Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers received unprecedented condemnation from the international community as the Government appeared before the Human Rights Council in Geneva overnight for its major four yearly human rights review in a process known as the ‘Universal Periodic Review’.
Australia was questioned by 107 countries with at least 60 recommendations criticising Australia’s policies on asylum seekers and refugees.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Advocacy and Litigation, Anna Brown, said that Australia’s efforts to demonstrate leadership on topics such as the death penalty and the rights of older people were overshadowed by the wave of condemnation on policies of mandatory detention, offshore processing and boat turn backs.
“Australia’s potential to be a human rights leader is being completely undercut by its tremendously harsh treatment of people seeking asylum. Last night at the UN, there were calls from nations in every region and political grouping in the world, for Australia to change its policies. At a time when there is an unprecedented number of people around the world in need of safety, a wealthy democratic nation like Australia should be part of the solution, but instead we are rightfully being condemned on the world stage for being part of the problem,” added Ms Brown.
In its opening remarks the Australian Government acknowledged the challenges the country faced in a number of areas but stated that its “strong” policies on asylum seekers and migration had built public confidence and saved lives as sea.
“The Government’s generally constructive and positive approach to its review last night was undermined by its one-eyed and shallow justification for its treatment of people seeking asylum. Fronting a forum like this and just repeating a tired mantra wont fool anyone – it actually just damages our international credibility,” said Ms Brown.
The UPR process is a ‘review by peers’ and Australia received constructive criticism from allies such as the United Kingdom, the Unites States and Canada. You can watch a recording of the session here.
Australia’s record on Indigenous peoples was also a significant focus of the review. Countries recognised improvements and challenges in the area but demonstrated wide spread concern on over-imprisonment, gaps in health outcomes and community services, and urged progress on constitutional recognition.
“The government’s stated commitment to constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples is welcome but we can’t forget that Australia’s Indigenous peoples are one of the most over-imprisoned peoples in the world, so there is no surprise that many countries around the world are deeply concerned over the gap in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” said Ms Brown.
Other key human rights issues raised
Disability issues, women’s rights and LGBTI rights – particularly marriage equality, also featured heavily in the review. Other issues raised were racial and religious discrimination (particularly Islamophobia), children’s rights, and the need for a federal Human Rights Act.
Co-operation and attitude to the United Nations
Australia’s lack of co-operation with the UN and reduction in funding of the Australian Human Rights Commission was also criticised by countries such as Ireland and the Netherlands.
“Countries recognised that positive steps had been taken to address violence against women, and through the roll out of the NDIS, but not surprisingly there is still a long way to go to remedy the human rights issues faced by many vulnerable groups in Australia,” added Ms Brown.
Australia’s Ambassador to the UN, John Quinn, who spoke first on behalf of Australia, spoke of the important work of human rights defenders such as the Australian Human Rights Commission – the national institution which had its government funding slashed and who’s President, Professor Gillian Triggs, has come under intense pressure from senior Government ministers to resign.
“The growing gulf between what Australia says on the world stage and what it actually does back home is of real concern. If Australia is serious about wanting a spot on this very Human Rights Council, then it clearly needs to lift its game when it comes to both policy and practice,” said Ms Brown.
Voluntary commitments made by Australia
The Government proactively made a number of ‘voluntary commitment’s on issues such as constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, advocacy against the death penalty and removing exemptions in federal laws that allow discrimination by state governments against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
“We are pleased to the see the federal government’s commitment to ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, which will ensure that many state laws, such as those governing adoption, will be improved over the coming months” said Ms Brown.
The Australian Government also made a very welcome commitmet to work the Australian Human Rights Commission to develop a public and accessible process for monitoring Australia’s progress against UPR recommendations. This commitment also included periodic reporting on progress This will include a periodic statement on progress against the recommendations on behalf of the Australian Government. Australia will also designate a standing national mechanism to strengthen Australia’s overall engagement with UN human rights reporting,
"We are really pleased to see a commitment to monitoring and public reporting on the recommendations made at the Human Rights Council, and look forward to working with the Government on this important accountability measure. Human rights advocates have long called for better co-ordination of Australia's reporting to the UN system so this is a very welcome the commitment to a national mechanism to deliver improvement and strengthening in this area," said Ms Brown.
The HRLC and the National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) coordinated a coalition of nearly 200 organisations which prepared materials for UN member states and briefed representatives from various countries in Geneva ahead of the review.
The Government has said it will discuss the UPR recommendations with NGOs and state and territory governments before finalising its response, which is due in March 2016.
A copy of all the recommendations made during the appearance is available here.
A copy of the voluntary commitments made by the Australian Government is available here.