A general view of participants at the 38th regular session of the Human Rights Council in June 2018. Photo by: UN Geneva / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — In Geneva last week, Australia concluded its second session — shrouded in controversy with the resignation of the United States — as part of the United Nations Human Rights Council, using its position to criticize human rights abuses and violations in Belarus, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

The council is now made up of 47 members including Burundi, China, Cuba, DRC, Egypt, India, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela, which have all had questions raised over their respective human rights records. The 38th session saw Australia being criticized for its own rights record regarding the treatment of LGBTI populations, Indigenous children, and refugees.

In recent months, two asylum seekers detained on Manus Island and Nauru have taken their own life. And court-ordered interventions have been required for the medical treatment of a 10-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl living in the island offshore centers set up by Australia, with initial requests for Australian-based treatment refused by the Australian government.

Being part of the council is important in positioning Australia globally — it is frequently noted in speeches by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. But Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton recently warned against compassion toward refugees, and questions of whether Australia is treating the council as anything more than a diplomatic tick in the box are being raised.

Criticism of Australia from the 38th session

Australia faced a number of important criticisms in Geneva at the 38th session of the council.

After being reviewed by the U.N. Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women to determine the country’s progress since their review in 2010, it was found that Australia’s treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer women and girls still had a way to go.

Australia was particularly criticized for its inaction on the forced and coerced medical interventions on intersex people, legal barriers to changing gender, risks to lesbians, and protection of bisexual and transgender women seeking asylum in Australia.

The incarceration of Indigenous youth was also highlighted in the session with Keenan Mundine, principal consultant for Inside Out Aboriginal Justice Consultancy and a former youth prisoner, who addressed the council on Australia’s failure to stop 10-year-old children being sent to prison.

“I have spent more than half of my life behind bars, and I want to make sure this will not be the same future for my children,” he said.

“Right now, children as young as 10 are still being locked away in prisons across Australia. This year alone, around 600 children under the age of 14 will be taken from their families and imprisoned. This injustice must end.”

The U.N. special rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia delivered a major report condemning the rise of toxic and hate-filled refugee and migration politics around the world, with reference to Australia.

Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy for the Human Rights Law Centre, said he supported this criticism of Australia.

“This is exactly what’s happening in Australian politics right now, where the denial of essential medical care has become the latest political tactic used against the refugees indefinitely imprisoned on Manus and Nauru,” he said. “And the consequences have been fatal.”

In response to an associated resolution on the incompatibility between democracy and racism, which expressed “deep concern” about the rise of extremist political attitudes and intolerance “particularly against migrants and refugees”, the Australian government was dismissive.

In the country’s statement, they said the resolution did not accurately reflect obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which “provides that the right to freedom of expression may also be subject to lawful restrictions that are necessary for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals, in addition to those that are necessary for the respect of the rights or reputations of others.”

Perspectives from human rights watchers

On Manus Island, journalist and detained refugee Behrouz Boochani has a daily view of a world where the rights of asylum seekers — including children — are increasingly overlooked.

“All of the documentation, witness testimonies, and other evidence that have been discussed and published until now have proven conclusively that innocent people have been enduring extraordinary forms of physical, emotional, and psychological torment,” he said in an address to the 2018 Human Rights Dinner in May.

“The fact that 10 people have lost their lives on Manus Island, Nauru, and Christmas Island since 2013 is a despicable crime that needs to be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.”

“No one can ignore the fact that people have been killed and thousands of lives destroyed as a result of political power plays.”

Francisco Bencosme, the Asia-Pacific advocacy manager with Amnesty International USA, said that it is obvious to the outside world that Australia has several human rights issues it needs to tackle — including issues related to indigenous people and refugee policies.

“The justice system continues to fail Indigenous people, particularly children, with high rates of incarceration, reports of abuse, and deaths in custody,” Bencosme told Devex.

“And Australia maintained hardline policies by confining people seeking asylum in offshore processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and turning back those attempting to reach Australia by boat.”

He said there was an important role for Australia to play to be a leader in the Asia-Pacific region to call out “egregious human rights practices.”

Emma Bull, advocacy manager at Amnesty International Australia, agreed, saying that if Australia is serious about being a human rights leader, it needs to lead by example.

“Leadership comes with consistency and this begins with calling out hate and prejudice, and committing to the freedoms that Australians once held dear,” she said.

For Bencosme, it is important for Australia to use its position on the council to improve its own human rights record, also noting that UNHRC itself was not above reproach. Aruna Sathanapally, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, suggested countries such as Australia were not upholding the promises they made when elected to the council — including to promote good governance, stronger democratic institutions, and protection for freedom of expression

With the U.S. resignation from the council, Bencosme believes there will be more of a burden on all members to make the council an effective forum “to tackle vexing human rights issues.”

“Constructive reforms can help the council better respond to crises, protect human rights victims and hold abusers to account,” he said. “International human rights organizations have long been active partners in that reform process.”

For Bull, while the council is problematic, it still has an important role to play in holding governments — including Australia — accountable.

“While the Human Rights Council is by no means perfect, and its membership is frequently under scrutiny, it remains an important force for accountability and justice,” she said.

The 39th session in September may provide an important indication as to whether the council has what it takes to ensure that violations are being called out in an increasingly inward facing political world — regardless of the global powers it may put offside.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior 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.