It’s Coming! Australia in the International Spotlight

Next February, Australia’s human rights performance will be under the spotlight at the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The Australian delegation, likely led by the Attorney-General, will be questioned about what Australia does and why it does it.  The Government will receive bouquets and brickbats – and a long list of recommendations about what it should do better and how.  It will be Australia’s turn under the Universal Periodic Review. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR in UN-speak) is the newest international mechanism for the promotion of State compliance with international human rights law.  It was adopted as part of the package of changes to the UN human rights system in March 2006 that included the establishment of the Human Rights Council.  For the first time all UN member States – all 192 of them – are being examined on their overall human rights performance.  Until now, international examinations have been treaty based and so are restricted to those States that have ratified a particular human rights treaty and relate only to the human rights obligations under the particular treaty.  This new review is universal and comprehensive.

There are similarities with the existing process of examination by treaty monitoring bodies.  The Government prepares a report on its performance – invariably trumpeting successes and disguising deficiencies.  The national human rights commission and non-government organisations – and anyone else in fact – can make their own reports, usually casting a different light on the situation from that of the Government report.  Reports from UN agencies and officials and from treaty bodies are also brought into consideration.  The actual examination takes place in a question and answer session over several hours.  The process ends with a report with conclusions and recommendations that the Government can accept or reject or ignore.

There are significant differences too, however.  The treaty body examinations are conducted by independent experts but the UPR is a State driven and State based review.  The UPR is political, not legal, and Governments find themselves praised by their friends and criticised by their foes.  The Cold War may have ended two decades ago and the old bipolar world with it but, I assure you, the Human Rights Council is still deeply divided into two camps, friends and foes.

Ironically the stakes for any State in the UPR, as a political process, are much higher than in the more legal treaty monitoring forum.  Criticism of one State by another is taken more seriously than independent expert legal criticism. Recommendations that come from other States are given more weight too because they come with international political implications, not mere legal arguments.  And the whole examination is broadcast live to the world through the UN’s webcasting system.

Because of the international politics, heightened for Australia by its candidacy for election to the UN Security Council, the recommendations that come from the UPR are important.  They are made by individual States and so those States have a direct interest in following them up.  The Australian Government will be required to report again and be examined again in another four years and the focus next time will be on how it implemented the recommendations from this first round.  But even before the next round, its implementation of the recommendations and of other commitments it makes during the process will be closely monitored.  The recommendations will be taken seriously, domestically and internationally, and so it is important to work to ensure that they are good recommendations.

But it’s a long way off, isn’t it?  Preparations are underway already.  There is a lot to be done before the Australian delegation sits on the platform in a big UN assembly room in Geneva in February 2011 in front of hundreds of people – diplomats, UN officials, NGOs and others – and a live international audience to explain themselves.  The timetable is tight.

On 1 March, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Asia Pacific Forum brought together a large number of Australian NGOs and officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Attorney General’s Department for the first detailed discussion of what is involved.  They were joined by representatives from eight Asia Pacific human rights commissions that have already been through the UPR process.  These commissions spoke about their experiences and, on that basis, made suggestions about how it could work best for us.

The UN will soon release the timetable for the submission of information for the review.  Usually information from NGOs and human rights commissions needs to be submitted four to six months before the examination and the deadline is strict.  That means about August-September.  The Government has a little longer but it is required to consult broadly on its report and so needs to begin soon.  The guidelines for the submission of information are also strict – especially in relation to length.  Because reports cannot be long, they have to be carefully prepared to ensure inclusion of the most important issues and well drafted to ensure that uninformed diplomats in Geneva can understand the critical points being made.

The UPR is a great opportunity for Australia.  It is an opportunity to showcase what we do well, to reflect honestly on what is problematic and to invite others to offer their proposals for how we can do better.

It’s coming!  And coming fast!

Chris Sidoti is an international human rights expert and has been head of a range of national and international human rights bodies