UN Human Rights Council: Australia Urged to Adopt Human Rights-Based Approach to Aid and Development

On 31 May 2011, the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Foreign Debt tabled a report on his February 2011 country mission to Australia in the UN Human Rights Council. The mission focused on the human rights impacts and implications of Australia's aid, development, trade and investment policies.  The report contains 10 concrete recommendations for the Australian Government to better promote and protect human rights, including the right to development, through aid and trade.

The Human Rights Law Centre was pleased to make an oral statement to the Council in response to the report and to recommend that the Australian Government adopt a human rights-based approach to foreign policy, poverty and development.

17th Session of the UN Human Rights Council – Agenda Item 3 – 1 June 2011

Statement by Human Rights Law Centre and National Association of Community Legal Centres


Thank you Mr President.

The National Association of Community Legal Centres and the Human Rights Law Centre warmly welcome the report of the Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights.

The Independent Expert undertook a mission to Australia in February.  We were pleased to convene a number of NGO consultations during this visit.

Mr President, the promotion, protection and realisation of human rights should be a primary goal and instrument of Australian foreign policy.  The IE’s report makes a range of concrete and practical recommendations to achieve this.  We deeply regret that Australia's statement yesterday in response focused on alleged inaccuracies in the report rather than substantively and seriously engaging with its recommendations.

In line with the Independent Expert’s recommendations, we urge the Australian Government to develop a comprehensive strategy on human rights and foreign policy.

We particularly urge the Australian Government to explicitly adopt a human rights-based approach to aid and development and to increase ODA to the internationally agreed target of 0.7% of GNI.  Australia should also increase funding to programs explicitly directed towards the promotion and protection of human rights, such as AusAID’s Human Rights Grants Scheme and funding for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Mr President, human rights should be central to Australia’s trade policy.  We urge the Australian Government to include human rights safeguards in trade and investment agreements.  Australia should also undertake Human Rights Impact Assessments as a core part of doing business abroad, including in the areas of trade, investment and military cooperation.

While in Australia, the Independent Expert considered the operation of vulture funds.  His report refers to a November 2010 case in which an Australian court found in favour of a vulture fund operator, ordering the Democratic Republic of Congo to pay in excess of $30 million.  This undermines debt relief initiatives and development.  We call on the Australian Government to enact legislation to prevent profiteering by vulture funds in Australia.

Mr President, the National Association of Community Legal Centres and the Human Rights Law Centre also welcome the report of the Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty.

In particular, we commend the Independent Expert on her important work regarding the criminalisation of homelessness and poverty.

Many Australian jurisdictions continue to criminalise the effects of homelessness and poverty.  In Victoria, for example, begging is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.  Across Australia, discrimination on the grounds of homelessness and poverty remains lawful and widespread.

We strongly support the Independent Expert in her continuation of this work and call on all states to strengthen economic, social and cultural rights so as to address the causes of homelessness and poverty rather than criminalise their consequences.

Thank you Mr President.



Following the HRLC statement, the Independent Expert made a statement in response to Australia.  In that statement he set out that:

1. Despite differences of opinion with the Australian Government over aspects of his report, he is committed to an ongoing and constructive dialogue about human rights, aid and development.

2. A human rights-based approach to development does not merely comprise of funding programs which may promote and protect human rights.  Rather, it is an approach to development which is participatory, empowering, non-discriminatory and focuses first and foremost on the most marginalised and disadvantaged.

3. It is not only the Independent Expert who recommends that Australia adopt a comprehensive human rights-based approach to development.  Such an approach is also urged by many submissions to the recent Australian aid effectiveness review, including those of the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Law Centre.