Human rights groups alarmed that UN funding cuts mean less scrutiny for human rights abuses

Human rights groups alarmed that UN funding cuts mean less scrutiny for human rights abuses

In collaboration with international NGOs, the Human Rights Law Centre has written to UN member countries to plea for the UN’s human rights mechanisms to be adequately funded.

The UN announced it may need to delay a number of important human rights treaty body sessions – including the session scheduled to review the Australian Government’s track record on the treatment of children.  Australia’s review on torture, including the Committee’s consideration of human rights abuses suffered by refugees and people seeking safety, may also be pushed back.

One of the reasons for the potential delay is a number of countries failing to pay their fees for UN membership.

Edwina MacDonald, a Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the UN plays a vital role in ensuring countries work together to tackle the world’s many pressing human rights problems.

“A robust, strong UN is incredibly important if we want a world where people are treated fairly and humanely – where victims of cruelty and injustice aren’t just abandoned – and where governments can be held to account,” said Ms MacDonald.

Although Ms MacDonald commended the Australian Government for abiding by its financial commitment to the UN as a member of the Human Rights Council and for its work in supporting the UN’s human rights functions, she expressed concern that the cancellations would mean the Australian Government’s ongoing failure to protect human rights domestically would continue without adequate scrutiny.

“The Australian Government has been imprisoning innocent men and women on remote islands for over six years now while governments around Australia continue to send Aboriginal children as young as ten to prison.  These serious policy failures need to be examined and called out on the world stage.”

The open letter has been signed by 399 civil society organisations including the Human Rights Law Centre, Intersex Human Rights Australia, Amnesty and Oxfam.

The letter calls on all member states to take steps to continue to promote and protect human rights, including securing adequate funding for the UN’s human rights pillar, and ensuring that the UN’s human rights mechanisms are not disproportionately affected by cuts the UN budget.

What this means for Australia

The UN human rights treaty bodies perform an important role in the protection and promotion of the equality and dignity of all people.  A key role of the treaty bodies is to review and scrutinise country performance and human rights records.

The following sessions are likely to be delayed:

  • Committee on the Rights of the Child;

  • Human Rights Committee;

  • Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women;

  • Committee Against Torture;

  • Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and

  • Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The delay of two sessions, the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee Against Torture, would be particularly relevant for Australia.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child is due to review Australia’s treatment of children in its September 2019 session.  In the meantime, the ongoing human rights crises highlighted in the Human Rights Law Centre’s Justice for Children report to the Committee continue without scrutiny.  These include locking up children as young as ten, solitary confinement and strip searching in youth detention centres, and unacceptably high levels of violence, discrimination and bullying of LGBTI children in schools and online.

We can also expect to see delays to Australia’s review by the Committee Against Torture if its November meeting is cancelled.  Last reviewed in 2014, Australia’s “four yearly” review is already considerably delayed.  The Human Rights Law Centre had anticipated that Australia’s performance would be scheduled for April 2020 but now expects this important scrutiny of Australia’s human rights record to be further delayed.

The human rights abuses that the Human Rights Law Centre identified in its 2016 report, Torture and Ill-treatment in Australia continue to this day, including issues with:

  • the treatment of people seeking asylum, including mandatory detention and offshore processing, refoulement and indefinite detention on security grounds;

  • prisoners’ rights and conditions of detention, including overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in prisons;

  • police use of force; and

  • counter-terrorism, including ASIO questioning and detention warrants, police powers to detain without charge and the preventative detention regime.

Since 2016, these issues have continued to develop.  This includes the horrific conditions experienced by people seeking asylum in mandatory detention on Manus Island and Nauru, and children in youth prisons such as Don Dale.