On December 10, the world marks 70 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Regrettably, instead of the anniversary signalling the enduring impact of human rights, some are fearing the “end of human rights”. Here we highlight some of the rights challenges that captured the world’s attention this year, illustrating the struggle to secure human rights is far from over.
1. Australia’s first year on the UN Human Rights Council
Australia took its place on the UN Human Rights Council this year for a three-year term. Australia delivered a strong statement about Myanmar’s atrocities against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, but was criticised for holding refugees and asylum seekers offshore. While Australia supported important country resolutions, it failed to take a leadership role on any key issues.
2. United States’ retreat from Human Rights Council
The US faced international condemnation when it quit the Human Rights Council, calling it a “protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias”. The US has long complained of the council’s perceived bias against Israel. But, by withdrawing, the US decreased its options for confronting and addressing human rights violators. This increases the responsibility of governments like Australia’s to ensure the council addresses the world’s most serious human rights violations.
3. Violence against women
In Australia, while the #MeToo movement has spurred women to come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, a number of high-profile cases of alleged sexual harassment by actors and politicians highlighted ongoing barriers to justice for victims. At the same time, the #countingdeadwomen femicide index reports that one woman in Australia is killed every week by an intimate partner.
4. Facebook’s reckoning
Free speech, privacy and electoral integrity came under the microscope in March, when a former employee of Cambridge Analytica blew the whistle on its practice of harvesting data from millions of US Facebook users in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential elections.
There is also growing criticism of Facebook for not doing enough to stop its use to spread hate speech. For example, in Myanmar it has been used as a tool to incite violence against Rohingya.
5. Rohingya crisis
In August, a UN Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, which included Australian human rights expert Chris Sidoti, delivered a scathing report detailing crimes against humanity, war crimes, sexual violence and possible genocide by Myanmar’s security forces against the Rohingya.
The UN Human Rights Council, in response, created a mechanism to collect and preserve evidence to aid future prosecutions for atrocity crimes in Myanmar. Australia joined other Western nations in imposing targeted sanctions on military officers named in the UN report. While the Australian government maintains an arms embargo on Myanmar, our defence forces continue to provide training to the Myanmar military.
6. Crackdown against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang
Turkic Muslims in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region have long faced repression. In 2018, Human Rights Watch and others reported an escalation in this repression with the government detaining 1 million people in political re-education camps, with evidence of their torture and mistreatment. Muslims not detained still face pervasive controls on freedom of movement and religion. The Foreign Affairs Department revealed under parliamentary questioning that three Australians were detained in the camps.
7. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia made international headlines when a prominent journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The case prompted a closer examination of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The country’s repression, imprisonment and ill-treatment of activists includes the alleged torture of leading women’s rights defenders.
In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition has committed many violations of international humanitarian law, including apparent war crimes, killing thousands of civilians. Millions of Yemenis are confronting a famine, in part because of restrictions on aid delivery. Yet the USA, UK, France and Australia sell the Saudi government weapons and military equipment that may well contribute to its Yemen campaign.
8. Children off Nauru
Australia’s government appeared to respond to the “Kids Off Nauru” campaign launched by civil society groups, medical professionals and lawyers. December figures show ten refugee children remain on the island, down from 119 children in August.
Mounting political pressure forced the government to remove children who had been transferred there in 2013 and 2014, though many were removed from Nauru only after legal proceedings were started. But the departure of families makes the situation even more desperate for the adults left behind. And those transferred to Australia are told they will not remain permanently, keeping them in limbo.
9. One year since the Uluru statement
Indigenous communities have fought hard throughout 2018 to have the federal government focus on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, after the Turnbull government dismissed it out of hand in 2017.
The statement calls for a constitutionally enshrined “First Nations Voice” in parliament and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreement-making between governments and First Nations, and facilitate truth-telling of First Nations’ histories. These steps were seen as laying the foundation for a treaty with Australia’s First Nations peoples. A 2018 parliamentary committee endorsed the need for a voice in parliament and has called for a process of co-design between Indigenous people and government appointees.
10. LGBTI discrimination
One year on from the breakthrough on marriage equality, the parliamentary year ended with Australia’s politicians unable to find a way to remove legislative exemptions allowing religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI pupils and teachers.
Advocates and the Labor opposition rejected government amendments that sought to stop schools being able to exclude students on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics, but would also allow them to enforce rules in line with their religious teachings.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is a UN treaty body, made up of 23 independent experts from around the world, and its key functions include:
examining state parties’ implementation of rights under the convention
making recommendations detailing how state parties can improve compliance with the convention
accepting individual complaints about violations of rights under the convention
What did the committee say about Australia’s record on women’s rights?
The committee noted areas of improvement, including marriage equality, the introduction of the paid parental leave scheme and the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status and family responsibilities.
However, it also issued over 90 recommendations for improvement, demonstrating that negative aspects far outweigh progress on women’s rights.
Human rights framework
The committee reiterated its 2010 recommendations that Australia should introduce a charter of rights. The Committee also recommended that Australia harmonise state, federal and territory discrimination laws to enhance their effectiveness in prohibiting discrimination against women.
The committee denounced funding cuts to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and emphasised the importance of the government respecting the independence of the commission.
Violence against women and sexual harassment
The committee noted the endemic nature of violence against women, with one in three women experiencing physical violence, and almost one in five women experiencing sexual violence. The committee recommended that the government reinforce efforts to change behaviours that lead to violence against women. This includes encouraging reporting violence, and adequately funding services under the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.
The committee raised the prevalence of sexual harassment, and recommended that the government take into account the outcomes of the national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment, encourage reporting and impose appropriate sanctions on perpetrators.
Women’s economic disadvantage
The committee condemned the government’s lack of gender budget analysis. It said:
The Committee considers that some of the State party’s recent cuts to social, health, education and justice budgets, reduction of taxes for high income groups and increase of the defence budget represent a setback…
It recommended the government take immediate measures to mitigate the effect of recent budget cuts on women, implement gender-responsive budgeting in the allocation of public resources, and reinstate the funding of services catering to women’s rights.
Access to justice
The committee criticised funding cuts to legal assistance services, and urged the government to implement the recommendations of the 2014 Productivity Commission Inquiry into Access to Justice. This includes ensuring adequate funding for community legal centres and legal aid.
The committee raised concern at provisions in funding agreements that restrict the ability of community legal centres and civil society organisations to advocate for women’s rights, and recommended the government remove provisions from funding agreements that restrict freedom of expression.
Treatment of diverse groups of women
The committee recognised that diverse groups of women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, LGBTI women, women with disability, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, refugee women and older women experience greater barriers to accessing and enforcing their rights.
These include discrimination, lack of access to appropriate services, higher risk of violence, higher unemployment and homelessness rates, and lower representation in public life. The committee recommended numerous measures to improve gender equality for diverse groups of women.
Where to from here?
The release of these recommendations comes at a time of great uncertainty in international human rights. We’re seeing a disturbing retreat from fundamental human rights principles and institutions across the world.
While Australia has been using its seat on the Human Rights Council to advocate at the international level for the rights of women and girls, the gap between our global leadership on gender equality and the reality faced by women and girls in the Australian community is stark.
Australia has an extremely poor record of implementing treaty body recommendations. During the committee’s review of Australia last month, the Australian government, while stating that it takes its international obligations “incredibly seriously”, admitted that on most fronts it had no plans to amend laws or policies to improve protection of the rights of women and girls in the Australian community.
As part of the committee’s follow-up procedure, Australia must explain to the committee what steps it has taken to implement priority recommendations within two years.
The committee’s four priority recommendations focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, funding for women’s services, reproductive rights, and ending offshore processing of refugees.
The challenge for Australia is to engage positively with the committee’s recommendations and implement changes to improve human rights for women and girls at home
Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre UNSW; Lecturer, UNSW Human Rights Clinic, UNSW and Tess Deegan, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor at Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW
US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their families at the Mexican border has sparked outrage in recent months, both in the US and abroad. It became so heated that he eventually ended the separation of families, though their fate remains unclear.
However, Trump is not the only leader to incarcerate children and use their suffering as a form of deterrence. The detention of asylum-seeker children has a long and brutal history in Australia. Trump’s policy invites us to reflect on our own policies regarding the detention of asylum seekers and the situation of children and families fleeing persecution.
Currently, over 200 children are in asylum-seeker detention, including on Nauru, in mainland detention centres and in community-based detention. Many have endured prison-like conditions, with no clear date for their release for months, if not years.
While most children remain with one of their parents, my research has found that separation of families is common. This includes the removal of young men on their 18th birthdays from their families with no warning or follow-up as to their whereabouts.
The mandatory incarceration of asylum-seeker children is an uncommon practice globally. It contravenes important human rights instruments to which Australia is a signatory, most notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This states:
No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily … (This) shall be used only as measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
The degree of despair felt by children and their families is well-documented and goes back many years.
In 2004, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) published A Last Resort? National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. This document outlined the privations of the lives of those held in detention centres in Australia, including the famous case of Shayan Badraie. He was detained for nearly two years, witnessing attempted suicide, self-harming and violence that resulted in several hospital admissions before the family was released.
The report also documents physical assault by guards, mental illness and lack of appropriate food, shelter and education.
A Last Resort not only documents terrible human rights abuses, but the ongoing effects on those who experienced them. But, far from ending the incarceration of children and their parents, the policy of detention as deterrence has continued. In this regard, Australia is unusual, being the only developed country that imposes mandatory detention on people arriving by boat.
In 2014, the HREOC conducted another investigation, The Forgotten Children. This report documents in detail ongoing breaches of human rights, unsafe living conditions, medical neglect and physical and sexual assault.
Dehumanisation occurs on every level. One 16-year-old boy stated:
People were called by boat ID. People had no value. No guards called me by name. They knew our name, but only called by boat ID.
Children are also constantly exposed to the trauma of other detainees. One father said:
The word of “suicide” is not an unknown word to our children anymore. They are growing up with these bitter words. Last week a lot of women took action to suicide in Construction Camp. All the kids were scared and crying. How do we remove these bad scenes from our kids’ memories?
The report documents other cases of despair. A 13 year-old-boy detained on Nauru expressed to the treating doctor “a complete loss of hope; despair”. The doctor described how “[h]e had no appetite and no will to eat. He lost over 10 kilograms, which would be about a quarter of his body weight.”
The Australian government has tried to hide the conditions experienced by those held in places like Nauru and Manus Island. In particular, the Border Force Act (2015-17) imposed criminal sanctions on workers who speak publicly about what they see.
However, there is overwhelming and easily accessible evidence that Australia’s policies cause both immediate and ongoing trauma to children, and indeed all those incarcerated in detention. We must recall that Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and that seeking asylum is enshrined in this instrument.
So while we can express moral outrage about things that occur far from home, our own policies ensure human rights breaches that cause unnecessary suffering and trauma for long periods of time.
There is now substantial evidence of the poor treatment of asylum-seeker children. This has come from a plethora of reports from human rights organisations, healthcare providers and detainees like Behrouz Boochani, who document and publish the conditions of incarceration.
They remind us of what the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer said: “Do not be a victim; do not be a perpetrator; and above all, do not be a bystander.”
In doing so, they claimed the council was a roadblock to genuine global human rights protection. This move by the Trump administration has been anticipated for some time. In a sense, the elephant has left the room. But in doing so, the elephant has belled the cat on a number of serious issues regarding the HRC.
Is the United States’ decision sound in terms of international human rights protection? Is it one that Australia, an HRC member from 2018-2020, should follow?
What is the Human Rights Council?
The UN Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which ran from 1947 to 2006. By the time of its demise, the commission was criticised from all sides for being overly politicised.
The HRC’s 47 seats are divided between the five official UN regions in the following way: Africa (13); Asia (13); Latin America and the Caribbean (8); Western Europe and Other (7); Eastern Europe (6). The US (and Australia) is in the Western Europe and Other Group, known as WEOG.
One-third of the council is elected each year by the UN General Assembly, and members serve three-year terms. No member may serve more than two consecutive terms. A member can also be suspended from the council in a vote of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly: Libya was suspended in 2011 after Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters and armed dissidents. No other member has been suspended.
The HRC meets three times a year for a total of around ten weeks. Its 38th session has just begun. It also meets for one-day special sessions at the initiative of one-third of its members. It has so far held 28 special sessions.
The HRC also authorises independent investigations into particular human rights issues, either thematic (dealing with a human rights issue such as torture or LGBTI rights) or, more controversially, focused on a particular state. At the time of writing, there are 46 thematic mandates and 12 country mandates for these “special rapporteurs”.
It has one major new function compared to its predecessor, the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”), whereby the human rights record of every UN member is reviewed by the HRC (as well as all other “observer” nations) every five years.
The US’ grievances against the HRC arise with regard to the human rights records of its members, and its politicised character. Its key red line concern seems to be the HRC’s “unconscionable” and “chronic bias” against Israel (to quote from this morning’s press conference). These issues are examined in turn below.
Membership criteria as they stand are very soft: candidates commit to the highest standards of human rights, and states should take into account a nominee’s human rights record when voting. Both of these rules are basically unenforceable.
Human rights criteria were mooted as prerequisites for membership when the HRC was created. However, the UN’s nearly 200 members could not agree on substantive criteria, as they have very different views on human rights. The US, for example, wanted only “democratic nations” to be eligible. Such a criterion would have led to debates over the meaning of “democracy”, and would seem to prioritise civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural ones. A focus on the implementation of economic and social rights might have led to the exclusion from eligibility of the US itself.
In any case, the “measurement” and respective ranking of human rights records across states is contentious. While comparisons between two states may lead to easy conclusions over which one is better or worse, it is a fraught exercise across the entirety of the UN membership.
Procedural criteria, such as a nation’s record on ratification of human rights treaties, would be more objective. However, such criteria might have led to the exclusion of the two most powerful countries in the world – the US and China, which have both failed to ratify crucial treaties. Realpolitik indicates that such an outcome is very unlikely.
In the press conference, Haley and Pompeo decried the presence of human rights abusers on the council, including China, Cuba, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Consternation has also commonly been expressed over the common presence of Saudi Arabia and Russia on the HRC. Certainly, none of those states is remotely close to upholding the highest standards of human rights. Haley and Pompeo went further, claiming that these states manipulate the HRC to shield abusers and target blameless states in its resolutions.
So how bad is the HRC membership? Freedom House is a non-government organisation (NGO) that rates states as “free”, “partly free”, or “not free”, according to certain civil and political rights criteria, such as press freedom. While Freedom House’s methodology is assailable, I will use its rankings in assessing the current HRC, as the US itself historically uses them in making certain policy choices.
2018 is in fact one of the worst years in terms of the numbers of non-free HRC members. Nevertheless, free states always outnumber unfree states on the HRC, and can easily pass or block any resolution with the cooperation of just a few partly free states, if they vote together.
Any problem with “bad” resolutions on the HRC arises not from a preponderance of bad states, but from bloc voting within regions, like-minded groups and alliances.
The phenomenon of clean slates
Nevertheless, one can still fairly criticise the HRC for containing 14 non-free states. How do such states get elected?
A major problem for HRC elections is the issue of “clean slates”, whereby the number of candidates presented by a UN region correlates exactly to the number of seats it is scheduled to have elected at any particular time. For example, a region might put forward only two candidates for two seats. In such circumstances, the various candidates’ election seems to be a fait accompli. This phenomenon of clean slates was what Pompeo was referring to when he said that some states were elected by a rigged, collusive process.
Yet clean slates are a problem with all of the UN regions. The US itself was initially elected to the HRC on a clean slate in 2009. Australia was elected to the HRC on a WEOG clean slate in 2017, due to France’s belated withdrawal of its candidature.
Genuine elections do occur when open slates are presented by regions. This is how Russia was rejected in 2016, an unprecedented and humiliating blow that probably led to Russia’s failure to even stand for election in 2017. Other serious human rights abusers, such as Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka and Belarus, have failed to gain seats in similar circumstances.
Although states are elected on a regional basis, each member must still attain the majority of votes in the general assembly in order to be elected. There remains a possibility that an unacceptable candidate will simply not reach that threshold, even in the case of a clean slate.
That possibility has in the past led to the late replacement of controversial candidates, such as Syria’s replacement by Kuwait in 2011. This author eagerly awaits the day when the General Assembly finally flexes its muscle by refusing to elect an entire clean slate, thus depriving a region of a seat for a year. Such an outcome, in the absence of a relevant reform, is one way to dissuade future clean slates.
Finally, while states – particularly WEOG countries – might rail against the awful records of other members, those sentiments might not be reflected in their actual voting. After all, voting is by secret ballot. For example, given that Saudi Arabia is a key US geopolitical ally, it seems likely that the US (and even Australia) has voted for it on occasion. Certainly, the UK seems to have done so.
The US is correct that membership criteria should be revisited. Certain obstacles could be put in the way of the worst abusers, such as compulsory open slates, public voting (which might help prevent UK votes for Saudi Arabia), and a requirement that an eligible state must allow visits by all special rapporteurs.
Politicisation of the HRC
As the HRC’s members are representatives of their governments, the HRC is a highly politicised body, like its predecessor. State governments are political constructs, so any institution made up of government representatives is inevitably political too.
Unfortunately, states will generally vote in favour of their national interests rather than human rights interests if the two should clash. Pompeo inadvertently admitted that this morning, when he praised Haley by saying that she always put “American interests first”.
Politicisation inevitably leads to the manifestation of political biases. The most notorious HRC bias concerns Israel. It seems that the US’ biggest complaint over the HRC, and the “red line” that has led to its withdrawal, is the HRC’s treatment of Israel.
Its special rapporteur mandate stands until the occupation is over, so its renewal is automatic rather than the subject of periodic debate, as is the case with other mandates. The mandate-holder investigates its actions rather than those of the Palestinian authorities, whose abuses are largely ignored.
Israel has been the subject of more special sessions than any other state (more than a quarter of the 28 sessions). Having said that, it was the subject of the first three special sessions in 2006, and four of the first six, so the “hit rate” of 4 out of 22 is less stark since then.
Why is the HRC preoccupied with Israel? For a start, Israel has committed serious human rights abuses that are worthy of the HRC’s condemnation. It is absurd for Pompeo to have implicitly suggested that Israel has “committed no offence”. Any HRC bias does not mean that the substance of its criticisms is wrong. The recent killings of Palestinian protesters, targeted killings, illegal settlements, forced evictions, war crimes, the Gaza blockade and, most fundamentally, an ongoing occupation of Palestine that has lasted for more than 50 years, will cause critics to proliferate.
Nevertheless, that does not explain the HRC’s disproportionate attention to one country, given the scale of human rights abuses by other states that receive far less attention.
Ardent supporters of Israel often contend that the bias is driven by anti-Semitism. While such a motivation cannot be dismissed, there are other reasons that seem likely to be driving this phenomenon. The equation of “anti-Israel” with “anti-Semitic” is simplistic.
Israel has many enemies among UN states. Some have never accepted Israel’s right to exist, believing that it was established illegitimately on Arab (Palestinian) land. Indeed, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation was set up in 1969 to unite Muslim states after the 1967 war in which Israel seized the occupied territories, so opposition to Israel has been an article of faith since its inception. The OIC routinely brings as much diplomatic pressure to bear on Israel as possible. As OIC states straddle the two biggest UN groupings, Africa and Asia, they can rely on significant bloc solidarity for support in their initiatives.
The racial element, whereby the Jewish State of Israel illegally occupies lands populated by Arabs in the occupied territories, attracts the ire of developing states, which have historical grievances regarding racial oppression. Yet other instances of racial tension – such as the oppression of the Tibetans, the Kurds, the West Papuans, the Tamils or the Chechens – fail to attract the same HRC scrutiny.
One difference is that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories is not recognised as legitimate by any other state, unlike for example China’s sovereignty over Tibet or Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua.
Indeed, increasing numbers of states have diplomatically recognised the occupied territories as the State of Palestine, and the UN General Assembly voted in 2012 to recognise Palestine as a non-member state.
Occupation also allows states to feel safe in attacking Israel without being too hypocritical. While human rights abuses are sadly common, the status of “occupier” is rare. Indeed, Israel is sometimes seen as a remnant of colonialism, and its actions certainly breach the right of self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter.
However, Israel is not the only occupier. Morocco has long annexed the [Western Sahara], yet the global silence on that situation is deafening in comparison.
Israel is also seen as a surrogate for the West, particularly the US. Given that Israel is almost always defended within the UN by the US, and is often defended by much of WEOG, the question of “Israel-bashing” has become part of a greater North/South divide in the UN. Anti-American states such as Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Russia see Israel as a US surrogate in the Middle East, and exploit the issue accordingly.
Bias against Israel is matched by biased displays of support for Israel by its allies, such as the US and Australia. For example, the US instinctively presumed that the recent border killings were justified. Past bombings of Gaza (in 2009 and 2012) have been blithely dismissed by Australia as an exercise of Israel’s right to self-defence. But a legitimate case of self-defence can still result in an illegal use of excessive, indiscriminate or unnecessary force.
Regardless of its causes, the HRC’s perceived bias against Israel is counterproductive. It provides Israel with a ready-made argument to reject even legitimate condemnation, thus providing cover for human rights abuses. Indeed, claims of bias (within and outside the UN) have become a dominant part of the Middle East narrative on both sides, detracting from a focus on the actions of the actual protagonists. It has facilitated Israel’s progressive disillusionment with and disengagement from the UN, and now, the disengagement of the US. It reduces the HRC’s credibility and opens it up to charges of hypocrisy. None of these outcomes is useful for those who sincerely wish for improvements in human rights for all in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories.
Finally, the biggest problem with the focus on Israel is the corresponding lack of focus on other serious human rights situations. While it is impossible to demand or expect that a political body, or even an apolitical one, should achieve perfect balance in its human rights focuses, it is fair to expect that such focuses not be way out of balance.
The US and human rights
Haley and Pompeo reassured us that the US will continue to play a leadership role in human rights, despite its withdrawal from the HRC. And certainly, the US’ role on the HRC was in many ways positive. For example, it took the lead in addressing impunity in Sri Lanka. The WEOG group suffers from some dysfunctionality on the part of EU states, which generally seek a common position. Strong non-EU voices are important in this regard.
Yet the US is as political as other players on the HRC. Just as some states instinctively oppose Israel, the US instinctively supports it. Neither position is principled. The US has also protected other allies, such as Bahrain.
Outside the HRC, US President Donald Trump is not a credible leader on human rights. He seems to have an affinity with leaders with horrible records, such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Most recently, he responded to comments about North Korea’s human rights record, which is possibly the worst in the world, by praising the “talented” Kim Jong-un.
And of course, the US has long had its own serious human rights problems, which are too numerous to mention, but which include torture and the highest proportion of incarceration in the world. Its recent decision to separate migrant children from their parents and intern them reflects its status as the only country in the world that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Furthermore, it is nonsense for Pompeo to suggest that the HRC had sought to infringe on US sovereignty. This betrays a serious misunderstanding of the concept of sovereignty, indicating that it dictates immunity from criticism. It does not.
Is the council salvageable?
The US is correct to note there are major deficiencies in the current HRC. Is its response therefore the correct one? If so, that would seem to indicate that Australia should also quit the HRC. It is very unlikely that Australia will do so.
The HRC is the peak global intergovernmental human rights body, which may represent the world of today, warts and all. The battle for universal human rights observance will not be won by adopting an “us and them” mentality, which excludes significant numbers of countries in the world from “the human rights club”. Such a solution is more likely to lead to balkanised human rights discussions, and possible competing institutions inside and outside the UN.
The HRC must remain a forum where non-like-minded states, and civil society, can talk to each other, and occasionally cross divides to make important human rights decisions.
Furthermore, the HRC is meant to be a political body. Other parts of the UN human rights machinery are made up of independent human rights experts, and accordingly take a more impartial approach than the HRC. While their human rights findings are more credible, it also seems that states generally take their findings less seriously.
States tend to care more about what their peers think than what human rights experts might think. Hence, human rights would suffer in the absence of a relevant intergovernmental global body.
Despite its flaws, the HRC does make decisions that benefit human rights, even in the face of political lobbying by members with scurrilous motives. For example, a special rapporteur was appointed to investigate Iran (after the application of US pressure), and it remains in place, despite that influential country’s forceful efforts to dismantle the mandate. A special rapporteur on LGBTI rights was appointed in 2016, despite fierce opposition from the OIC and homophobic states, due to an alliance of developed and developing states, and civil society.
The HRC will continue to be an imperfect institution for as long as the UN is made up of states with imperfect human rights records. However, the council still can and must be improved.
But the worst way to achieve that goal is by just walking away.
This year, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will mark its 70th anniversary, but despite progress in some areas, it remains difficult to measure or compare governments’ performance. We have yet to develop comprehensive human rights measures that are accepted by researchers, policymakers and advocates alike.
We have now released our beta dataset and data visualisation tools, publishing 12 metrics that cover five economic and social rights and seven civil and political rights.
Lack of human rights data
People often assume the UN already produces comprehensive data on nations’ human rights performance, but it does not, and likely never will. The members of the UN are governments, and governments are the very actors that are obligated by international human rights law. It would be naïve to hope for governments to effectively monitor and measure their own performance without political bias. There has to be a role for non-state measurement.
We hope that the data and visualisations provided by HRMI will empower practitioners, advocates, researchers, journalists and others to speak clearly about human rights outcomes worldwide and hold governments accountable when they fail to meet their obligations under international law.
That survey asked respondents about their country’s performance on the rights to assembly and association, opinion and expression, political participation, freedom from torture, freedom from disappearance, freedom from execution, and freedom from arbitrary or political arrest and imprisonment.
Based on those survey responses, we develop data on the overall level of respect for each of the rights. These data are calculated using a statistical method that ensures responses are comparable across experts and countries, and with an uncertainty band to provide transparency about how confident we are in each country’s placement. We also provide information on who our respondents believed were especially at risk for each type of human rights violation.
Human rights in Australia
One way to visualise data on our website is to look at a country’s performance across all 12 human rights for which we have released data at this time. For example, the graph below shows Australia’s performance across all HRMI metrics.
As shown here, Australia performs quite well on some indicators, but quite poorly on others. Looking at civil and political rights (in blue), Australia demonstrates high respect for the right to be free from execution, but does much worse on the rights to be free from torture and arbitrary arrest.
Our respondents often attributed this poor performance on torture and imprisonment to the treatment of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers, as well as Indigenous peoples, by the Australian government.
Looking across the economic and social rights (in green), Australia shows a range of performance, doing quite well on the right to food, but performing far worse on the right to work.
Another way to visualise our data is to look at respect for a single right across several countries. The graph below shows, for example, overall government respect for the right to be free from torture and ill treatment in all 13 of HRMI’s pilot countries.
Here, the middle of each blue bar (marked by the small white lines) represents the average estimated level of respect for freedom from torture, while the length of the blue bars demonstrate our certainty in our estimates. For instance, we are much more certain regarding Mexico’s (MEX) low score than Brazil’s (BRA) higher score. Due to this uncertainty and the resulting overlap between the bars, there is only about a 92% chance that Brazil’s score is better than Mexico’s.
In addition to being able to say that torture is probably more prevalent in Mexico than in Brazil, and how certain we are in that comparison, we can also compare the groups of people that our respondents said were at greatest risk of torture. This information is summarised in the two word clouds below; larger words indicate that that group was selected by more survey respondents as being at risk.
There are both similarities and differences between the groups that were at highest risk in Brazil and Mexico. Based on the survey responses our human rights experts in Brazil gave us, we know that black people, those who live in favelas or quilombolas, those who live in rural or remote areas, landless rural workers, and prison inmates are largely the groups referred to by the terms “race,” “low social or economic status,” or “detainees or suspected criminals”.
On the other hand, in Mexico, imprisoned women and those suspected of involvement with organised crime are the detainees or suspected criminals that our respondents stated were at high risk of torture. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers travelling through Mexico on the way to the United States are also at risk.
There is much more to be learned from the visualisations and data on our website. After you have had the opportunity to explore, we would love to hear your feedback here about any aspect of our work so far. We are just getting started, and we thrive on collaboration with the wider human rights community.
Facebook has also faced scrutiny over its failure to prevent the spread of “fake news” on its platforms, including via an apparent orchestrated Russian propaganda effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election.
Facebook’s actions – or inactions – facilitated breaches of privacy and human rights associated with democratic governance. But it might be that its business model – and those of its social media peers generally – is simply incompatible with human rights.
In some ways, social media has been a boon for human rights – most obviously for freedom of speech.
Previously, the so-called “marketplace of ideas” was technically available to all (in “free” countries), but was in reality dominated by the elites. While all could equally exercise the right to free speech, we lacked equal voice. Gatekeepers, especially in the form of the mainstream media, largely controlled the conversation.
But today, anybody with internet access can broadcast information and opinions to the whole world. While not all will be listened to, social media is expanding the boundaries of what is said and received in public. The marketplace of ideas must effectively be bigger and broader, and more diverse.
Social media played a major role in co-ordinating the massive protests that brought down dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as large revolts in Spain, Greece, Israel, South Korea, and the Occupy movement. More recently, it has facilitated the rapid growth of the #MeToo and #neveragain movements, among others.
Video sharing site YouTube seems to automatically guide viewers to the fringiest versions of what they might be searching for. A search on vegetarianism might lead to veganism; jogging to ultra-marathons; Donald Trump’s popularity to white supremacist rants; and Hillary Clinton to 9/11 trutherism.
YouTube, via its algorithm’s natural and probably unintended impacts, “may be one of the most powerful radicalising instruments of the 21st century”, with all the attendant human rights abuses that might follow.
The business model and human rights
Human rights abuses might be embedded in the business model that has evolved for social media companies in their second decade.
Essentially, those models are based on the collection and use for marketing purposes of their users’ data. And the data they have is extraordinary in its profiling capacities, and in the consequent unprecedented knowledge base and potential power it grants to these private actors.
Indirect political influence is commonly exercised, even in the most credible democracies, by private bodies such as major corporations. This power can be partially constrained by “anti-trust laws” that promote competition and prevent undue market dominance.
Anti-trust measures could, for example, be used to hive off Instagram from Facebook, or YouTube from Google. But these companies’ power essentially arises from the sheer number of their users: in late 2017, Facebook was reported as having more than 2.2 billion active users. Anti-trust measures do not seek to cap the number of a company’s customers, as opposed to its acquisitions.
Power through knowledge
In 2010, Facebook conducted an experiment by randomly deploying a non-partisan “I voted” button into 61 million feeds during the US mid-term elections. That simple action led to 340,000 more votes, or about 0.14% of the US voting population. This number can swing an election. A bigger sample would lead to even more votes.
So Facebook knows how to deploy the button to sway an election, which would clearly be lamentable. However, the mere possession of that knowledge makes Facebook a political player. It now knows that button’s the political impact, the types of people it is likely to motivate, and the party that’s favoured by its deployment and non-deployment, and at what times of day.
It might seem inherently incompatible with democracy for that knowledge to be vested in a private body. Yet the retention of such data is the essence of Facebook’s ability to make money and run a viable business.
A study has shown that a computer knows more about a person’s personality than their friends or flatmates from an analysis of 70 “likes”, and more than their family from 150 likes. From 300 likes it can outperform one’s spouse.
This enables the micro-targeting of people for marketing messages – whether those messages market a product, a political party or a cause. This is Facebook’s product, from which it generates billions of dollars. It enables extremely effective advertising and the manipulation of its users. This is so even without Cambridge Analytica’s underhanded methods.
Advertising is manipulative: that is its point. Yet it is a long bow to label all advertising as a breach of human rights.
Advertising is available to all with the means to pay. Social media micro-targeting has become another battleground where money is used to attract customers and, in the political arena, influence and mobilise voters.
While the influence of money in politics is pervasive – and probably inherently undemocratic – it seems unlikely that spending money to deploy social media to boost an electoral message is any more a breach of human rights than other overt political uses of money.
Yet the extraordinary scale and precision of its manipulative reach might justify differential treatment of social media compared to other advertising, as its manipulative political effects arguably undermine democratic choices.
As with mass data collection, perhaps it may eventually be concluded that that reach is simply incompatible with democratic and human rights.
Finally, there is the issue of the spread of misinformation.
While paid advertising may not breach human rights, “fake news” distorts and poisons democratic debate. It is one thing for millions of voters to be influenced by precisely targeted social media messages, but another for maliciously false messages to influence and manipulate millions – whether paid for or not.
In a Declaration on Fake News, several UN and regional human rights experts said fake news interfered with the right to know and receive information – part of the general right to freedom of expression.
Its mass dissemination may also distort rights to participate in public affairs. Russia and Cambridge Analytica (assuming allegations in both cases to be true) have demonstrated how social media can be “weaponised” in unanticipated ways.
Yet it is difficult to know how social media companies should deal with fake news. The suppression of fake news is the suppression of speech – a human right in itself.
The preferred solution outlined in the Declaration on Fake News is to develop technology and digital literacy to enable readers to more easily identify fake news. The human rights community seems to be trusting that the proliferation of fake news in the marketplace of ideas can be corrected with better ideas rather than censorship.
However, one cannot be complacent in assuming that “better speech” triumphs over fake news. A recent study concluded fake news on social media:
… diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.
Also, internet “bots” apparently spread true and false news at the same rate, which indicates that:
… false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.
The depressing truth may be that human nature is attracted to fake stories over the more mundane true ones, often because they satisfy predetermined biases, prejudices and desires. And social media now facilitates their wildfire spread to an unprecedented degree.
Perhaps social media’s purpose – the posting and sharing of speech – cannot help but generate a distorted and tainted marketplace of fake ideas that undermine political debate and choices, and perhaps human rights.
It is premature to assert the very collection of massive amounts of data is irreconcilable with the right to privacy (and even rights relating to democratic governance).
Similarly, it is premature to decide that micro-targeting manipulates the political sphere beyond the bounds of democratic human rights.
Finally, it may be that better speech and corrective technology will help to undo fake news’ negative impacts: it is premature to assume that such solutions won’t work.
However, by the time such conclusions may be reached, it may be too late to do much about it. It may be an example where government regulation and international human rights law – and even business acumen and expertise – lags too far behind technological developments to appreciate their human rights dangers.
At the very least, we must now seriously question the business models that have emerged from the dominant social media platforms. Maybe the internet should be rewired from the grassroots, rather than be led by digital oligarchs’ business needs.
Sunday is Human Rights Day. December 10 marks 69 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. With the 70th anniversary coming up in 2018, the UN has launched Stand Up 4 Human Rights, a year-long campaign to bring the ideals of the declaration closer to reality.
As a leader in the framing of the UN declaration and one of the world’s oldest democracies, Australia prides itself on its commitment to democracy and human rights. The Australian government has an excellent opportunity to show leadership in promoting these values at home and abroad when it takes up a seat on the UN Human Rights Council from 2018.
In this role, Australia has pledged to be “an international human rights leader” and to advance human rights with “active, practical advocacy, sensitivity and fairness, and a willingness to speak out against human rights violations and abuses”.
What can we do to strengthen our human rights framework?
We recently brought together Australian human rights scholars to answer this question. Our collection of articles in the Australian Journal of Human Rights, entitled Vanguard or laggard? Democracy and human rights in Australia, details the relationship between democracy and human rights, and provides a roadmap for improving Australia’s democratic and human rights record.
Democracy should generate protection for human rights through accountability mechanisms that work across three axes:
horizontal accountability refers to the role of the judiciary and integrity institutions such as the ombudsman and human rights commission
vertical accountability refers to elections and the participatory role of citizens
diagonal accountability denotes the role of free speech, media and civil society organisations in holding governments to account.
There is no clear-cut nexus between Australian democracy and human rights across these areas of accountability. And the conditions necessary for each form of accountability to operate successfully are not as strong as is generally assumed.
Accountability mechanisms are often overshadowed by parliamentary supremacy in our version of Westminster democracy. This leaves many citizens vulnerable to rights infringements.
A core weakness in Australia’s vertical accountability is the lack of an entrenched or statutory bill of rights. This leaves the executive and legislature with primary control over human rights determinations.
Voters decide who these legislators are and can change them at elections if they are unhappy with their decisions on rights issues. History suggests voters have indeed punished governments that fail to act on majority rights concerns.
However, protection for minority rights, and the rights of Indigenous Australians and refugees in particular, do not attract sufficient support at the ballot box. Not surprisingly, government policies reflect this electoral reality.
Without a bill of rights, minorities and others whose rights are threatened also have limited capacity to trigger horizontal accountability mechanisms for protection. Aside from some exceptional rulings, such as the High Court’s implied rights determinations, Australian judges have generally been reluctant to read the law broadly to incorporate rights.
Further, the Australian Human Rights Commission has a limited mandate. It is also vulnerable to funding cuts and political attacks when government perceives the commission to have overstepped its mark. These deficiencies have become more obvious in recent years with the rise of the “security state”.
Diagonal accountability mechanisms, including a free press and civil society, have been able to flourish in Australia. Even so, there are major limitations to their ability to pursue rights concerns. We have seen increasing media concentration, funding cuts to public broadcasters and the extension of legislative restrictions on civil society.
Such developments reduce the potential for these democratic actors to bring problems to light and inform governments and voters about rights issues.
Unless or until Australians decide to support greater rights protections, whether through constitutional or legislative action, these problems are likely to remain.
Fixing these problems is important. This is not only because human rights are important in themselves, but also because democracy requires a basic level of respect for human rights to function properly.
Ten things Australia can do to protect rights
With Australia becoming a member of the UN Human Rights Council, it is more important than ever that we get our own house in order, if we want to be a model for good democratic practice underpinned by a strong human rights framework.
Here’s a start: these ten broad steps are eminently doable. While not covering all the gaps, these will get us a long way toward more robust human rights protection in Australia.
1. Adopt a bill of rights
A bill of rights will increase the capacity of minorities and others whose rights are threatened to seek protection from the courts, if and when parliament fails to do so.
2. Protect freedom of speech
Reverse funding cuts to public media outlets.
Achieve a better balance between security laws and freedom of speech by adding public interest disclosure protections to national security laws.
3. Protect the rule of law and integrity institutions
Strengthen the independence of integrity institutions such as statutory officeholders (information commissioners, human rights commissioners). This includes mandating transparent, arm’s length and merit-based selection criteria for appointments to these offices. Stronger statutory guarantees of adequate funding are also needed.
4. Protect the right to vote
Strengthen our compulsory voting laws because of their beneficial (yet generally unrecognised) effects on human rights protection, particularly their demonstrated capacity to protect rights such as equality before the law, freedom from discrimination and equal voting power.
Continue to support electoral commissions in their efforts to achieve universal or near-universal electoral participation.
5. Protect freedom of association
Support the flourishing of civil society organisations by removing restrictive protest laws.
Ensure a fair and nonpartisan regulatory framework for funding civil society organisations.
6. Strengthen rights protections for Indigenous Australians
Dismantle the intellectual and legal framework that creates barriers to recognising and respecting Indigenous Australians.
Be open to Indigenous perspectives and realities and make a genuine effort to right historical wrongs.
Strengthen racial discrimination laws to prevent the abuse of the special measures provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act to the detriment of Indigenous Australians.
7. Strengthen rights protections for asylum seekers
Uphold human right obligations that are owed to asylum seekers on the presumption that they may well be genuine refugees (as the 1951 Convention on Refugees that Australia has signed requires). This includes closing all offshore processing and detention centres.
Improve women’s social and economic rights to enable them to participate fully and equally in Australian society. This includes closing the gender pay gap, increasing access to affordable child care and tackling the poverty facing disadvantaged women including single mothers, Indigenous women, older women, women and girls with disabilities, and women facing domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and community.
9. Strengthen rights protections for poor Australians
Implement a policy framework to better uphold our international commitments to protect the economic and social rights of vulnerable Australians. This includes acting on housing affordability and homelessness, protecting vulnerable workers, reducing unemployment and underemployment, and increasing support for the poorest households.
10. Implement marriage equality
Honour the outcome of the Marriage Law Postal Survey by legalising marriage equality.
One would assume the Human Rights Council seat means Australia will lead on issues of human rights domestically, including in the area of Indigenous rights (one of the five pillars of Australia’s bid) and self-determination.
However, as the UN Human Rights Committee review showed, Australia is failing to meet basic human rights standards for Indigenous peoples.
Violence against women in Indigenous communities
To its credit, the Australian government delegation was open and frank in its dialogue with the committee. The delegation acknowledged key areas in which the country needs to improve.
One of the pressing issues affecting Indigenous communities is family violence. Indigenous women are 45 times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women. The severity of the violence is also greater, with higher rates of hospitalisation.
The government delegation acknowledged that the rate of violence against Indigenous women was “appalling”. It referred to “A$25 million for Indigenous-specific measures” and a “trauma-informed approach for children affected by violence”. This is just one measure the government is adopting to deal with violence against Indigenous women.
The NGO coalition, led by Kingsford Legal Centre and the Human Rights Law Centre, agreed with the government delegation that an area for hope was the recent appointment of June Oscar as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. Oscar has been at the forefront of effective, Aboriginal-led initiatives to deal with family violence in Fitzroy Crossing.
Indeed, the NGO coalition called for the government to include Indigenous women in the monitoring and evaluation of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children. It also called on it to fund Indigenous community-controlled services with expertise in working with victims/survivors of family violence.
Indigenous incarceration rates
An area in which Australia continues to breach international human rights standards is Indigenous incarceration rates. The national imprisonment rate for Indigenous adults is 13 times higher than that for non-Indigenous adults. While Indigenous people are only 2% of the population, they account for 27% of the prison population.
Mandatory sentencing and imprisonment for fine default, as canvassed by the current Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry, are key contributors to these statistics.
The UN Human Rights Committee repeatedly noted its concern about Indigenous incarceration rates and focused on policing of Indigenous communities. A committee member raised the case of Ms Dhu, who died in custody in Western Australia after being arrested for defaulting on fines. He asked why the laws providing for imprisonment for fine default had not yet been “scrapped”.
The committee also raised the recent case of an Aboriginal woman who called WA police for help in a domestic violence situation. She was taken into custody for a fine default, leaving her five children without support.
The Australian government was asked how this represented a “trauma-informed” approach to dealing with family violence.
Self-determination and constitutional reform
One of the key areas of interest for the NGO delegation and the committee was the response to entrenched disadvantage through effective policy. This connected closely with the identification of constitutional reform as advocated by Indigenous delegates at the regional dialogue process that produced the Uluru Statement.
The NGO delegation highlighted the need for Aboriginal-led policy design as articulated in the Redfern Statement and by numerous movements agitating for Indigenous rights since colonisation. The government delegation was keen to focus on constitutional recognition, while the NGO delegation advocated strongly for constitutional reform in accordance with the Uluru Statement.
In fairness to the Australian delegation, it certainly recognised the need for Indigenous-designed policy and implementation. This flies in the face of the government’s actions in cutting funding to Indigenous-controlled organisations, including the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
The UN Human Rights Committee challenged the Australian government to produce policy that truly includes Indigenous people.
One of the challenges of human rights treaty reviews is to ensure that the government implements the recommendations that the committee makes. Australia has a terrible record in this area, being called out for “chronic non-compliance” by the committee.
Hopefully, the seat on the Human Rights Council will encourage the government to heed the words of the UN Human Rights Committee and ensure real progress on Indigenous rights.
Anna Cody, Associate Professor and Director, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW and Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW
Australia has been elected to a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. It will serve on the council from 2018 to 2020.
The announcement overnight formalised an assumed result: Australia and Spain were the only two countries seeking election to the two available seats for the Western Europe and Others group. Most of the other newly- elected council members similarly ran uncontested.
Australia’s bid and opportunities for human rights advocacy
However, Australia’s campaign opened it to further scrutiny of its human rights record. Human rights organisations in Australia and overseas have been lobbying to ensure that Australia’s practices are well publicised and subject to oversight and critique.
In December 2016, Bishop sought to pre-empt such criticism, claiming “no country is perfect”. Bishop pledged to be “honest and open” about Australia’s human rights record during the campaign.
Yet the campaign’s pledges failed to acknowledge Australia’s human rights abuses. As such, Australia remains open to accusations of hypocrisy on human rights.
It is incongruous for a claimed champion of human rights to put the rights of a minority group to a popular vote, potentially in an effort to prevent that group from gaining marriage equality.
Australia strikes a similarly dissonant note in relation to its treatment of Indigenous people. A key pledge of the council bid was the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. However, a constitutional convention rejected the form of “recognition” the government-sponsored Recognise campaign had promoted.
The Recognise campaign has since been abandoned, and the future of the proposed referendum is unclear. The Australian government is yet to embrace the Referendum Council’s proposals for treaty, truth-telling and a First Nations Voice.
France’s withdrawal was a loss to the election campaign
Given Australia’s record, France’s withdrawal as a third candidate for the two available seats was unfortunate. The lack of competition reduced pressure on Australia to extend its human rights commitments.
The weight of international disapproval of Australia’s practice in relation to refugees, in particular, could well have weakened the bid had France stayed in the race.
No doubt this was also true for Spain. The recent Catalan independence referendum exposed Spain’s problematic record in relation to self-determination and political rights for minority groups.
The UN’s orientation is to promote inclusion rather than marginalisation of member countries on international bodies. The UN is committed to universal values and obligations, and seeks to enforce these through universal involvement in its processes.
It is undoubtedly difficult to countenance egregious human rights violators participating in human rights processes. But it is at least arguable that their involvement promotes the progressive realisation of human rights more effectively than their marginalisation would.
However, in some cases, it may be that a country’s membership should be postponed until it can show improvement in a deplorable record. Leading up to the election, Human Rights Watch campaigned against promoting the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the council due to its grave human rights violations.
Meanwhile, the US warned it may withdraw if the council continued to elect countries responsible for gross abuses.
Australia is not in this category. It aspires to be an exemplary member of the council. And its election should act as impetus for progressive gains in its human rights performance.
The value of Australia’s election for human rights
Human rights advocates will take the opportunity to draw attention to any gaps between Australia’s international legal obligations and its domestic practices.
Bishop was right to highlight the value of Australia becoming the first Pacific country to join the council. Strong diplomatic and trade relationships will hopefully enable Australia to influence human rights development in its region. It is the only place without a regional human rights treaty or institution.
An important focus in this context will be Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of capital punishment. Allied to that concern for the right to life, perhaps Australia might also consider lobbying other countries – notably the US – for gun laws that prioritise human life and wellbeing.
Australia could substantially increase the legitimacy of such efforts, though, by working to build adequate domestic human rights architecture. Without federal human rights legislation, Australia cannot demonstrate the social and legal value of building human rights protections into law.
Australia’s election also calls for a renewal of political commitment to the value of international human rights review processes. Recent years have seen expressions of frustration, dismissal and poor faith that undermine Australia’s strong record of commitment to international human rights treaties.
Nowhere was this troubling attitude toward human rights protection more clear than in efforts to tarnish the reputation and work of former Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs.
Such mixed messages sit poorly with Australia’s continued efforts to review the practices of other countries – particularly now that it has an official role on the Human Rights Council.
Australia has claimed leadership in the areas of gender equality, good governance, freedom of expression, the rights of Indigenous people, and strong national human rights institutions.
Imperfect performance in these areas indicates key targets for immediate focus – for example through human-rights-informed approaches to gendered violence, and concern for limitations on the freedom to express views about politically sensitive matters.
Importantly, Australia must also be held accountable in the key area its bid sought to avoid: the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Its election provides an ideal opportunity for Australia to show leadership and commitment to durable regional and global responses to refugee flows.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has just announced the creation of a new “super-ministry”, modelled on the UK Home Office. By the end of 2018, Australia will have a new Department of Home Affairs.
This change consolidates responsibility for all security agencies within a single portfolio. Peter Dutton, currently immigration minister, will head the proposed department.
Dutton gains responsibility for the Australian Federal Police from Justice Minister Michael Keenan. He also adds responsibility for ASIO, previously under the portfolio of Attorney-General George Brandis. As home affairs minister, Dutton will retain responsibility for immigration and border protection.
Announcing the change, Turnbull and Brandis went to considerable effort to note the attorney-general’s continued significance, despite his loss of responsibility for intelligence. Both emphasised that the attorney-general would gain responsibility for some oversight bodies previously within the prime minister’s portfolio.
According to Turnbull, the new arrangements will ensure stronger oversight of security matters to balance protection for civil liberties and freedoms.
What does this reform mean for people subject to Australia’s immigration system?
The comments of the four ministers at today’s press conference were revealing in many ways.
One group of people – refugees and asylum seekers – were completely absent from the ministers’ remarks. This raises questions regarding the meaning of the changes for these particularly vulnerable people, who remain subject to the powers of the home affairs minister.
Brandis said the reforms are significant because, for the first time, a senior cabinet minister will have as his exclusive focus the national security of Australia. That is, the home affairs minister’s sole focus will be national security and border security.
Dutton, preparing to assume wide-ranging new powers, reflected on his ministry’s success in stopping and turning back boats. According to Dutton, without integrity in the immigration and border protection system, “we can’t keep our country safe”.
And Keenan celebrated the government’s novel use of the immigration system to further its national security priorities.
The sum of these propositions is a continued linking of people seeking asylum with the notion of a threat to Australia’s integrity and security. Today’s announcement failed to show care or responsibility for the dehumanising impact of this strategy.
Instead, Dutton takes on a considerably expanded portfolio, despite extensive critique regarding his efforts to expand already very broad powers.
Australia’s bid for the UN Human Rights Council
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was absent from today’s announcement. She is currently visiting India and Sri Lanka.
Her opposition to the creation of the new super-ministry has been widely reported.
Until today’s press conference, Brandis was also on record as opposing the creation of a super-ministry. This may explain the emphasis Turnbull placed on the oversight role of the attorney-general for “ensuring governments act lawfully and justly”.
Others will consider whether this change is called for in the sense of enhancing Australia’s security capacity or performance. But today’s announcement must also be assessed in the context of Australia’s human rights standing.
Bishop and Brandis have taken primary responsibility for promoting Australia’s current bid for election to the UN Human Rights Council. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia is the ideal candidate for a two-year term on the council, as it has been – and continues to be – an “international human rights leader”.
The government has taken steps to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to human rights, in support of its campaign.
And, fortunately for Australia, France recently withdrew as a candidate. Although an election will still be held in October this year, Bishop is now confident that Australia and Spain will be elected unopposed to the two available seats for their regional grouping.
Regardless of the likelihood of its election, however, does today’s shift in the national security context support the legitimacy of Australia’s bid for election to the Human Rights Council?
In launching Australia’s bid, Bishop described human rights as “national values deeply embedded in Australian society”. Brandis described Australia’s candidacy as:
… the most natural thing in the world for a country which – at its core – is a nation built on a belief in, and a commitment to, the human rights of all – the human rights of all Australians and the human rights of all the peoples of the world.
Notably, the people ignored in today’s announcement – those seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries – have suffered human rights abuses in Australia’s immigration system.
It is difficult to see how the consolidation of far-reaching security powers in a single ministry will promote human rights. Outgoing Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has already identified expanding executive power as a threat to democracy and human rights.
While the protection of the Australian community from terror threats is an undeniable and legitimate priority for any government, lawyers must oversee the coming reforms to determine whether they further threaten the delicate balance between safety and security on one hand, and freedom and rights on the other.