Report on Dept of Foreign Affairs – NGO forum 8 February 2018
(Acronyms explained at the end of document).
Civil Liberties Australia was disappointed with the management of this DFAT-NGO Forum on human rights. The chairing was of the customary high standard, but the actual design of this particular gathering and the procedures adopted left much to be desired.
Firstly, the venue (at the National Gallery of Australia), although spectacular, was not suitable for breakout into small groups. The noise level of seven groups working at round tables in the same room precluded adequate discussion during the most “interactive” session. Such sessions were a breakaway from customary practice, and they didn’t “work” in the selected environment.
Secondly, what also didn’t work was DFAT representatives, in all sessions all day, lecturing “at” the people with whom they were meant to be consulting. The DFAT presentations went on for more than (sometimes well over) half the allotted time for the particular subject.
DFAT officers had an excellent opportunity to LISTEN to the expertise of the NGO delegates, a quality of knowledge and experience of those attending that DFAT had acknowledged in their opening remarks. However, as well as being talked at, we were talked down to. Insufficient time was allocated for real interactive consultation.
Not once, all day, did any DFAT officer, in addressing a suggestion from a participant, say: “That’s a good idea! We will look into it.”
The new “interactive dialogue” sessions, with NGO reps split into the seven round-table discussion groups, didn’t work, at least in the “good governance” theme. Again, too much time was taken up by DFAT officers, which left little time for NGO people to speak, let alone for proper interactive discussion. DFAT representatives spoke for 30 minutes of the allocated 60, as if their speaking at such length would preclude much speaking by those whom DFAT was meant to be consulting with.
The atmosphere was counter productive. DFAT officers seemed to be defensive, often saying that “the issue was already being dealt with adequately”.
Micro-management of the Q&A process meant DFAT could evade difficult questions. Those attending were asked to put forward their questions in advance, and DFAT chose which to answer.
When a question or statement from an NGO representative did not suit, it was ignored. For example, during the morning all issues regarding refugees were deferred…but the opportunity to debate them never came. The issues included questions about Rohingyas, surely at least partially a priority DFAT issue, given that any solution must involve Myanmar and Bangladesh as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries where many now reside. Perhaps the Bali Process would be relevant. Yet, at no later session was the possibility of discussing refugee issues raised.
A session of MDGs/SDGs was incomprehensible to agencies that do not work directly with these concepts and tools. If such a session is to be introduced (and is it strictly relevant?), then it should be explained, with appropriate, readable materials provided in advance. Overhead projections on the day were illegible because of the level of detail that presenters had tried to cram on to each screen.
In the past, I have enjoyed the forums and appreciated the opportunity for interaction. This one was disheartening. The elephant in the room continues to be Australia’s off-shore detention centres. Many delegates attending feel strongly that Australia’s position on the Human Rights Council is hypocritical. The issue was not mentioned.
I sincerely believe that the forums can continue to be valuable for both DFAT and the NGOs who attend, and trust that the next will be more delegate-friendly. NGO representatives really deserve to be given – as over the previous decade of such meetings – an opportunity for both parties to listen and learn.
Dr Kristine Klugman
President, Civil Liberties Australia
DFAT: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
NGO: Non-Government Organisation
Q&A: Question and Answer
MDGs: Millenium Development Goals
SDGs: Sustainable Development Goals