This weekend the United Nations celebrates its 70th birthday.
The UN system arose in the devastating aftermath of World War II. While the horror of the holocaust that shocked the world into action could be said to represent the worst of humanity, the system of rules and standards subsequently developed to uphold human dignity – the international human rights law system – could be said to represent the best.
The UN Charter was created through unprecedented consensus among world leaders, driven by a desire to prevent future atrocities and protect the inherent humanity and dignity of all people.
Despite some flaws and limitations, the UN has undoubtedly helped to make the world a better place. International human rights law sets the minimum standards and UN mechanisms to hold nations to account for abuses as well as proactively progress the realisation of rights around the globe.
Earlier this week, as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop launched Australia’s campaign for a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council, she said that the UN values of human rights, freedom and democracy have always been part of the fabric of Australia.
Certainly, Australia is a vibrant democracy with a strong, if uneven, history of respecting human rights. Australia played a vital role in the development of the UN system, with Australia’s “Doc” Evatt overseeing the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In the decades since, Australia as a country and many Australians individually, have contributed constructively to the promotion of human rights globally through their work with and within the UN system.
At the launch Minister Bishop said that membership of the Council came with a responsibility to “address international human rights violations, to stand up for universal values, and to advance Australia’s own domestic human rights agenda”.
She is right, but Australia needs to lift its game at home and abroad if it is to exercise true leadership.
Australia is approaching a major review by the UN Human Rights Council, the same body it is seeking election to, and its deteriorating human rights record represents a significant challenge to its credibility as a human rights leader.
Increasingly punitive asylum seeker policies, the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal people and the erosion of basic democratic freedoms at both the state and federal level will all come under the international scrutiny during this process known as the Universal Periodic Review.
Minister Bishop said that Australia does not shy away from difficult issues. However, this statement does not sit comfortably with her Government’s willingness to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in nations Australia relies on for cooperation in its punitive refugee deterrence and resettlement policies – war crimes in Sri Lanka, curtailing of democratic freedoms in Cambodia, and the crumbling rule of law in Nauru all come to mind.
Whist Australia would benefit from constructively responding to criticism and addressing important issues in the upcoming review, this would require a dramatic change to what we’ve seen in recent months.
Last month, one of the UN’s senior investigators had to cancel a visit to Australia when the Government refused to provide reassurances that people who spoke to him about conditions in Australia’s immigration detention centres would not face jail time under the excessive Border Force Act. Australia’s failure to provide the necessary assurances marked an outrageous new low in our relationship with the UN.
Earlier in the year, the UN’s expert on torture and ill-treatment expressed serious concerns about the conditions at Australia’s detention centre on Manus Island. Our Prime Minister at the time, Tony Abbott, responded by saying that Australian were “sick of being lectured by the UN” while the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, dismissed the concerns as “absolute rubbish” .
Such examples are not becoming of nation committed to upholding and furthering the UN system of international law.
Another alarming trend is the widening gulf between our Government’s domestic actions and the statements it makes to the international community. In Geneva, Australia has been at the forefront of discussions about the importance of ensuring the independence of human rights institutions, yet at home the Government has significantly cut funding to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and publicly attacked the credibility, and sought the resignation, of its President, Professor Gillian Triggs.
There is no doubt that Australia’s relationship with the UN was damaged by the Abbott Government and whilst the new PM, Malcolm Turnbull, might be able to hit the reset button when it comes to the tone of the language used to engage with the UN, action will always speak louder than words. We are yet to see a shift in Australia’s most troubling policies.
It took seven decades to build up our rules based world order to what it is today, but it can take just a few years to undermine it. This weekend as we reflect on the success of the last 70 years of the UN – and Australia’s involvement in that success – we must also confront the current weakness of Australia’s leadership on human rights internationally and back home.
Anna Brown is the Director of Advocacy and Litigation at the Human Rights Law Centre. You can follow her on Twitter @AnnaHRLC
- HRLC's Emily Howie on the ABC's QandA program discussing how Australia's relationship with the UN was damaged during Tony Abbott's time as Prime Minister.
- Joint HRLC and Human Rights Watch Report on Australia's bid for a seat on the UN's Human Rights Council: Australia at the Human Rights Council: Ready for a Leadership Role?