DFAT misses a chance to listen

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.

Left: tables crammed together made “interactive discussion” a cacophony of competing voices.

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


DFAT-NGO FORUM ON HUMAN RIGHTS, 8 Feb 2018
Report by Quakers…
By David Purnell

This meeting was the largest gathering of NGOs concerned with human rights to meet with officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and representatives from other government departments. It was held on the eve of Australia taking a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council for the first time.

I represented Quaker Peace & Legislation Committee (QPLC) and Quaker Service Australia (QSA).

    • In a statement issued to participants, the Government made clear the principles it will use to guide its time (three years) on the Council:
    • Focus on five pillars – rights of women and girls; good governance and stronger democratic institutions; freedom of expression; the rights of indigenous peoples; national human rights institutions and capacity building.
    • Advance human rights for positive systemic effect, building on work already being done domestically and internationally.
    • Be pragmatic and principled to achieve outcomes, considering matters on a case-by-case basis, listening and consulting, seeking cross-regional partnerships, and being a bridge-builder.
    • Bring an Indo-Pacific perspective, assist regional groups like ASEAN and Pacific Island countries to participate.
    • Consult with civil society.

The meeting was opened by Frances Adamson, Secretary of DFAT, who emphasized the department’s intention to listen to the voices of NGOs, and chaired by Justin Lee, First Assistant Secretary of the Multilateral Policy Division. The Minister, Julie Bishop MP, attended for a short time, welcomed civil society contributions to human rights deliberations, and announced that the Government would fund one NGO to attend
the 38th session of the Human Rights Council in June-July 2018.

The Forum program was structured to cover issues of concern to both the government and NGOs, with an opportunity for smaller groups to explore particular topics.

From the Government’s perspective, Australia’s election to the Human Rights Council reflects recognition of its longstanding commitment to advance human rights and its general support for the United Nations. There is concern that some of the most well-established standards of human rights are being put at risk by the actions of some member states who are demanding votes rather than consensus. This is especially noticeable in the area of sexuality and reproductive rights, in attempts to put development before human rights, and in moves to curb the role of human rights defenders and rapporteurs. Australia will be challenging these trends.

Open Plenary

This was an opportunity for participants to raise other questions on matters not already covered during the day. This led to the following information:

  • Australia continues to support the two-state solution in Palestine/Israel.
  • Now that ISIL has been defeated, there is more hope for minorities in Iraq (e.g. Assyrians) to be treated more fairly.
  • A political settlement is the only hope for Yemen, and there are signs that Saudi Arabia and UAE are beginning to accept this. The British are becoming more active in seeking a resolution.
  • The human rights dialogue with Iran discussed religious freedom for minorities such as Christians, Baha’is and Sunny Muslims.
  • Christian minorities in Sudan have been attacked. The Australian diplomats there are holding talks with local officials to change this.
  • Australia has made representations on the human rights situation in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and on the rights of workers in Qatar.
  • Australia is supporting election monitoring in several African states this year, in cooperation with the Commonwealth and the UN.
  • The current electoral legislation before Parliament has caused much anxiety among charities and aid groups because of proposed limits on advocacy work. DFAT acknowledged this and expects that some amendments will be sought to meet those concerns.

Conclusion
The Forum was especially valuable for enabling NGOs to meet one another and to contribute their views to the DFAT and other government officials present. In the current political context, there was a more noticeable reluctance on the part of DFAT representatives than in past years to offer much more than the official line.
(NOTE: The meeting on 8 February 2018 was held at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.)

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