UN Committee Calls on Australia to Invest in Human Rights in Landmark Report
Historic First as Treaty Body Calls on Australia to Address Climate Change and Increase Foreign Aid
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has urged Australia to make human rights a priority at a time when the global financial crisis threatens the dignity, equality and freedom of many poor and vulnerable groups. In a landmark report, the Committee also called on Australia to take urgent action to address the human rights implications of climate change and to increase aid to developing countries; the fist time that a UN treaty body has included recommendations on these issues in a human rights report.
On 25 May 2009, the Committee released its report card following a review of Australia's compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee, which is comprised of 18 independent experts from across the world, commended Australia on recent initiatives and advances, including the national human rights consultation, efforts to combat violence against women, and the Apology to the Stolen Generations.
The Committee also, however, made 26 recommendations for Australia to improve its human rights performance, including by implementing comprehensive national human rights legislation.
'An Australian Human Rights Act could improve public services, promote more responsive and accountable government, and address disadvantage,' said Phil Lynch, Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre.
The Committee recommended that a Human Rights Act, which is actively being considered by an independent panel chaired by Fr Frank Brennan, should be enacted and enshrine the full range of economic and social rights, such as the right to adequate healthcare and housing. 'The Committee affirmed that it is meaningless to talk of a right to privacy without a right to adequate housing,' Mr Lynch said.
The Committee also expressed concern that, despite 'the absence of any significant factors or difficulties impeding the effective implementation of the Covenant' in Australia, substantial problems persist in areas such as mental health, poverty, homelessness and inequality.
'Mental health care services are chronically under-resourced in Australia. Only one in three people with mental illness are able to access adequate treatment,' said Annie Pettitt of the National Association of Community Legal Centres. The Committee was particularly critical of the 'high rate of incarceration of people with mental diseases' and called on Australia to 'ensure all prisoners receive adequate and appropriate mental health treatment when needed'.
Despite previous UN recommendations, the Committee was told that Australia has not developed an official poverty line and accepted evidence that '12 per cent of the Australian population live in poverty'. In response, the Committee urged Australia to 'take all necessary measures to combat poverty and social exclusion and to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction and social inclusion strategy'.
In a related recommendation, the Committee called on Australia to ensure universal and adequate social security coverage and review potentially discriminatory and punitive measures, including the 'quarantining' of payments under the Northern Territory Intervention. 'With unemployment rates rising, many Australians will struggle to make ends meet because social security payments are insufficient to guarantee an adequate standard of living and to enable participation in our community,' said Ms Pettitt.
While the Committee welcomed the Rudd Government's recent commitment to halve homelessness by 2020, it noted that homelessness has increased over the last decade, a period of unprecedented prosperity. According to Ms Pettitt, the fact that 105,000 people experience homelessness every night is evidence that Australia needs to take further and urgent action to ensure an adequate standard of living for all. 'Even during the good times, many disadvantaged and vulnerable groups did not have equal access to basic services,' said Ms Pettitt. 'Now that we are in recession, sustained investment in basic human rights is critical. Human rights must be made recession proof,' she said. 'The Australian Government has an obligation to ensure that basic entitlements, such as health care, education and adequate social security payments, are provided to all Australians.'
The Committee also made a series of recommendations to address inequality, including the enactment of comprehensive federal anti-discrimination laws, strengthened efforts to improve gender equality, special measures to improve workforce participation among disadvantaged groups, and immediate steps to 'close the gap' in Indigenous health inequality.
Calling on the Australian Government to act promptly and positively on the report, Mr Lynch said 'Australia's obligation to protect basic social and economic rights doesn't recede during tough economic times. On the contrary, human rights protections are more important than ever now because it is the most disadvantaged groups - the unemployed, the homeless, people with mental illness, single mothers and their children - who are most adversely affected.'
The Committee met in Geneva and reviewed Australia between 4 and 6 May 2009. The Committee was briefed by a non-government delegation (including the Human Rights Law Resource Centre and the National Association of Community Legal Centres) on 4 and 5 May and a Government delegation on 5 and 6 May.
The Committee's Concluding Observations were released on 25 May 2009 and are available at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cescr/docs/AdvanceVersions/E-C12-AUS-CO-4.doc.
The Australian Government is yet to announce its response to the recommendations.