Australia Fronts UN to Defend Human Rights Record

Australia faced a hard sell to defend its human rights record when it appeared before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 8 June 2011. Australia’s delegation delivered its formal response to 145 recommendations made as part of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review process, which reviews the human rights records of all 192 United Nations Member States.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Ben Schokman said Australia faced close scrutiny when it explained why it has rejected key recommendations from the international community to review its policies relating to the treatment of asylum seekers, the disadvantage and discrimination experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the lack of a Human Rights Act or Charter.

“A number of states, including our closest neighbour East Timor, took the floor to express concern about Australia’s refusal to accept recommendations about the mandatory and prolonged detention of asylum seekers, including children,” Mr Schokman said.

Although critical about the recommendations rejected by Australia, in its own statement to the Human Rights Council, the Human Rights Law Centre also said that there are a number of welcome commitments from the Australian Government, including a commitment to "enhance" anti-discrimination laws and to consider increasing aid and development assistance to the internationally accepted target of 0.7% of GNI.

“To its credit, the government has accepted, at least in part, more than 90 percent of the recommendations made during the review. However, it is regrettable that some of the key issues that topped the international community’s list of concerns were rejected," Mr Schokman said.

The Australian Government has said it will include the UPR recommendations that it accepts into its National Human Rights Action Plan, which is currently being developed, and will also deliver an "interim" report on implementation of the recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in two years.

“There are a lot of positives to build on, but the real test will be whether Australia’s positive engagement with the UPR process translates into action on the ground. If the Government takes its human rights obligations seriously, it needs to set a concrete implementation plan with clear responsibilities, timeframes and targets,” Mr Schokman said.

The Human Rights Law Centre believes the National Human Rights Action Plan should be used to advance a number of important human rights initiatives such as: ensuring Australian jurisdictions have independent investigations of police-related deaths; expanding and enhancing federal equality laws; reducing violence against women; and ensuring proper and meaningful empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Attorney-General Robert McClelland said the UPR was a good opportunity to "showcase" Australia’s strong human rights record. Mr Schokman said a true showcase would involve committing to tangible human rights improvements on the ground through practical legal reforms, including the introduction of a national Human Rights Act or Charter.

“We are a stable, democratic and highly developed state with a government that espouses a commitment to human rights leadership. Yet we are the only modern democracy without a Human Rights Act or Charter,” Mr Schokman said.

The HRLC has prepared a list of Australia’s Response to All UPR Recommendations and a Summary of the Key UPR Recommendations that were rejected or only partially accepted by Australia which can be found online here.

Further background information on Australia’s Universal Periodic Review appearance, including the Australian Government’s report, NGO materials and media coverage, is also available online.

The Australian Human Rights Commission's response and statement on the UPR of Australia is here.

Oral statements on the UPR of Australia from other NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Save the Children and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, will be posted here (Login: hrc extranet; Password: 1session).