in a Human Rights Act, I would move Australia towards signing and ratifying a number of significant international instruments that would demonstrate to the international community and to Australians the seriousness of Australia’s commitment to uphold fundamental human rights standards.

I would have Australia sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  This Declaration has been negotiated by dedicated Indigenous representatives since 1985.  The Declaration, which was finally accepted by the UN General Assembly in September 2007, has been welcomed by Indigenous groups around the world as an important recognition of Indigenous rights by the international community.  The International Indigenous Women’s Forum, has said:

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will serve as a comprehensive international human rights instrument for Indigenous women, men and youth around the world.  The Declaration...would allow Indigenous women to strengthen their advocacy in local, national and international arenas...[and] allow Indigenous women and their families to infuse local human rights struggles with the power of international law and hold their governments accountable to international human rights standards.

Australia was unfortunately one of only four nations who voted against the Declaration.  Signing and implementing this Declaration is a step Australia needs to take to ensure the rights of Indigenous Peoples here in Australia.

Secondly, I would also urge the Australian Government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and I would urge the Australia Government to advocate at the international level for an Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.  The Optional Protocols provide a significant avenue for review and redress for individuals experiencing human rights violations.  Through the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, a woman experiencing domestic violence in Hungary was able to take her case to the CEDAW Committee when the Hungarian government had failed to act to provide her with adequate protection.  The Committee found that the government’s failure to provide adequate access to safe shelter, the lack of provision for restraining orders in the law, the long delays in her case, and the failure to detain or put the perpetrator in custody, amounted to the government having failed to provide timely or effective protection or remedy, as required to realise the woman’s rights under CEDAW.  The Committee went on to make several recommendations for the Hungarian government to protect this woman from further violence, but also to ensure such violations, through the failure to take appropriate action, does not occur for other women as well.  As can be seen with this example, the international community can play an important role in providing a check on the use of States’ authority, to ensure it is consistent with the interests of the people.  By committing itself to these optional protocols, the Australian Government would increase its accountability to protect people’s human rights at the international level, and allow Australians to access remedies for violations of human rights that are unaddressed at the domestic level.

Next, building on Australia’s signing of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in March 2007, I would move Australia towards ratifying the Convention and signing the Optional Protocol.  As recognised by United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Louise Arbour, until this Convention came about, the existing standards and mechanisms had failed to provide adequate protection for people with disabilities.  Committing to upholding the rights in this convention will mean Australia will be obliged to address and realise the specific rights of people with disabilities in Australia

Having strengthened the legal framework for the recognition and protection of human rights, and the avenues of redress for human rights violations, I would then closely examine the violations of rights of Indigenous Peoples in Australia.  One area of immediate concern would be the potential human rights violations under this current Federal Government’s Emergency Response and Development Plan to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory.  The kinds of human rights violations I would be concerned about include the compulsory acquisition of lands without adequate compensation, the undermining of self-determination of Indigenous Peoples with regards to decision making in their own organizations and affairs, rights to privacy, rights to social security, the right to work, and racial discrimination.  I would be looking to revoke the relevant legislation or at least those aspects of it that may lead to human rights violations.

Finally, I would encourage and support government programs to increase Indigenous women’s participation at all levels of government.  In particular (and perhaps predictably) I would seek to support an Indigenous woman to succeed me as the Attorney General.

Alison G Aggarwal is the Advocacy and Human Rights Officer with the Combined Community Legal Centres Group NSW