It’s time for Australia to move beyond ‘best practice’ engagement to best practice implementation on human rights

A growing chorus of international voices is telling Australia that it must do better on human rights. As pressure mounts on the Federal Government over the ‘Malaysia solution’, Australia’s human rights record faced further scrutiny from the international community when it appeared before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month. On 8 June, Australia delivered its formal response to 145 recommendations made as part of the Universal Periodic Review process. The process, to which every country in the world is subject on a rolling basis, provides the international community with the opportunity to ask questions and make recommendations about the human rights record of the country under review.

When Australia first fronted the Human Rights Council to commence the review in January, it was called on to answer some tough human rights questions. Six months later, and with ample time for further consultation and consideration, the time has come for Australia to give answers.

Back in January, three key issues topped the international community’s concern: Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, the disadvantage and discrimination experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the lack of a Human Rights Act or Charter. Other significant issues, such as violence against women, police use of Tasers and the rights of people with disability also received critical attention during Australia’s review.

In advance of its formal statement to the international community through the Human Rights Council, the Government released an outline of its response which, it says, “showcases” Australia’s “strong human rights record”. When the time came to respond, the Government, to its credit, accepted, at least in part, more than 90 per cent of the recommendations made during the review. As we should. We are a stable, democratic and highly-developed state with a government that espouses a commitment to human rights leadership. We ought to be held to the very highest human rights standards.

However, while a 90 per cent acceptance rate sounds impressive, the precise nature of the commitments made by the Government warrants closer examination.

Close to half of the recommendations were “fully accepted” by the Government. Most of these relate, however, to existing policies and processes, such as the recognition of Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution and implementing a national policy to reduce violence against women. There are a small number of welcome new commitments, including a promise to “enhance” anti-discrimination laws (which were previously to be merely “consolidated”) and to consider increasing our aid budget to the internationally agreed target of 0.7 per cent “as economic and fiscal conditions permit”.

The Government accepted almost a third of recommendations on the basis that they “are already reflected in existing laws or policies”. This is true in some cases, but in others the claim is dubious at best. Contrary to the Government’s response, for example, there is no Australian jurisdiction in which police-related deaths are independently investigated. Similarly, the Government’s statement that UN recommendations concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are “already reflected in existing laws or policies” somehow overlooks repeated recommendations to abolish the Northern Territory Intervention, compensate the Stolen Generations and reform native title laws.

Finally on the positive side of the ledger, about one-fifth of recommendations were accepted “in part”, generally on the basis that the Government will further “consider” the recommendation.

This leaves 6 per cent of the recommendations that were rejected by the Australian Government. Regrettably, these recommendations are precisely those which require real legal and institutional reform. They are also those which relate to the most persistent and significant human rights criticisms from UN human rights bodies, the Australian Human Rights Commission and non-government organisations. The Government rejected recommendations to enact a Human Rights Act and to end the mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum seekers, including children. They also rejected recommendations designed to meaningfully address Aboriginal disenfranchisement and disempowerment, such as negotiating a treaty, compensating the Stolen Generations and strengthening land rights.

Announcing Australia’s response, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said “the Universal Periodic Review is a good opportunity to demonstrate that when it comes to human rights, equality and opportunity, we can always achieve more”. Regrettably, while demonstrating that we can achieve more, the response to date has been a missed opportunity to actually achieve more.

Fortunately, the Universal Periodic Review process did not end on 8 June. While much of the work to date has been done in Canberra and Geneva, this is a process intended to promote and protect human rights “on the ground” and the 90 per cent of recommendations that have been accepted do provide a valuable framework for further action. It is positive that the Government has committed to including each of the accepted recommendations in a National Human Rights Action Plan, although if this plan is to work, it must contain concrete measures and identify clear responsibilities, timeframes and targets. It is also positive that Australia has committed to provide the UN Human Rights Council with an interim report on implementation, a report which will probably coincide with a vote on Australia’s UN Security Council candidacy.

There are some disappointments – major disappointments – in the Government’s UPR response, but also some welcome commitments. The time has now come for Australia to move from the rhetoric of best practice in engaging with human rights mechanisms to the reality of best practice in implementing our human rights obligations.

Ben Schokman is the HRLC’s Director of International Human Rights Advocacy and Phil Lynch is Executive Director.

This piece was first published online by the ABC’s The Drum Unleashed