CANBERRA — The annual Australian Council for International Development conference takes place in Sydney on Oct. 30-31 with the theme “Human Rights in the 21st Century” coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The conference will bring together officials and development leaders from across the globe to discuss human rights and the impact of changing politics.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta, European Union Ambassador to Australia Michael Pulch, and Executive Director of International Civil Society Action Network Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini are among those set to speak on the role of development and humanitarian actors in supporting human rights, as well as drawing attention to issues of contention.
Ahead of the conference, ACFID CEO Marc Purcell spoke to Devex on what he anticipates will be achieved at this year’s conference.
The domestic politics of international human rights
The ACFID conference is an opportunity for politicians representing Australia’s Liberal government, Labour opposition, and Greens party to address Australia’s development sector. A strong statement on support and action for human rights, within Australia and internationally, is a certainty from the Greens. But the nature of the statements from Liberal and Labour representatives will be important to watch to gain insight into the potential direction of Australian foreign policy and aid moving forward.
“We would be hoping for statements on the approach to human rights and development,” Purcell said. “The universal declaration, 70th anniversary, where are we at, and human rights and development are topics they have been asked to address.”
With Australia’s human rights policies an increasingly hot topic for the 2019 election, the conference is an opportunity for the development sector to question politicians on the position of their parties with the aim of clarity — not to hear more slogans.
The conference will also discuss how the sector should be responding to geopolitical changes in the Indo-Pacific, with Chinese experts Denghua Zhang and John Blaxland as well as Malaysian expert Amrita Malhi discussing China’s and other new regional influences.
“As a liberal democracy in the region, [Australia] can only get by through creating goodwill from cooperation,” Purcell said. “That’s how Australia will prosper in the future.”
Human rights must be business as usual
The ACFID conference is always an opportunity to share knowledge and learn from each other. And this year will be no different, with the key message from sessions that human rights has evolved to be standard practice in the development sector.
“Ten years ago, we discussed right-based approaches to development,” Purcell said. “What we’ve found over a decade is that human rights-based approaches to development are the norm now.”
Concurrent sessions led by members will include focuses on gender and women’s rights, supply chains, indigenous rights, and other areas that are now considered core business for many development NGOs.
“It’ll be members sharing what they are doing and have learned in this space,” Purcell said.
The conference will also explore how Australian mining companies operate internationally, as well as climate change.
“One of the question we will be asking is: ‘Are human rights under attack?’ That will be looking internationally and regionally, but we will also be thinking about the understanding in respect to human rights in Australia and how we champion human rights as Australian organizations.”
Purcell believes they are important questions for the sector to be asking to move forward with promoting and improving human rights over the next decade.
Delivering important statements
The ACFID Annual General Meeting takes place as part of day one of the conference, and is expected to result in a number of strong statements from the sector — including statements calling for children to be taken off Nauru which has been a campaign in which ACFID, World Vision Australia, and other members have been heavily involved.
Other statements may also be expected.
“In Australia the rhetoric is talking about the rules-based system and norms,” Purcell said. “But from an NGO and ACFID perspective, that means speaking out and being active on people’s rights and taking action. The norms only mean something if they are adhered to and if the people hold the powerful to account.”