OPINION – EXCLUSIVE
By Tammy Solonec*
In October last year, Australia was voted onto the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the first time – for a three-year term. On the face of it, this presents great opportunities for the advancement of human rights in Australia, including the rights of Indigenous peoples. Whether that works out in practice depends on political will, community pressure and practical support for participation in processes.
The UNHRC is charged with examining human rights in all UN member states. It also addresses “thematic” issues. It holds three sessions a year, during which resolutions are drafted, negotiated and then adopted. It also sets up the important “Special Procedures” to gather expert observations and advice on human rights issues. Civil society is given a role in how the council works: non-government organisations with Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) status, such as Amnesty International, are entitled to provide comment on issues under examination.
As a member of the Human Rights Council, Australia must “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, … fully cooperate with the council and be reviewed under the universal periodic review mechanism during their term of membership.”
This provides great opportunities for policy change in Australia over the next three years, including through our next Universal Periodic Review (UPR), due in 2020. This relatively new mechanism of the UN allows other nations to engage in a human rights peer review of the country being examined.
Australia was grilled at its most recent UPR in 2015, when its records on Indigenous rights and the rights of asylum seekers were strongly criticised. As a result of this process (and most likely Australia’s bid for a seat on the Council), Australia agreed to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) and to set up a National Preventive Mechanism to ensure that all places of detention comply with the Convention. At Australia’s request, its offshore processing centres were exempted, but nevertheless this was an important win for human rights.
Another positive aspect of holding a seat on the council is that Australia has been complying, somewhat belatedly and perhaps reluctantly, with its obligations to complete UN committee reviews against the core human rights treaties.
For example, in 2017, Australia was reviewed by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli Corpuz, who visited between March and April and released her scathing report in August on the situation of Indigenous people in Australia. The recommendations provide an excellent roadmap for reform. However, as happened with the inaugural report of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya in 2010, the report has been ignored by the Australian government and has not been tabled in Parliament. As ever, political will is a deciding factor for change.
Then in October, Australia was reviewed by the Human Rights Committee regarding our compliance with the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights. The committee slammed Australia for its “chronic non-compliance” with and disengagement from the committee’s work. (Australia’s appearance before this committee was years overdue, with its previous being in 2009.) Committee member Israeli Professor Yuval Shany said Australia “has very little to be proud of” and noted that its compliance rate was so low it was “completely off the charts”.
And in December, Australia was reviewed by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Again, its appearance was well overdue, with its last review being 2010 despite a requirement for it to be biannual. Unsurprisingly, it did not fare well. In a strongly worded statement issued by the committee on 8 December, it expressed deep concerns about Australia’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples, including the gross over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women and children in the criminal justice system. The committee noted the ill-treatment suffered by juveniles, especially Indigenous children and the conditions in which they are held, including but not only in the Northern Territory.
The five pillars
Somewhat ironically, Australia’s bid for its seat on the council was built around five pillars: gender equality, good governance, freedom of expression, the rights of Indigenous peoples and strong national human rights institutions and capacity building.
In the lead-up to the UNHRC election, Australia made a number of voluntary pledges around the five pillars. Regarding Indigenous peoples, Australia committed to advancing the human rights of Indigenous peoples globally and in Australia.
Within Australia, the Government committed to assist Indigenous peoples, in collaboration with Indigenous organisations and representative bodies, to overcome social and economic disadvantages; work with organisations and representative bodies to raise awareness of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; pursue a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution; and improve health, education and employment outcomes, including through a refresh of the Closing the Gap agenda. Australia also noted that it needed to do more to ensure that no Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are subject to violence and discrimination. As always, we need to keep a close eye on how these pledges play out.
That the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution continues to be included as a pledge, when Indigenous people themselves have rejected the idea, is strange. The CERD Committee considered this issue in their review and recommended that Australia “accelerate its efforts to implement Indigenous Peoples’ self-determination demands, as set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart (May 2017)”.
That there’s a pledge to raise awareness of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is welcome, but rings a bit hollow. I attended the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in September, where nations of the world reflected on 10 years since the Declaration. It was clear when hearing about the great initiatives happening elsewhere to implement the Declaration that Australia is lagging behind. One of the key recommendations of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014 was the development of “national action plans, strategies or other measures to achieve the ends of the Declaration”. But Australia has not even started on its plan.
In July last year, at the time of its bid for a seat on the UNHRC, among other global commitments Australia pledged to continue efforts to increase the participation of Indigenous peoples in all relevant processes and mechanisms of the United Nations human rights system, including contributing to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples; to advance the economic rights of Indigenous peoples and harness the knowledge and expertise of indigenous Australians in the design and delivery of its aid programme (recognising that Indigenous businesses can provide expert, culturally appropriate, “peer-to-peer” assistance to other indigenous communities in developing countries).
In pursuit of accountability
We must hold the Government to this. I’ve been doing international advocacy for a number of years and have noticed a steep decline recently in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples attending international forums. At the UN in September, I was one of only two Aboriginal people from Australia to attend. The other was Karly Warner from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), who Amnesty supported to attend. It is telling that the Indigenous Peoples Organisations Network, which is referred to in the pledges and used to be a way for our mob to access the UN, has not received any government funding since 2014.
There lies the barrier. Australia’s seat on the Human Rights Council over the next three years presents great opportunities for human rights for people in Australia, including Indigenous peoples. However, to fully use this opportunity, Indigenous people and organisations must be empowered to participate and we must do all we can to hold the Government to account to their pledges and the recommendations of UN experts and Committees.
* Tammy Solonec is Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous Rights Manager.