Australia’s Role in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific

Australia’s Role in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific

Last month, the Rudd Government released a new ‘Human Rights Framework’ for Australia.  Most commentary on this Framework has focused on the Government’s failure to commit to a Human Rights Act.  This attention is warranted.  The enactment of a Human Rights Act was a key recommendation of the National Human Rights Consultation, supported by over 87 per cent of submissions.  The basis upon which a Human Rights Act was rejected – that it would be ‘contentious and divisive’ – was spurious and an abdication of leadership. The focus on a Human Rights Act has, however, resulted in less scrutiny of other omissions from the Framework, most notably that the policy is silent on Australia’s role in promoting human rights in our own neighbourhood – the Asia-Pacific.  This silence is all the more surprising given the Rudd Government’s rhetoric on this issue.  The Government’s UN Security Council candidacy, for example, spruiks Australia as a ‘principled advocate of human rights for all’, while ‘comprehensive engagement’ with the Asia-Pacific is said to be one of the three key pillars of Australian foreign policy.  The new Framework itself commits Australia to ‘promote and protect human rights within our region’, but does not include any concrete actions to give substance to this worthy ambition.

It is therefore timely that, on 3 May, the Australian Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade published its own report on Australia’s role in promoting human rights in the Asia-Pacific.

The Committee identified the Asia-Pacific as a ‘diverse and complex region with a mosaic of human rights challenges’.  It highlighted gender discrimination and violence, human trafficking, capital punishment, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and profound poverty, among others.  The Committee found that there is a ‘clear need to enhance mechanisms to protect human rights and to redress human rights violations’ and that Australia has a ‘significant role to play’ in the region.  It stressed that this role should not take the form of megaphone diplomacy, but rather be ‘sensitive and cooperative’, with Australia following the lead of human rights defenders already working in the region. The Committee made a number of concrete recommendations for action, some of which should be implemented immediately and some of which should be strengthened.

First, the Committee recommended that the Australian Government should be ‘conscious of its human rights obligations in all of its regional relationships’, including in the area of trade.  I would go further.  We need to be more than merely ‘conscious’ of human rights in our regional affairs; the promotion and protection of human rights should be both an instrument and key goal of Australian foreign policy.  Nowhere are there greater opportunities and imperatives for Australia to commit to a practical, effective human rights-based foreign policy than in the Asia-Pacific.  As part of this policy, Australia should undertake Human Rights Impact Assessments as a key aspect of doing business in the region, including in the areas of aid, development, trade, investment, migration, military and security cooperation and the environment.  Where appropriate, and as previously recommended by the Committee in its inquiry into our relationship with ASEAN, Australia should ensure that its bilateral agreements – whether in relation to trade or extradition arrangements – include human rights safeguards.

Second, the Committee recommended that AusAID ‘adopt a human rights-based approach’ to its aid and development projects.  This is welcome but again should go further, not least by increasing funding for human rights beyond the paltry 0.15 per cent of the aid and development budget it currently comprises.

Third, the Committee recommended that the Australian Government appoint a Special Envoy for Asia-Pacific Regional Cooperation on Human Rights.  This Envoy would be tasked to consult with governments and civil society and then report back to the Government within 12 months on how Australia can best support human rights in the Asia-Pacific.  Again, this is a laudable recommendation.  But it should go further, specifically through the appointment of a permanent, full-time Australian Human Rights Ambassador.  Human Rights Ambassadors have long been appointed by many leading states – including the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden – and can assist to promote a coordinated and coherent approach to human rights across all areas of foreign policy.  An Australian Human Rights Ambassador could play a valuable role in the region.  Geopolitically, Australia is well placed to broker deals and bridge divides between the global North and the global South, and between East and West.  Indeed, Australia has played just such a role in the past on crucial human rights issues, including in the negotiation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 1940s under a Labor Government and the development of effective sanctions against apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 80s under a Liberal Government.  We should build on this bipartisan legacy in the Asia-Pacific.

Parliamentary engagement with human rights is essential to the effective institutional protection of human rights.  Recognising this, the Committee recommended that the Australian Government expand its bilateral human rights dialogues in the Asia-Pacific, which are currently limited to China and Vietnam.  It recommended strengthening these dialogues by including parliamentary delegates and reporting outcomes to the Australian parliament on an annual basis.  Again, this recommendation could be taken further.  In particular, the Government should mandate and resource the Joint Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, proposed under the new Human Rights Framework, to consider not only domestic but also regional and international human rights issues.  This Joint Committee could also promote international human rights standards and learnings in the Asia-Pacific by convening regional inter-parliamentary human rights dialogues.

The Committee’s fifth recommendation was that Australia adopt a ‘targeted approach’ to promote human rights treaty ratification and implementation in the region, particularly the Pacific.  This deserves immediate prioritization.  The Pacific has the lowest human rights treaty ratification rate of any global region, notwithstanding that the core human rights treaties provide clear, comprehensive, internationally accepted principles that can enhance governance and improve accountability.  As a longstanding signatory to these treaties, and an active participant in the associated UN review processes, Australia should provide Pacific states with technical and financial support to ratify and implement the core human rights treaties and thereby improve human rights and democracy on the ground.

The Committee’s sixth recommendation was that the Australian Government do more to support the ‘vital work’ of civil society in the region, including by establishing a scholarship fund for Asia-Pacific human rights defenders.  This is positive, but should be supplemented by substantially increasing Australian funding to NGOs in the region to protect human rights at the grassroots level.  While the recent expansion of Australia’s Human Rights Grants Scheme – from about $1 million to $3 million per year – is very welcome, the scheme generally provides short-term, project-based funding only.  The scheme should be expanded both in amount (in the Netherlands, for example, the government’s Human Rights Fund will distribute €27.5 million in 2010) and duration, to provide longer-term, recurrent support. The Committee concluded that ‘Australia should not be prescriptive in what human rights approach or mechanism would best suit the region’, but reiterated that Australia is ‘well placed to foster discussion and progress on a cooperative approach to human rights challenges facing the Asia-Pacific’.

While the release of the Rudd Government’s Human Rights Framework was an opportunity missed, another opportunity to commit to human rights-based policy and action is fast approaching.  In January 2011, Australia will go through the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review – a process in which Australia’s human rights record is examined before all 192 UN member states.  A commitment to a comprehensive human rights-focused foreign policy – starting with concrete action on human rights in the Asia-Pacific – should be a centrepiece ‘pledge’ made by Australia on this world stage.

Phil Lynch is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre