Australian Human Rights record under UN scrutiny

Australian Aboriginal Students
Photo: Terry Irwin (SMH)

Ben Schokman and Phil Lynch Sydney Morning Herald January 17, 2011

Australia is about to be called on by its peers to answer tough questions.

When it comes to criticism, sometimes the harshest but most constructive feedback comes from friends. This month, Australia's human rights record will be reviewed on the world stage under the United Nations' Universal Periodic Review process. This is a peer review in which, every four to five years, the human rights record of each of the 192 UN member countries is reviewed by the 191 other countries.

On January 27, it's Australia's turn. We will be called to answer the tough human rights questions. A global perspective will be brought to bear on our domestic human rights performance.

Australia will, and should be, held to a high human rights standard. We tout ourselves as a "principled advocate of human rights for all" and are a highly developed and democratised country. Despite this, we are as well known internationally for Aboriginal disadvantage and our treatment of asylum seekers as we are for barbecues and beaches.

So what are some of the major questions that Australia is likely to face? And which countries might ask the hard-hitting questions?

The rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will be the subject of significant international scrutiny. Aboriginal peoples in Australia remain among the most disadvantaged peoples in the world. For most Aboriginal peoples, there remain significant gaps in health, education, housing and employment standards and outcomes compared with non-Aboriginal Australians.

In the case of the Northern Territory Intervention, many Aboriginal peoples have been stripped of basic human rights, including the fundamental right to non-discrimination. Across Australia, Aboriginal children are 28 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal juveniles.

Among our close allies New Zealand, Canada and the United States, each of which has similar histories of colonisation, Australia is alone in not negotiating a treaty with its Aboriginal people and in failing to comprehensively entrench the right to equality in our national constitution or legislation. Is it any coincidence that the gap in social and economic indicators between indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Australia remains so much greater than in those countries?

Refugees and asylum seekers are a global issue and Australia's asylum seeker policy is likely to garner global interest. We are the world's 14th largest economy, yet provide shelter and refuge to only 0.03 per cent of the world's refugees and displaced persons. In 2009, Britain, Germany, Norway and Belgium were among 20 industrialised countries to receive more asylum seekers than Australia on a per capita basis. Yet, Australia alone compulsorily and indefinitely detains "unauthorised arrivals", including 1003 children, in remote detention centres. Just last week, the Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry, described our policy of mandatory immigration detention as "draconian" and "morally reprehensible", calling immigration detention centres "factories for mental illness". Australia can expect the same strong concerns to be expressed in the review process.

Another issue likely to attract international attention is our lack of a national human rights act, a deficiency which distinguishes Australia from every other liberal democracy in the world. This fact will not be lost on the likes of Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, all of which comprehensively protect human rights in law. Ironically, Australia has used the review to criticise small countries, such as the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Kiribati, for failing to "ensure legal protection of human rights". Such hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed.

The role of human rights in Australian foreign policy will also be scrutinised. Four years on from the election of a Labor government, Australia has still not developed a comprehensive policy on human rights and foreign affairs. In the US, Democrat Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined "a human rights agenda for the 21st century" within her first year in office, and in Britain Conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague has pledged that human rights will be "indivisible" from the UK's foreign policy. Hague established an expert Advisory Group on Human Rights and Foreign Policy within his first five months in office and has pledged to produce an annual "command paper" on British foreign policy and human rights to the Parliament.

Australia's commitment to foreign aid and poverty eradication may also be questioned.

Our main competitors for a UN Security Council seat - Finland and Luxembourg - are both committed to devoting at least 0.7 per cent of GDP to overseas development assistance, with Luxembourg already substantially exceeding this internationally agreed target. Meanwhile, Australia languishes at around 0.3 per cent, with no existing timetable to scale aid beyond 0.5 per cent.

It is no coincidence that many of the countries that will be interested in Australia's human rights record are also some of our closest allies. This is what makes the Universal Periodic Review process so powerful. We must appear before the international community and be scrutinised by our peers. As for the outcomes? The real test will be how we respond to constructive criticism of our human rights record. Our action and reaction will give the true answer to the question: is Australia really a "principled advocate of human rights for all"?

Ben Schokman is director of International Human Rights Advocacy and Phil Lynch is executive director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre.


Macklin begs Greens' support for National Income Management

Patricia Karvelas The Australian June 12, 2010

Jenny Macklin has written to Greens leader Bob Brown urging him to back the government's bill making welfare quarantining apply to all Australians -- to remove discrimination against Aborigines.

The Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister is worried the government's push to create welfare quarantining across the country will be held up by the Greens, who fear the bill will hurt impoverished people on welfare.

It comes as the Menzies School of Health Research -- which found last month that welfare quarantining was failing, with large quantities of high-sugar drinks and cigarettes still being bought -- has retreated from its original report.

On Monday, The Australian reported on a government report that demolished the Menzies study. The MSHR now argues that at no stage did it claim its analysis was an evaluation of income management.

"We simply aimed to assess one of its potential impacts -- on store purchases," the school said.

"In our media statements we have emphasised that there may be many other objectives of income management that could be evaluated.

"Claims that our article proves that income management has failed are unfounded. In our view there is currently insufficient information to conclude that income management is either a success or failure.

"The major lesson from the past few weeks is that, in order to determine the true impact of interventions such as income management, attention should be paid to carefully planned evaluation based around the best possible data that can be collected."

From next month, welfare quarantining measures in the Northern Territory will extend to all those on welfare in the Territory, indigenous and non-indigenous, and from next year it will extend to the entire country.

Under the income management scheme, welfare recipients will have 50 per cent of their fortnightly payments controlled by the government and must spend on "priority needs" such as food and clothing.

Ms Macklin warns Senator Brown that failure to support the bill means "that the suspension to the Racial Discrimination Act will continue in the Northern Territory".

"The bill provides for a non-discriminatory model of income management that is clearly linked to increasing personally responsible behaviour like participating in work and training," she writes.

"Income management is a key tool for protecting the human rights of vulnerable people, especially children."

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