Australia's fight for a seat on the UN human rights council

A wide view of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the Palais des Nations during the high-level segment of the Human Right Council’s 34th regular session in February 2017. Photo by: Elma Okic / United Nations

Australian officials have been working hard to secure one of two seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 2018-2020 term, pushing at international forums for voting countries to back their bid.

Australia’s pitch involves arguing that they have a strong human rights record, a focus on gender issues and can provide regional diversity on the council — their competition for the council position, France and Spain, will see a strong euro-centric base for the council.

Yet at home, there is increasing evidence mounting of human rights abuses in the treatment of refugees, indigenous Australians and children in detention. This has human rights experts debating if Australia’s questionable record will impact the final vote.

Australia’s ongoing human rights scandals

Just six months ago, during his visit to Australia, Special Rapporteur for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights François Crépeau said Australia’s human rights standing had been tarnished by its “regressive” migration policies falling behind international standards. Treatment of migrants by boat “served to erode their human rights.”

Australia’s ongoing inaction in the face of such strong censure suggests an increasing disregard of international opinion on human rights abuses.

After a March 30 shooting incident on Manus Island, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton incorrectly identified refugees as the cause of hostilities, claiming they had “led” a young local boy into the center. Rights groups and the Greens party said Dutton sought to  “demonize” refugees in the eyes of the Australian public.

On May 16, the Guardian released documents suggesting government subcontractors operating the Manus Island detention center were actively trying to worsen the refugees’ living situation, in a bid to push them out of the center.

And on May 20, Dutton announced a new, virtually impossible to meet, October 1 deadline for refugees to provide detail about protection claims, branding them “fake refugees.”

On Australian soil, meanwhile, treatment of children in juvenile detention centers is under investigation and campaigns for indigenous justice highlight that Australia’s indigenous children are 24 times more likely to end up in prison compared to non-indigenous classmates.

The outgoing president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, has faced a barrage of attacks from the Abbott and Turnbull governments for daring to question and highlight its actions impacting human rights.

“Australia is testing the patience of the international community with its continued commitment to asylum seeker policy that is out of sync with international human rights obligations,” Amy Maguire, senior lecturer at the Newcastle Law School, told Devex.

But is it enough to sway votes?

Human rights or politics?

Australia’s campaign for a spot on the Human Right’s Council will flounder if its human rights scandals are an important consideration of voting nations. But is the vote influenced by human rights or politics?

Professor Simon Rice, director of law reform and social justice at the Australian National University, told Devex that Australia’s campaigning may lead to the desired outcome — regardless of concerns of human rights abuses. “In my opinion, and others may think differently, it’s process as much as politics,” he said. “The human rights record is not especially important and certainly not determinative.”

Maguire agreed and explained the complex politics of the process.

“In that campaigning, states put forward the most positive possible perspective on their human rights record,” she explained. “Voting states are meant to consider other states’ records in terms of human rights protection when voting, but this requirement is not enforceable. Undoubtedly, factors other than a state’s human rights record are highly significant, for example voting blocs, established alliances and power relations.”

Voting in of Russia, China and Cuba on the Human Rights Council was a clear example of politics over action. These countries, Maguire explained, all served two consecutive terms despite poor human rights records.

But human rights is meant to be factored into the decision. “All members of the council are expected to ‘uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights’ so a country’s record on human rights does matter — both domestically, and what they do in their foreign policy,” Elaine Pearson, Australian director for Human Rights Watch, told Devex.

And according to Claire Mallinson, national director for Amnesty International Australia, discussion amongst voting nations is demonstrating the impact of Australia’s record on the vote.

“We’ve heard that a number of countries have raised questions about our treatment of refugees, about our outsourcing of responsibilities to developing countries and a number of countries have said we should be ending offshore detention,” she told Devex, saying external perceptions of Australia’s human rights records will make a difference in the final vote.

The pros and cons of voting for Australia

Australia is heavily promoting its ability to bring the voice of the Indo-Pacific region to the Human Rights Council as part of their bid — a voice that has not previously been heard directly on the council.

For Maguire, arguments in favour of Australia include its eagerness for a seat which could lead it to improve its human rights record. “Countries wishing to be represented on the council are effectively encouraged to pull up their socks so as to demonstrate their worthiness,” she said. “Australia’s participation would also be positive because it would give Australia the opportunity to contribute to the progressive development of human rights law and learn from the practices of other council member states.”

“Inclusion could be taken as the international community’s tacit acceptance of Australia’s practices, even those subject to considerable criticism like policies on asylum seekers, indigenous peoples and gender equality”

— Amy Maguire, senior lecturer at the Newcastle Law School

Australia has already made notable inroads into improving its human rights track record, with the attorney-general recently announcing that Australia would join the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. And Pearson explained that recently, Australia did use its U.N. Security Council seat very effectively and championed some issues there, such as action on North Korea and humanitarian access on Syria. “If Australia can do the same on difficult issues in Geneva, that will be an asset to the council.”

And Mallison said Australia had the potential to be a great leader on the human rights. “We have been in the past and we can be again,” she said. “We just need to show more consistency in our human rights record.”

Rice said he cannot see any benefit in voting for Australia. “Unofficially, it depends on what, if any, informal agreements are reached before the vote,” he said.

A clear negatives for Australia is that a seat on the council could be used to justify its current action, particularly in relation to maritime migration. “Inclusion could be taken as the international community’s tacit acceptance of Australia’s practices, even those subject to considerable criticism like policies on asylum seekers, indigenous peoples and gender equality,” Maguire said. “Some states may well vote against Australia to try to signal that current practices are not acceptable for a state that seeks to offer leadership on human rights.”

But Australia’s inability to be strong on issues of international significance will also have a negative impact.

“Australia has not always showed leadership on country resolutions, sometimes preferring a more cooperative approach with governments instead,” Pearson explained. “At a time when the United States is pulling back from the U.N., and when there are seriously problematic countries on the council like Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and China, it’s even more important that the remaining Council members are prepared to play an active and vocal role in addressing countries in crisis.”

Australia’s inability to criticize plans of U.S. President Donald Trump to reintroduce water boarding, Mallison said, was another example in Australia’s weakness to be strong on global issues of human rights.

What are Australia’s chances against the competition?

When the U.N. General Assembly meets in October to vote for the two new members of the Human Rights Council, Australia, as part of the Western Europe and Others group, is unlikely to have the strong support France and Spain can expect from their European Union partners. And this could work against Australia’s bid.

“It’s a bit like Eurovision,” Mallison said. “Australia is in the Western Europe bloc when it comes to voting, making it more of a challenge.”

But in the mind of voters may be Australia’s recent stint as a member of the U.N. Security Council — in which it was said to have performed well in. “Its efforts on that council included a push for justice over the MH17 disaster, and that may persuade some European states to support an Australian bid,” Maguire explained.

Australia will be hopeful that support from Pacific neighbors will get them over the line.

“It’s a question of how much lobbying by whom goes on,” Rice said. “And it’s up to each representative as to what they take into account.”

But human rights experts are urging voting nations to seriously consider what they are on the council for — the protection of human rights.

“We want Australia to be a leader in human rights and we want it to play a strong role in bodies like the U.N. but we also need consistency, and our own house in order,” Mallinson said.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • %25257b6eb61a8f df39 4ae1 bb29 9056d33aa739%25257d

    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.