As Australia focuses on the passage of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, has released her Annual Report for 2012, which reflects on worldwide progress towards eliminating discrimination and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)’s activities in 2012. 2012 is the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. The OHCHR reports that racial discrimination, particularly ‘racist hate speech’, remains a matter of ongoing concern in many parts of the world.
Thanks to a ‘whole of UN approach’ to addressing violence against women, gender equality and women’s rights projects made positive ground in 2012. Bolivia ratified the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a significant step towards accountability and equal access to services that Australia has failed to take to date.
Both the OHCHR and the Committee on the Rights of the Child directed their efforts in 2012 towards increasing government and community awareness of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers. So far Australia has been reluctant to sign up to this convention, a matter that’s likely to receive greater scrutiny in 2013 with Australia’s membership of the UN Security Council. The UN General Assembly will also conduct a High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development in 2013.
The Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment called on states in 2012 to minimize and abolish the use of solitary confinement. Australia’s use of solitary confinement should be examined in light of principles developed by the Special Rapporteur, particularly ahead of Australia’s interim report on its implementation of the recommendations it received during its Universal Periodic Review in 2011.
Close to home, in November 2012 the UN Secretary-General released a report reflecting on the UN’s response to civilian deaths and human rights abuses in the final months of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009. The report concluded that the UN failed to meet its responsibilities towards civilians and required greater transparency and accountability. In 2012, the UN Human Rights Council also asked the OHCHR to report on the current potential human rights in Sri Lanka.
Looking ahead, of particular note for the Asia-Pacific region in 2013 will be a renewed focus on sustainable development projects for the OHCHR and other UN bodies. Access to drinking water and sanitation as human rights concepts will guide both the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) and the post-2015 agenda setting, a question affecting many Asia-Pacific nations.