‘Rights stuff’ airs at first forum

The first Australian Government and Non-Government Organisations Forum on Human Rights in late June 2010 produced mixed results, according to CLA President, Dr Kristine Klugman. She raised questions about making all Australian laws compatible with human rights, and the UN demand, under the ICCPR, that Australia trains its public officials, police and others in human rights.

Report on
Australian Government and Non-Government Organisations Forum
on Human Rights,

Wednesday 23 June 2010

About 40 representatives of invited Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) met for an inaugural day-long forum – called by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Attorney General’s Department – at Old Parliament House, Canberra.

The program covered human rights in both national and international arenas:

  • Australia’s Human Rights Framework and domestic implementation of human rights; and
  • •  Human Rights internationally, including the UN Universal Periodic Review of Australia.

The forum was addressed by the Attorney-General Robert McClelland and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Stephen Smith, who made predictable speeches.

The issue which hung like a looming black cloud over the forum was the government’s refusal to adopt the recommendations of the National Human Rights Consultation process, led by Father Frank Brennan, to introduce a Bill of Rights for Australia.

A great deal of discussion focused on the alternative measures, incorporated in the governments’s new ‘Human Rights Framework’.  One comment was made privately that “you have a framework when you don’t have a house”. The actions under the Framework are, in the government’s words:

  1. ‘enhancing’ human rights education across the community;
  2. establishing a new Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (PJCHR);
  3. introducing a requirement for each new Bill introduced into Parliament is accompanied by a statement of compatibility with Australia’s international human rights obligations;
  4. consolidating federal anti-discrimination laws to remove unnecessary regulatory overlap;
  5. developing a new national Action Plan on Human Rights; and
  6. creating an annual NGO Human rights Forum.

The CLA representative raised several questions on the new Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, regarding:

  1. examination of existing legislation for compatibility.  The response was that old legislation may be reviewed as amendments were made – ie, very gradually or at the direction of the AG;
  2. bipartisan support for a PJCHR – this has yet to be secured;
  3. the inter-relationship with existing committees (Scrutiny of Bills, Legal and Constitutional, Treaties). This issue is expected to be worked out by the various committees.

In relation to human rights education, the comment was made that collectively “we” have a lot to do, suggesting that voluntary groups should carry the weight of this responsibility.  Groups can bid for funds to run projects, NGOs were told.

The CLA representative drew attention to the fact that Australia’s obligation under the UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is to “adopt a comprehensive plan of action for human rights education including training programs for public officials, teachers, judges, lawyers, and police officers on the rights protected under the Covenant…” (point 27, ICCPR report concluding remarks of the Human Rights Committee, 16 March – 3 April 2010). The response was that the Australian Federal Police would be involved for police human rights, and the Australian Judicial College for judges and lawyers.  No mention was made of public officials.

A criticism was made that Australia has failed to make a commitment to UN conventions: treaties have not been adopted into Australia law.

A question was asked for more specific information on the National Action Plan.  The response was that this will be worked out with States and Territories

CLA focused attention on the fact that the currently controversial topic of human rights and mental health was not included anywhere on the agenda: evidently the issue is being thought about.

On immigration detention, the question was raised as to how this complies with human rights standards: the question was not adequately answered.

In the international context, it was extremely disappointing to note that Australia was failing to meet its commitments:

”…the (Human Rights) Committee considers that the fifth periodic report of Australia does not met the requirements of article 40 of the covenant…”

There were 18 “communications” against Australia.  The government has responded to eleven of these and seven are under consideration.  It is of concern that these responses are usually late, sometimes up to two years.

CLA raised these criticisms, and asked how Australia as a rich country could fail to adhere to these standards, as it posed as an example to poorer countries. The response was that Australia’s performance was not perfect, but not as bad as others (!)

Legislation was passed recently to introduce a National Security Monitor of terror laws.  A question was asked as to who that person is.  There was no decision on the person, we were told.

Finally, there was some discussion on the future of this forum: the point was made that by amalgamating the traditionally individual DFAT and AG forums, the time for community consultation has been halved.  The suggestion was made that two days be set aside to incorporate both AG and DFAT and that it be opened up, with more interchange of information between participants, effectively into a “human rights marketplace”.  AG and DFAT will consider this.

CLA is considering applying for funds to run a conference in conjunction with the Australian National University on the topic Liberties Lost: review of a decade.

Dr Kristine Klugman
President
Civil Liberties Australia
24 June 2010

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