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Australia Elected to UN Human Rights Council     

18 October 2017 at 4:27 pm
Luke Michael
Australia has been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, but humanitarian aid organisations have called on the federal government to “walk the walk” by improving the country’s own human rights record.

Luke Michael | 18 October 2017 at 4:27 pm


Australia Elected to UN Human Rights Council     
18 October 2017 at 4:27 pm

Australia has been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, but humanitarian aid organisations have called on the federal government to “walk the walk” by improving the country’s own human rights record.

This is the first time Australia has served on the council, which is the world’s peak body for promoting and protecting human rights.

Australia’s election to the 47- member council was uncontested, after France withdrew its bid and left Australia and Spain as the only countries vying for the two vacant council positions from western Europe and others group.

Foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop said that it was in Australia’s national interest to shape the work of the council, and advance human rights across the world.

“Respecting fundamental human rights and freedoms, and building them into the fabric of a society, makes Australia and the world safer and more secure,” Bishop said.

“We will bring to the council the same principled, pragmatic and consultative approach that distinguished our term on the UN Security Council in 2013-14.

“Australia will provide a unique Indo-Pacific perspective and ensure that the voices of our Pacific neighbours and other small states are heard.”

Bishop also outlined the main areas Australia would focus on, during its three-year term on the council.

“We will focus on five key areas: gender equality, freedom of expression, good governance and robust democratic institutions, human rights for Indigenous peoples and strong national human rights institutions,” she said.

“Through an emphasis on these issues, we can advance human rights in practical, sensible ways that will have far-reaching systemic effects over time.

“Australia will also continue to advocate the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, freedom of religion and belief, the rights of persons with a disability and the rights of LGBTI communities.”

But a number of humanitarian aid charities have said Australia’s appointment to the council lacks credibility, unless it addresses its own human rights issues.

Vision Australia chief advocate Tim Costello called on the federal government to “walk the walk” on human rights advocacy, by immediately closing its offshore detention centres and bringing detained people to Australia.

“Offshore detention centres are a blight on Australia’s international reputation – an act of calculated inhumanity that creates a credibility gap in our [appointment to] a seat on the Human Rights Council,” Costello said.

“If we are to play a credible role in promoting human rights internationally, we need to look to our own behaviour.

“We need to do more than talk the talk on human rights, we need to walk the walk.”

Costello highlighted the plight of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru especially, and said the government’s lack of action was not in line with the generosity of many Australians.

“Our government simply doesn’t have a plan to deal with the refugees currently in limbo on Manus and Nauru. We have allowed border protection to poison our human rights obligations,” he said.

“Australians are among the most generous people in the world, but our government is not doing its fair share to help the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Oxfam Australia has also commented on this appointment and said Australia must use its new position to push for stronger human rights protections at home and globally.

The charity called on the government to increase Australia’s refugee intake to 42,000 by 2020/21 and offer more support to poorer refugee hosting nations.

Oxfam Australia’s humanitarian policy adviser, Nicole Bieske, told Pro Bono News that Australia needed to focus particularly on Indigenous and refugee issues.

“We welcome Australia’s election to the council but we have concerns that the government really needs to improve its own policies… particularly regarding Indigenous rights and refugee issues,” Bieske said.

“Certainly from our perspective the election to the council really does give the Australian government a great opportunity to act in these areas and really address human rights concerns in Australia.

“For all the 47 countries on the council, they are held to account on their human rights record every four years. So in that vein, all countries on the council should look at their own human rights record and really address their own policies.”

The human rights record of some of the other countries elected to the council has also drawn criticism, particularly regarding the Democratic Republic of Congo’s appointment.

The British and US ambassadors to the UN questioned the credibility of the council, and said Congo’s “political repression, civilian attacks [and] mass graves” meant it should not have been rewarded with a place on the human rights body.  

But Bieske said the council was an important mechanism to further advance human rights around the world.  

“It’s important to have these sorts of bodies that have a focus on human rights and which hold other countries to account,” she said.

“Australia will soon go before the UN human rights committee, which is a different body, where they will be asked about what the government has done in relation to civil and political rights in particular.

“A lot of the issues we have talked about, such as Indigenous rights and refugee rights, will come up out of that process.

“So all of these opportunities are incredibly important, in terms of governments being held to account for their human rights record and practices.”

Australia will commence its term on the council on 1 January 2018.

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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