Australia’s foreign aid budget will be reduced by another $100 million this financial year according to an announcement by Julie Bishop on 18 January 2014. This is on top of a cut of $4.5 billion over the next four years announced two days before the federal election in 2013. Much of the reduction can be found in Africa, the Pacific Islands and in environmental programs. Notably, funding will still be maintained on Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
Aid groups have claimed this means they will lose money already allocated to programs related to water and sanitation, elimination of violence against women among others.
Not only will this have a significant impact on development and human rights programs in the region, it is arguably a breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations. Under Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Australia has an obligation to pursue the regional realisation of human rights through economic and technical assistance:
[e]ach State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individual and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving the full realisation of the rights…
Under this Article it is the responsibility of all states, in their capacity as members of the international community, to take concrete, effective, targeted and expeditious steps to assist in the realisation of rights of people beyond their borders. This obligation is also articulated in article 56 of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. According to a statement on the DFAT website, the Australian Government recognises that ‘development and human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing’.
The Australian Government, and indeed all Australian political parties, had agreed to a target of 0.5% of Gross National Income by 2015-16 despite a longstanding internationally agreed standard of 0.7% of GNI. Prior to the federal election foreign aid had reached 0.37% of GNI. With the Government now stating that the foreign aid budget will only increase according to the Consumer Price Index, it would appear that all talk of targets has effectively disappeared.
Emily Christie is a lawyer seconded from DLA Piper to the Human Rights Law Centre.