31 August 2017
On 28 October 2016 the General Assembly of the United Nations elected 14 members to the Human Rights Council of the UN. They included countries as diverse as Brazil, Croatia, Iraq, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Membership of the Council is allocated according to geographical distribution, with members serving three years and no right to re-election after two consecutive terms.
Australia belongs to the “West European and Other States” category. There are presently two vacancies in that group, to be filled in the (northern) autumn session of the UN General Assembly.
Although there are 40 States in the group to which Australia belongs, there are currently only two nominees for the available two spots, Australia and Spain. Unless there is a late entrant into the race, thought to be highly unlikely, the election of those two is a fait accompli.
DFAT has issued a lengthy statement (Australia’s Candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council 2018-2020 www.dfat.gov.au 2 June 2017) in support of Australia’s case for election. Australia’s campaign it says, is built on four pillars: gender equality, good governance, freedom of expression, and strong national human rights institutions and capacity building.
The lengthy statement also makes a series of “pledges” which, if true and actually carried out, might make a measurable difference to the lives of others. Unfortunately there is a dissonance between what is pledged and the reality on the ground.
In this brief note there is space only to refer to three of those pledges to make the point that the reality falls far short of the ideal.
Australia pledges to “uphold the rule of law around the world”; to “support the implementation of international human rights obligations”; and to “continue to promote good governance and strong democratic institutions in Australia and ensuring our public institutions are transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs of Australians.”
The reality is less attractive. For example, “adherence to the rule of law around the world” requires, inter alia, a commitment to the provisions of the UN Charter, and specifically Articles 4 and 51 governing the peaceful settlement of disputes and the avoidance of military action except in very specific circumstances.
Since 2001 however, Australia has:
- Invaded Afghanistan on a wholly false premise and 16 years later is still there, at enormous cost to the Afghan people.
- Invaded Iraq also on a wholly false basis and 14 years later is still there, again at huge cost to the Iraqi people. Despite strenuous efforts by groups such as the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry for a proper inquiry into that debacle, successive governments have refused to do so. The perpetrators have not been held accountable.
- Joined US military action in Syria in clear breach of international law. The government has refused to release the legal advice upon which it purportedly relies; has lied about the circumstances in which it became involved; and has continually obfuscated about exactly what the ADF are doing in Syria. Again, the cost to the Syrian people has been immense.
As to supporting international human rights obligations, Australia has been in repeated violation of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and Protocol, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Law of the Sea, and as noted above, the UN Charter. It is difficult to conceive of a greater human rights violation than the invasion, occupation and destruction of whole countries, the killing of hundreds of thousands of their inhabitants through sanctions, bombings and armed conflict generally, and forcing millions into displacement or exile.
Domestically, Australia is almost unique among the western democratic nations with which it aligns itself in not having a Bill of Rights or equivalent statutory or constitutional protection for its citizens. Since 2001 more than 60 pieces of legislation have been passed, mostly on a bipartisan basis, that has seriously eroded what few rights and freedoms Australians actually have. There has been no legislative movement in the opposite direction.
Anybody making a claim that Australia has “good governance, transparency and public accountability responsive to the needs of Australians” is likely to be met with a hollow laugh. The current bizarre spectacle surrounding attempts to achieve legislative equality for same sex couples wishing to marry being thwarted by a combination of bigotry, ignorance, internal political maneuvering and personal animosities when the polls show a substantial majority in favour of change is a perfect microcosm of the hypocrisy contained in the government’s “pledges” to UN Member States.
Join such a body by all means, even if one finds oneself in the unlovely company of Burundi, Saudi Arabia and the greatest serial violator of international human rights of them all, the United States. Just don’t pretend in the process that one’s own record can withstand serious critical scrutiny.
*Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at email@example.com