By Jennifer Ashton
At the pleasant venue of the National Museum, 65 community and human rights-based organisations met in an all-day conference with the peak government departments to discuss a range of issues relating to Australia’s international and domestic policies on human rights.
The meeting in Canberra on 9 Feb 2017 started with information updates from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on:
- Human Rights Council 2016 (the UN body)
- Australia’s Human Rights Council Campaign (for a seat on that body, vote in Oct 2017)
- Bilateral engagement
- International thematic meetings
- UN General Assembly Third Committee 2016
- Universal Periodic Review 2015 actions/progress in 2016 (these are reviews of every nation in turn, on their human rights performance over the past three years)
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Attorney General and a Human Rights Commissioner addressed the meeting. The announcement by Attorney-General George Brandis that the government would finally ratify OPCAT* by December 2017, after consultations with States, was welcomed by community organisation representatives. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop talked of the inherent human rights concept inherited from Thomas Paine.
* Optional Protocol for the Convention Against Torture.
Photo of the NGOs-DFAT-AGD conference in session, 9 Feb 2017, National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Former Director of Civil Liberties Australia, Amanda Alford, is in centre foreground.
The new Human Rights Commission representative, Ed Santow, said that the role of OPCAT should be to identify problems before they become catastrophic. His speech was subsequently published in The Guardian. Some of the human rights organisations that work closely with the Australian Human Rights Commission report that Ed is the favoured candidate for the position to be vacated by Gillian Trigg in May. No questions were taken on any of these presentations and a number of NGOs noted that it was not clear whether there would be monitoring access to Manus or Nauru facilities, once Australia has ratified OPCAT.
Plenary discussions followed on business and human rights (not much discussion was generated and the conclusion was that the process is as important as an outcome. There was some talk of business and human rights being incorporated in the Bali Process. Some NGOs stressed that trade unions-workers should be considered) and the rights of indigenous peoples, both of which are part of the policy platform of the Australian candidacy for the HRC.
There were a number of representatives from indigenous groups. Two very articulate young indigenous women who work at DFAT spoke of their experience; one in the Permanent Mission in Geneva on human rights, the other in incorporating indigenous issues (as has been done with gender, for example) into all elements of DFAT policy/practice
The final discussions on the development of a new Foreign Policy White Paper and a more general discussion providing a forum for each of a disparate group of NGOs from Assyrian Christians, to disability activists to death penalty abolitionists to anti-slavers – to Civil Liberties Australia – to present their views.
Much of the day’s discussion was taken up in consideration of Australia’s campaign for membership of the Human Rights Council (2018 – 2020), and the associated “Pledge” material. DFAT introduced their policy statement on their candidature and invited comment/discussion.
The consensus of the meeting was that these pledges lack specificity and do nor signal new initiatives to substantially improve human rights law and policy. Australia will be competing against France and Spain for two seats on the Human Rights Council in the Group of Western European and other States.
Polarisation is becoming stronger
One of the reasons given for Australia’s bid to join the 47-member HRC is a need to contest anti-democratic and anti-rights influences of repressive governments, who are joined in the so-called Like Minded Group, and who are forcing votes on resolutions antipathetic to liberal values. The LMG attack established norms and rights and distrust civil society. Polarisation between ideologies is becoming stronger.
DFAT was also very clear that no government can be perfect, as the 300 recommendations against the Australian Universal Period Review (of Australia’s HR performance) update of 2016 attests, but that it was important to be transparent and admit short-comings. Unfortunately a website designed to monitor Australia’s progress against these recommendations is still being developed by the AG and may not be running until the middle of the year. The vote will be taken in New York in October 2017.
There was a general concern that DFAT is being increasingly tilted towards a trade orientation, and mention was made of the decreased Australian aid budget. DFAT pointed out that there is financial austerity and that it will lose 500 jobs, so cautioned against grand schemes. Several interventions concerned treatment of refugees/asylum seekers but DFAT made it clear that they cannot change domestic policy.
The Council On The Ageing (COTA) was present, advocating for development of a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons. To date the Australian Government had been an active participant in UN talks but remained unconvinced that a new legal instrument was necessary, as there is already a range of existing international human rights treaties that provide protection for all people. Many countries share this view, including the US.
A number of themes emerged from the range of legal groups, which can be encapsulated in the Civil Liberties Australia presentation. CLA would like to see a government pledge commitment to review the legal justice system, whistleblower protection and review of FOI laws. The government should work with the states to repeal draconian anti-protest laws and abolish gag orders of people working at detention centres. It should also retreat from its practice of undermining the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission. CLA like others, welcomed the end of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, by an edict of President Trump. Finally, the government should work to implement a national Bill of Rights so that Australian can finally enjoy some legally enforceable rights and freedoms.
These sorts of forums are not easy (as anyone who has worked on NGO consultations can attest) but discussions were conducted in a cordial and constructive atmosphere. The calibre, commitment, resolve and capabilities of the participants are an impressive source of intelligence for DFAT and the Attorney-General’s Department.
* Jennifer Ashton, who attended on behalf of the Association of Former International Civil Servants, Canberra, and who is also a Director of Civil Liberties Australia. This report is an amalgam of her report on the event and that of CLA President, Dr Kristine Klugman.