By Eloise McLean, CLA Director

Australia’s annual Forum on Human Rights took place at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra on Wednesday 6 February 2019.

This year’s forum was an incredible opportunity for some of Australia’s leading civil society groups to reflect on Australia’s first year as a member of the UN Human Rights Council. Non-government organisations united to discuss emerging human rights situations and issues in international human rights discourse and explore ways in which we can work together and with DFAT in the year ahead.

Throughout the day, Civil Liberties Australia (CLA) and other participating networks had the opportunity to engage with senior DFAT representatives, hear from guest speakers and presenters, and share their expertise and perspectives.

The long and productive day begun with a welcome by Justin Lee, First Assistant Secretary, Multilateral Policy Division. After a recap of the milestones and challenges met by DFAT in human rights discussions globally, Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs, shared a video message to the forum. She emphatically expressed her support of addressing Australia’s failings and celebrating our success in the human rights sphere. In particular, the Minister spoke at length about her deep support for ‘gender equality, abolition of the death penalty, and freedom of expression and belief’– her sentiments were heartfelt and proved an effective catalyst for discussion.

This year, DFAT invited Elaine Pearson, Australia Director of Human Rights Watch, to speak. Elaine spoke passionately about the importance of halting the ‘shrinking of civil society space and participation’, especially with the increased pressure on traditional human rights norms, systems, organisations and the rules-based order in totality.

Elaine discussed her experiences with the increasing ‘push back from China, Russia and like-minded groups’ against the UNHRC. Elaine’s comments fuelled discussion throughout the day, focusing on the importance of furthering alliances with countries such as Canada and New Zealand, and halting the efforts of states to weaken and redefine global human rights norms.

Countries to watch

Issues of low indigenous participation in human rights discourse, countries to watch carefully in 2019 and the importance of civil inclusion were dominant themes of Elaine’s speech.

Indeed, Elaine not being a DFAT player but rather a leader from a separate group, made the move to criticise DFAT’s performance in 2018 in a way that no DFAT representative would have. Her words deepened a sense of unity amongst participating groups, with her call to end the ‘bullying and demonising of vulnerable groups’ and push against the muzzling of civil society organizations and human rights defenders validating and inciting all of us in the audience – a powerful opening to the forum.

This year, based on the recent activity of Civil Liberties Australia in the human rights sphere, I chose to attend three of the small group discussion sessions:

  1. People on the move
  2. Regional LGBTI issues and the role stakeholders play in response
  3. Protecting Freedom of Religion or Belief – what works?

With more people on the move now than at any other time in modern history, Session One was led by DFAT’s People Smuggling Taskforce & Human Trafficking Task Force and Protracted Crises team. With over 20 representatives in the room, the tension was instantly high. A DFAT graduate immediately set the restrictive parameters for the session, making it clear that DFAT ‘does not manage Australia’s immigration policy’, deflecting all comments to the Dept of Home Affairs. They would be taking notes to convey comments DFAT’s meeting the next day with Home Affairs.

When questioned by the frustrated and prepared civil groups on the deplorable state of Australia’s refugee treatment and settlement system, every comment was met by the statement we ‘welcome thoughts on this area for consideration’. Michael Kourteff, representing DFAT’s People Smuggling and Human Trafficking Task Force, consistently deflected comments and questions by reversing the conversation to a complex and obstructive lecture on the details of the Bali Process, etc.

Ultimately, serious recommendations were made for multi-department conversation on Australia’s non-signatory status on agreements regarding international asylum seeker and refugee rights, a shift in focus from short-term practices to multi-year planning and preparation, and the further inclusion of civil society groups in discussion and resolution.

Notably, groups that attended and were vocal in this session included Andrew Naylor for the Human Rights Council of Australia, Edwina MacDonald for the Human Rights Law Centre, and Paul Power for the Refugee Council of Australia.

Photo show Rohinga refugees on the move: World Bank.

Following session 1, the forum united for an address by Chris Sidoti, member of the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. Chris is an international human rights lawyer, advocate and teacher whose speech on the Rohingya genocide and abuse of ‘fundamental freedoms and dignity’ was moving, emotional and important.

Over a year has passed since the outbreak of violence that led to the Rohingya crisis – the largest humanitarian emergency in our region. Since then, the UN Fact-Finding Mission has handed down its landmark report. The HRC has established an ongoing accountability mechanism for Myanmar. Australia and others have imposed sanctions targeted at Myanmar security officials. But with over 900,000 Rohingya in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar and access restrictions continuing in Rakhine State, the crisis is far from resolved.

Chris’ address focused on exploring what more Australia can do, multilaterally, regionally and bilaterally, to support a durable solution to the situation in Rakhine State, while supporting Myanmar’s democratic transition and peace process.

Session 2 focused on regional LGBTI issues and was led by Lee Carnie of Equality Australia and Emily Dwyer of Edge Effect. I felt it was important for CLA to attend this session as we recently made a submission to the inquiry into the Sexual Discrimination Act (Removing Discrimination against Students). Further information: http://tinyurl.com/y4x6njzr

Unlike the first session of the day, this session went smoothly with open and relaxed discussion. We used a case study to frame a discussion on the real struggles of intersectionality, and key human rights violations against, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons across the region, and the role of government and civil society in response.

DFAT shared their efforts to halt Egypt’s actions at HRC38 to shut down conversation on the plurality of family, with the Dept. standing against the Holy See’s assertion of the primacy of traditional families and instead encouraging the use of respectful and inclusive language in UN rulings and discussions. However, DFAT shared that the efforts to prevent backsliding in 2018 demanded so many resources that it further depleted the power behind their actions for progression.

Exploring strategies

We also explored strategies to enhance coordination among government and civil society to better influence positive change in the region. It was agreed that, in 2019, the focus needed to be turned to closing the divide between Australia’s involvement with other countries on an international level, and our genuine responses and actions domestically.

Although a looming election has generated emotions of confusion and frustration in advocacy groups, DFAT made a clear effort to share that there was support in the Dept. and that there were constant efforts to push for the normative value of LGBTQI rights in Australia and globally.

Finally, session 3 focused on Protecting Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) and what works. Led by DFAT’s Geoff Bowen and Jessica Bowen-Thomas, the discussion centred on what effective FORB advocacy looks like in the international context, and how we achieve positive outcomes while ensuring we do no harm.

In this session we discussed the challenges faced by religious communities today, reviewed what styles of FORB advocacy have proven effective in the past, and explored options for Government, CSO and collaborative advocacy going forward – political, multilateral and at the grass roots level.

Per Civil Liberties Australia’s strong stance surrounding the importance of introducing a definitive and effective Charter or Bill of Rights in Australia – one of only democratic countries to not have one –– we were active and focused on resolving this injustice in discussion.

It was agreed that there is a dangerous disconnect between Australia’s expectations of the international community, and our own performance internally. Hence, there were serious recommendations put forward to the department and positive responses surrounding DFAT’s role in supported FORB in 2019.

Notably, those vocal in this session included CLA Director Jennifer Ashton (also representing AAFICS, the foreign civil servants organisation) and Elizabeth Kendal from Christian Faith and Freedom.

Ultimately, although tense at times with frustration and confusion, groups exercised strong emotions in all sessions and debates to produce what, objectively, felt like a successful forum. It was an amazing opportunity to attend, and we can only hope for 2019 to be a better year for human rights at home and around the world.

We wish the Department the best of luck in its positive approach in difficult circumstances, and promise that civil societies are going to fight to remain part of the future.

– Eloise McLean, Director Civil Liberties Australia. law student ANU

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