Australia needs to improve its human rights track record at home and internationally if it wants to play a true leadership role on the UN Human Rights Council.
Responding to reports that France has withdrawn its candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council – meaning Australia and Spain can be elected to the world’s peak human rights body unopposed – Emily Howie, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said Australia has work to do in order to fulfill the duties of a Council member.
“A seat at the table is one thing, but Australia will want to be taken seriously as a global leader and unfortunately Australia’s credibility is badly damaged by its track record at home, particularly the treatment of refugees in offshore detention. Australia should prepare for its new position by getting its house in order,” said Ms Howie.
The Human Rights Council addresses the gravest abuses facing the world, including in North Korea, Syria and the Central African Republic. However, Australia has at times shown a willingness to turn a blind eye to foreign human rights abuses, particularly where it involves abuses in countries with which Australia relies on to implement its deterrent based asylum seeker policies. Australia has also stubbornly refused to accept advice from Council experts and other UN human rights bodies that Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum breaches various aspects of international human rights law.
“It is absolutely critical that Council members stand up for victims of human rights abuses, wherever they may be. For the Council to properly protect victims, it needs those strong members who want to uphold human rights to step up, and not just when it’s in their national interest to do so,” said Ms Howie.
Australia’s position on the Council comes at a time when the United States is retreating from its role as a leader on human rights, and following criticism of some other Human Rights Council member states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela for their extremely poor human rights records.
“It is more important than ever that countries like Australia play a strong leadership role on the Council. With the US retreat and other countries attempting to spoil attempts to protect victims of abuses, it is incumbent on middle powers like Australia to do some heavy lifting,” said Ms Howie.
Australia is a candidate for a seat on the Human Rights Council for the term 2018-2020. It was originally one of three candidates, including France and Spain, for two seats vacant for the Western European and Others Group. With France withdrawing, Australia is virtually guaranteed a spot, subject to a vote by the UN General Assembly in October 2017.
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