The Australian Government recently signed the new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in a ceremonial opening of the Convention on 30 March 2007 at the UN Headquarters in New York. This is a significant achievement for people with disability in Australia and globally, many of whom have been engaged in the development of the Convention over many years. The Australian Government is to be congratulated for its contribution to the development and signing of the Convention and for taking this important step in the development of international human rights law. Sadly, however, the signing of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is one positive step amongst an accumulation of much reluctance on the part of the current Australian Government. Over the past 10 years, the Australian Government’s engagement with the international human rights system has become increasingly unenthusiastic and reluctant. The Government has become particularly disdainful of the international human rights treaty monitoring system and of treaty body findings about the state of human rights in Australia.
Australia is party to the six core international human rights conventions, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Each convention requires that the Government submit a periodic report on the state of human rights in Australia in relation to the specified convention (generally every 4-5 years). Government reports should include positive actions that have been taken in the reporting period and any challenges faced. When it comes to protecting human rights in Australia, the Australian Government’s approach to engaging in this process has been, at best, one of reluctance and, at worst, dismissive and unwilling. For example, in 2000 following a damning review by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Government launched an unprecedented attack on the human rights treaty bodies and threatened to wind back Australia’s engagement with the reporting system.
Since then, the Australian Government has played a key role in international deliberations about UN reform generally and human rights treaty reform specifically, including, in it’s own words ‘vigorously promoting’ the creation of the new harmonized guidelines on reporting under the international human rights treaties. These guidelines reinforce that the reporting process is an opportunity to ‘take stock of human rights protection… for the purpose of policy planning and implementation’.
Although the Australian Government states that it ‘encourages universal adherence’ to all the international human rights conventions, it appears to think that signing a human rights treaty sufficiently constitutes ‘adherence’. Rather than seeing the reporting process as an opportunity to take stock of the state of human rights in Australia and identifying key areas in need of attention, the Government’s recently released Draft Common Core Document demonstrates its continued disinclination to engage in any meaningful way with the human rights reporting process.
In late 2006 the Government released for public consultation its Draft Common Core Document, which incorporates its reports under both the ICCPR and ICESCR. Reports under these two Covenants were due to be submitted in mid 2005. As at April 2007 the Australian Government has not submitted either report.
Together with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the ICCPR and ICESCR form what is known as the International Bill of Human Rights. That these two periodic reports are due concurrently presents a significant opportunity to really take stock of the state of human rights in Australia. The Draft Core Document and the preparation of reports under ICCPR and ICESCR represents Australia’s first opportunity to report under the new harmonised guidelines and streamlined processes for national reporting which they played a key role in promoting. It is also an opportunity to set an example for other States’ reporting practices. The Draft Core Document was a great disappointment on both counts. It largely documents laws, policies and programs that have been introduced during the reporting period that have some, though at times vague, relationship to the articles of the Covenants. Ultimately, however, it fails to substantively engage with the human rights principles of the Covenants or an analysis of their implementation.
When the Core Document and the ICESCR and ICCPR reports have received ministerial signoff and are finally submitted, the UN committee for each Covenant will review them. This will be followed by, what is supposed to be, an open and constructive dialogue with representatives of the Government to discuss achievements and any challenges that have been experienced in achieving the full realisation of the rights in Australia.
Will the Government take the same positive approach to its reporting obligations under the ICCPR and the ICESCR as it has done with development of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities? Importantly, is the Government’s receptiveness to the human rights reporting process dependent on favourable committee reports? It remains to be seen.
Annie Pettitt is a Member of the National Human Rights Network of the National Association of Community Legal Centres