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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE (UN Subcommittee)
Australia's relations with the United Nations in the post Cold War environment
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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE (UN Subcommittee)
Australia's relations with the United Nations in the post Cold War environment
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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE (UN Subcommittee)
(JOINT-Thursday, 22 March 2001)
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Content WindowJOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE (UN Subcommittee) - 22/03/2001 - Australia's relations with the United Nations in the post Cold War environment
CHAIR —I call the committee to order and I welcome Mr Chris Sidoti to the hearing, who would be well known to most members in his former role as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commissioner.
I must advise you that the proceedings here today are legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect that proceedings of the respective houses of parliament demand. Although we do not require you to give the evidence under oath, you should be aware that it does not diminish the importance of the occasion and that any deliberate misleading of the subcommittee may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The subcommittee prefers all evidence to be given in public, but should you at any stage wish to give any evidence in private, you may ask to do so and we will consider that request. We have your submission and it has now been made public by a motion this morning. You do not wish to make any additions or alterations to that submission?
Mr Sidoti —No.
Mr NUGENT —The penultimate paragraph I think has a typo.
CHAIR —With the `999'?
Mr NUGENT —Yes.
Mr Sidoti —My skills at using information technology are not high.
Mr NUGENT —I am not complaining. I am just saying that before it is published we need to take that out.
CHAIR —That should be deleted.
Mr Sidoti —The `999' should go. I intended to actually get the pagination done—not necessarily a successful one, obviously.
CHAIR —Mr Sidoti, I invite you to make a short opening statement and then we will proceed to questions.
Mr Sidoti —Thanks very much. I should first apologise for the 11th hour nature of the written submission. Margaret Swieringa very kindly said to me that, if I did not manage to get anything in writing, it would still be a valuable opportunity to have a discussion with the committee. I thought that if I did put a few thoughts down in writing it might be helpful to the committee. As you know, it only arrived at the 11th hour, and I pass on my sincere apologies for that. For that reason I might just go through the principal thrust of the submission that I have presented and the recommendations so that the committee is aware of the views I have expressed.
Australia has had a very long and close association with the United Nations and its various mechanisms. We were, indeed, among the founders of the United Nations and among the first and most enthusiastic of its supporters. We had a particular view that the United Nations should not be crippled in the way the League of Nations was and that it should have a particular concern for human rights. For that reason, right from the start Australia was very closely involved in the human rights work of the United Nations.
Certainly looking back on its 55-year history, the United Nations has had a very chequered record. Unfortunately, some of the more spectacular and horrendous failures of the United Nations, including those of the last decade in the Great Lakes area of Africa, in the Balkans and in Somalia achieved a great deal of public attention and, quite rightly, public criticism, whereas the successes of the United Nations are not subjected to the same kind of broad attention and so largely pass unnoticed. So its record is very much a mixed record; there have been some outstanding successes and some horrendous failures.
I do not think that we need to be defensive or apologetic about the failures of the United Nations; we simply have to recognise them and seek ways to address in the future the issues that generated failures in the past in a much more successful way. Certainly so far as I am concerned the United Nations remains the best and, indeed, the only universal mechanism for the advancement of peace and human rights. For that reason alone it deserves and needs Australia's continuing support and commitment and very close involvement in its operations. The philosophical position from which I start is that if we want to have influence then we must be engaged. The recommendations that I make in the submission are very much based upon that premise, the premise of engagement for the improvement of the United Nations system and, indeed, for the improvement—the increasing efficacy—of Australia's own role within the international system generally.
My submission is addressed quite explicitly to the human rights work of the United Nations. That is because that is the area that I know about and where I have been most closely involved. I am not qualified at all to speak about other parts of the United Nations operations because my knowledge is no more than that generated from the media, so no more than anyone else's. But I have been closely involved in the human rights work and so direct my comments to that area of the UN.
As I mentioned, so far as human rights are concerned, the United Nations has had as part of its explicit mandate support for the promotion and protection of human rights and right from the beginning Australia has been involved in that work. We were a foundation member of the Commission on Human Rights, we were a member of the drafting committee responsible for the preparation of a universal declaration of human rights—one of eight nations that were members of that drafting committee and an Australian, Dr H.V. Evatt, was president of the general assembly when the universal declaration was passed on 10 December 1948. We have been a member of the UN Commission on Human Rights for almost half of its total life—24 out of its 54 years—although we are not currently a member. We have played leadership roles within the Commission on Human Rights and within the general assembly on a number of important issues, including women's rights, the rights of children and indigenous rights. In recent years we have had principal responsibility for the annual debate in the Commission on Human Rights and the general assembly on national human rights institutions.
We have also been a party to all but two of the major human rights treaties, in most cases being an early party to those treaties. We have indicated that we have an intention to ratify the statute of the International Criminal Court. We have signed it but not yet ratified it. We have indicated that we would not ratify the migrant workers convention, that we would not ratify the new optional protocol to the women's convention and we have expressed no view on the two new optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. My first recommendation is that we complete our hitherto perfect record of ratification of major human rights treaties by ratifying as soon as possible the statute of the International Criminal Court, the migrant workers convention, the optional protocol to the women's convention and the two optional protocols to the children's convention.
Australia has also contributed to the United Nations human rights system through the participation of eminent Australians in a number of the UN human rights committees and also the participation of eminent Australians in much of the work of the United Nations. In the latter case, I refer particularly to the work that Brian Burdekin, my predecessor as Human Rights Commissioner, has undertaken as the special adviser to the High Commissioner for Human Rights on national human rights institutions and regional arrangements for the protection and promotion of human rights. Through these eminent Australians on the various committees, Mr Burdekin and others who have played roles within the bureaucracy of the UN, we have certainly had over the 55 years an influence on the UN's human rights system far beyond our position as a small nation would have warranted. We have been, as the United Nations Secretary-General said when he visited early last year, a model member of the United Nations for much of the last 55 years.
My submission deals with the two principal areas of human rights work undertaken by the United Nations: that based on the UN charter and the organs and mechanisms under the charter and that based on the various human rights treaties that have been negotiated and adopted through the UN system.
The pre-eminent charter base body is the Commission on Human Rights, and I have mentioned already that we have been a part of the commission as a full member for almost half of its life. It is appropriate that nations rotate the role of membership of the Commission on Human Rights and, for that reason, Australia did not seek re-election at the time of the expiry of its second of its most recent terms in 1996. It is now, though, two terms since Australia was a member of the commission and so I recommend that Australia seek re-election to the Commission on Human Rights at the first feasible opportunity. That is more likely to be next year than this year because these things take a while to prepare. In my view, by next year it will be time for us to seek to go back on the Commission of Human Rights and to seek to play the greater—the more direct—role in the UN's human rights work that membership of that commission enables.
The subcommission on the promotion and protection of human rights, established by the Economic and Social Council, is a body that is subsidiary to the Commission on Human Rights but, because it is made up of individuals rather than governments, it plays a much more independent, non-political role. So far as I am aware, Australia has never had an individual who has been elected to that commission. So I recommend that we seek to have an Australian elected to the subcommission so that we can seek through the involvement of eminent, distinguished Australians the greater participation that that kind of membership enables.
My submission discusses the role of the High Commissioner for Human Rights since that office was established after the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993.
It is a matter of regret, I think, that the present High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, announced on Monday that she would be vacating her office at the end of her current four-year term in September. Mrs Robinson has been a dynamic human rights advocate and initiator. She has been outspoken and uncompromising and has certainly enhanced the position of human rights high commissioner so that it is now not only the pre-eminent advocate for human rights within the UN system but the pre-eminent advocate globally.
Importantly, Australian governments, both the former Labor government up to the mid-nineties and the coalition government since then, have been strong supporters of the high commissioner and her initiating role and have made a number of voluntary contributions towards those activities. Mrs Robinson's withdrawal from the position at the completion of her term gives rise to concerns about the nature of the succession. Her predecessor was not as successful or as outspoken or as initiating as Mrs Robinson has been.
Mr NUGENT —Can you remind us who that was?
Mr Sidoti —Mr Jose Ayala-Lasso.
Mr NUGENT —From Ecuador?
Mr Sidoti —From Ecuador. He had a background as a diplomat rather than as a national leader in the sense that Mrs Robinson was president in her country. I think he brought diplomatic skills rather than leadership skills, if I may make a distinction between the two, to the role of high commissioner. It is important that the next high commissioner also be an outspoken and uncompromising advocate for human rights, seeing the role in the way that Mrs Robinson has seen it. Australia should seek to ensure therefore the best possible appointee to succeed Mrs Robinson as high commissioner. It is also important to ensure that the areas of human rights work that we have considered top priority—and they have been the promotion of national human rights institutions and the promotion of national human rights action plans—continue to receive priority within the office of the high commissioner following the departure of Mrs Robinson. She has placed very strong emphasis on these two areas of work. They have been areas that Australia promoted strongly at the 1993 world conference on human rights and which Australia succeeded in having endorsed within the declaration coming from that conference, and it would be a great pity both globally and for our own national priorities to see a lower level of support given to those kinds of actions within the office of the high commissioner by Mrs Robinson's successor.
The office of the high commissioner itself is an important organ of the United Nations because it is the implementing arm of its human rights work. The office is very small and desperately underresourced. It receives only two per cent of the United Nations core administrative budget in spite of the constant fine rhetoric that we hear coming out of the United Nations at all levels about the centrality of human rights to the work of the United Nations. But unfortunately, the office of the high commissioner has always been and remains now desperately underresourced for the tasks demanded and expected of it.
The lack of resources is compounded by the fairly typical difficulty that the UN faces in the nature of its bureaucracy. Many of its staff are overworked. Many are inadequate to the task that is given to them. The bureaucracy itself tends to be stifling. The decision-making process is burdensome. The ability to take action is slow. The reform of the office of the high commissioner has been a priority of the present high commissioner, Mrs Robinson, but unfortunately she has not been as successful in making the office an effective arm of UN human rights work as she has been in carrying out her own role as high commissioner. Unfortunately, although improved, the office remains underperforming, stymied by bureaucracy and blocked in its effectiveness by the large number of inefficient staff who work there. There are also some very, very competent people—some who stay in spite of the frustrations they experience as part of the bureaucracy of the United Nations, others who go simply because they cannot tolerate the bureaucracy any longer. There needs to be a much greater emphasis on attracting highly competent staff in the first place and then retaining them by enabling them to work effectively within a properly functioning civil service—a properly functioning bureaucracy—rather than expecting them to endure the obstacles and the frustrations that they currently encounter there.
I see, therefore, a high priority for Australia as encouraging the further reform of personnel and management within the office of the high commissioner so that it can achieve the job that is expected of it. That is certainly going to involve a higher level of resources, so again Australia should be supporting increased allocations from the UN's core budget for the human rights work undertaken by the high commissioner and her office.
The office of the high commissioner also administers a number of voluntary funds, and Australia has been one of the small number of countries that has contributed regularly to the voluntary funds. I must say that our contributions generally have been modest, at least modest by international standards, but they have been significant as a proportion of the total budgets available to the voluntary funds and significant in terms of Australia's overseas aid budget. I firmly believe that Australia should continue its support through contributions to the voluntary funds and indeed that Australia should seek to have a greater influence over the way in which the voluntary fund moneys are spent, including through representation on the boards of the funds.
They are my comments on the first part of the UN's work—the charter based organisations. The second part of the work is based upon United Nations sponsored human rights treaties. The treaties are the products of UN processes, but they are very much owned and operated by the states that become full parties to the treaties. The UN has very little role in the operations of treaties other than servicing the committees that are established under the human rights treaties. I should say that the committees are underserviced. They suffer as much as the rest of the office of the high commissioner suffers from the underresourcing available from the UN's core budget. So often the treaty committees work in very difficult environments with insufficient staff support, insufficient resources available for their meetings and therefore insufficient time and opportunity to inquire properly into the performance of treaty obligations.
For that reason, we need, as a party to the six major human rights treaties, to be supporting the committees in their work to ensure that they receive the staff support and resources necessary to carry out the jobs properly and to be supporting the treaty reform process that was commenced many years ago within the commission on human rights and through the treaty committees themselves. Although, as I have said, for much of the 55 years of the United Nations and the 55 years of our membership of it we have been a model member of the United Nations, regrettably during the course of last year, 2000, Australia joined the ranks of the staunchest critics of the very mechanisms that we have been so instrumental in establishing—the ranks of those who would tear down what has been so carefully and arduously constructed over half a century. Unfortunately, the intemperate remarks of some ministers, including the most senior, aligned Australia last year with hardline states with appalling human rights records. That is a matter that I find most distressing, because Australia simply does not belong in that sort of company. Yet willingly or otherwise we placed ourself there by the quite extraordinary attacks on the UN human rights treaty committees that we saw during the course of last year.
The problem, it seems to me, is the same as that which confronted the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission during my time as Human Rights Commissioner. It is a problem that can be simply stated. While every government is sensitive to criticism, the present Australian government is more sensitive than almost any other. It has not shown itself either mature enough to listen to the views of others or big enough to admit that what it has done in the past or what Australia has done in the past is wrong.
Over the last two years, Australia has been criticised repeatedly by every one of the six human rights treaty committees for shortcomings in our performance. Those shortcomings are not necessarily the performance only of the present Australian government. Many arise from historical factors that the present government inherited. But that fact does not take away from the defensive hypersensitivity of the present government to the criticisms when they have been delivered.
One of the difficulties is that much of the criticism has treated the committees as though they were going off on frolics of their own, inventing issues on which to criticise Australia. But there has not been a single issue on which Australia has received criticism from a treaty committee that has not previously been the subject of criticism by the Australian Human Rights Commission and by human rights groups within Australia. The committees have not gone off on some frolics of their own fabricating issues to embarrass Australia, as the rhetoric would have us believe, but rather have simply reflected the already repeatedly established views of existing bodies on those issues of human rights concern.
Secondly, not once has a treaty committee expressed a view on a particular Australian human rights issue that is at variance with the views expressed previously and repeatedly by the Australian Human Rights Commission itself and human rights groups within Australia. The simple fact is that if Australian governments had listened to the official Australian body set up by the parliament to advise on these matters, then the international treaty committees would have had no cause to criticise Australia. It is very much a matter of blaming the messenger in the attacks we have seen on the treaty committees.
Fortunately, those attacks and the review of Australia's cooperation with the treaty system do not seem to have resulted in irreparable damage to Australia's international relations and reputation. Certainly we have left much of the international community, including states that have been close to us in the advocacy of human rights for many years, confused and distressed at the stand Australia took last year. But the decision taken last September—the decision taken as a result of the review of cooperation with the treaty committees—represents a pulling back from the brink before it was too late. That is due, in my opinion, to the views of cooler heads, such as the foreign minister and the Attorney-General, prevailing over those of many hot heads within the cabinet who would have taken a different approach.
I hope that our relationship with the international treaty system has passed its low-water mark and that we are now on our way back to becoming again a model member of the international community. Certainly we should be a model member. That is where we have been throughout most of the last half century, and that is where we belong. The challenge is to undo the damage that has been done and to regain that rightful place as a world leader in promoting human rights through the United Nations system.
We should now make clear our continuing unequivocal support for the human rights treaty system, including for the work of the committees established under that system. We should be a model state, cooperating willingly and honestly with the committee's inquiries. We should also support the positive reform recommendations that have been made well before we started to play the active role of the last 12 months in reviewing treaty processes.
Another Australian, Professor Philip Alston, as far back as the early 1990s made an enormous contribution to the process of treaty committee reform. Professor Alston made many recommendations that have not been picked up in full. We should be putting our weight behind those recommendations and those of others that would ensure that the treaty committees are better resourced in their work, that procedures are streamlined and that the reporting requirements on states are simplified and made more focused and less onerous. We should be supporting a stronger, more effective treaty committee system rather than seeking to undermine the system as it presently exists.
We do have as a small nation an opportunity to influence the UN's human rights work far in excess of our proportionate place in the world. We are a small nation but we have great influence in this area. We have played a major role over the last 55 years and we can continue to play such a role if we engage and if we are prepared to put our weight behind a more effective system, rather than seeking to tear down what has been so arduously constructed.
CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Sidoti. The statements you were referring to—last August—occurred a few days before I left to go to be at the United Nations for three and a half months. Some of the words you have used in your submission I certainly do not agree with, but that is my prerogative and your prerogative.
Mr Sidoti —Absolutely.
—But then you talk about undermining the system. We put the issues, particularly in relation to treaty bodies, to representatives from the mission at the United Nations this morning. They were part of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade contingent that was here and we put questions to them. I put that very question to our deputy permanent representative, who said that, apart from an initial reaction to media reports, Australia's position at the United Nations is not diminished. I think you said that there was not irreparable damage but that in the eyes of the international community our role had been diminished. David Stuart, who was here this morning, said that that simply was not the case and that, in fact, Australia's role at the United Nations and its standing amongst its international partners and the people we do business with was understood once the full details of what was said at that time were explained to them, rather than just media reports. To suggest that Australia's position is to undermine the system I think is going too far. You might like to comment as to why you think Australia's position is actually undermining the system. They are the words that you used.
Mr Sidoti —I do not necessarily believe that it was intended to undermine the system. I have no knowledge as to what the intentions were at the key periods, but I have no doubt at all from my experience that the effect for the period between March and September was to undermine the system. Let me just give you three of the many examples I can draw on to show, first, the confusion and, second, the reaction to what Australia said or what Australian ministers said.
Within a couple of weeks of the first and most intemperate statements, in March last year, I was in Europe. I was in fact flying within Europe. A member of another human rights institution was on the same flight. Halfway through the flight he came down to me and said that the member of the race discrimination committee from his country was sitting next to him, that he was deeply distressed and could not understand what was happening in Australia in its response to this treaty committee and could I please swap seats with him in order to give him some background of where this came from. He was most concerned as to what Australia's intentions were going to be. So I spent the rest of the flight trying to provide some background and context for a member of the treaty committee.
CHAIR —Which statements were they? You said it was in March. I just cannot—
Mr Sidoti —It came after the CERD committee made its concluding observations on Australia's periodic report.
CHAIR —The CERD committee?
Mr Sidoti —The CERD committee. It concerned the native title amendment legislation, mandatory sentencing and the response to the Bringing Them Home report. It was in April that I had that experience.
In September, just before the results of the review were released, I was again in another European country, one that has been a very strong collaborator with Australia for many, many years in international human rights work through the UN system. I was addressing there a meeting of government officials and NGOs on the human rights role of the Australian Human Rights Commission—where it comes from and that kind of thing. I was questioned by the foreign affairs representative of that country as to what the review was and what had generated it. He asked: did the Australian government appreciate that the kinds of comments that were made about the treaty committee process were the kinds of comments made by some of the worst human rights violators? And did the Australian government appreciate that this would give a great deal of comfort to those countries? Those questions were asked in not a public meeting but certainly a meeting in which there were a number of human rights activists from a variety of non-government organisations and official bodies as well.
The third experience I had was in October, when I was in an Asian country providing human rights training to government officials in that country. It is a country that has been strongly criticised for its human rights performance. When I was talking about the importance of the UN treaty system and the need for all countries to be parties to the system and to cooperate with the UN system more generally, particularly the special rapporteurs appointed by the Commission on Human Rights, I had quoted back to me statements made by Australian ministers which were almost word for word the kinds of statements that the official representatives of this particular country had made repeatedly about its unwillingness and reasons for its unwillingness to cooperate with UN processes. So I had to respond to those questions, to say that that did not necessarily represent the fullness of Australia's experience or its present position. Fortunately, that dialogue occurred in October, after the results of the review of cooperation had been announced in September. So I was able to take the questioner and the participants in this course to the Australian government's stated position on cooperation, rather than to what were clearly intemperate comments made on the spur of the moment by a very senior minister.
They are just three examples. I could refer to others where non-government organisations have raised these issues with me as well. So I have no doubt that there was certainly confusion as to where Australia stood and certainly concern that it represented a backing away from the position that we had always taken in relation to UN human rights treaty mechanisms and commission mechanisms.
In my view, we gave significant succour to those who have sought consistently to attack and undermine the UN system, even if that was not our original intention.
CHAIR —You used the words `aligned Australia with hardline states'. The call for a review of the treaty system as such also aligns us with a considerable number of western countries who say that there is a need for a reassessment or a review of the whole structure of the treaty system. But there also is a considerable amount of support amongst member states, and the UN particularly, that the treaty body system should be reviewed.
Mr Sidoti —There certainly is, and with good cause. I have referred in my submission to the fact that there has been work under way for at least 10 years precisely on this issue. Professor Alston, in particular, in his role as chair of the committee on economic, social and cultural rights and, in fact, as chair of the chairs of the various committees—the six committee chairs meet annually, and Professor Alston, through that forum, pushed strongly for treaty committee reform. There is no difficulty with that at all, and I think we are in very good company.
The difficulty arises when senior ministers attack the members of the committees as being incompetent and partisan and biased against Australia—attack the treaty committees and their members as being representatives of their own governments rather than as individually elected experts, many of whom, I must say, were elected with Australian support.
—They also thought that they were going beyond the mandate, too. That was the other word they used.
Mr Sidoti —Yes, gone beyond the mandate—that criticism; the criticism that they listen too much to non-government organisations; and the criticism that the committees do not listen enough to governments. These are precisely the forms of attack made by countries in this region in particular who have traditionally refused to cooperate with the UN processes, whether charter based or treaty based.
We can support reform of the treaty system with the best of intentions and for very good reason. The treaties are underresourced, they are understaffed. The reporting processes are onerous. They need to be streamlined. All these criticisms of the effectiveness of the treaty system are valid and have been taken by Australia in the past. But we do not need to go to the extent of intemperate language based more, I have to say, on emotion than on fact—the precise arguments used by many of those who quite deliberately do seek to undermine the international system. That is the company we do not belong in. But we do belong in the company of those who would like to see the system made more effective, and there are ways in which in the past, and now again, we are contributing to that work. But that does not involve attacks on the integrity or the credibility of the treaty system and presenting to the world the picture of a country that feels that it is being caught out and unfairly treated and, therefore, goes whingeing about the people who have delivered the message.
CHAIR —You talked about emotion and fact. It is also probably fair to say that some of the media comment was based on emotion rather than fact, as well.
Mr Sidoti —Certainly, that is the case. But if you look at the transcript of the actual words used in March last year, perhaps even some of those who used the words would now seek to back away a little from the positions that were publicly expressed at the time.
CHAIR —I have a couple of other issues to raise before I let my colleagues ask some questions. When you say that we have been a model member for much of the 55 years, I presume you are saying that, in your view, all except from March last year, we have been a model member.
Mr Sidoti —Those six months last year were the low points, yes. And there have been times in the past, too, when we have not performed as well as we should. But I think the secretary-general, when he was here in February last year, was quite right in referring to us as a model member of the United Nations. We can always do better. No model is perfect. But we have been, without doubt, one of the best performing members of the UN and one of the most responsive and constructive. And, as I said, that is the company in which we belong.
—You talked about UN staff. I think I am right in saying that you were talking about the Human Rights Commission or the office itself, and you talked about how many UN staff are inadequate for their tasks and that there was inefficient staff in the office. One problem that seems to exist within the UN, from my observations, is that there is this geographical allocation of positions within the United Nations, which means that you may not necessarily get the most competent person for a job because there is the obligation to fill from some geographical areas. How do you think it is possible to overcome the inefficiency or the inadequacies of some people while we have to maintain a geographical balance on the appointment of staff to almost all UN bodies?
Mr Sidoti —I agree that the geographical balance is one of the major problems. It does mean that often the best person is not selected for the job. The difficulty, though, then becomes the difficulty of removing someone who has been appointed. The UN needs to have far better systems of recruitment and much greater flexibility in terminating the services of those who are simply not up to the job.
There needs to be some consideration given to geographical factors. But when the office of the high commissioner has only 200 staff, to have critical decisions about staff appointments made predominantly, or even in a significant way, on the basis of geographical consideration almost ensures that the office will never function as efficiently as it should. And an office with a mandate as broad as that of the high commissioner's office, and with the limited resources that it has, simply cannot afford to be carrying inadequate performers.
CHAIR —I am just not sure how we can overcome that problem. That is the point. If it is part of the UN's policy that they do have geographical allocations of jobs, which leads to some inefficiencies, I am not sure how—certainly in our recommendations—it can practically be overcome.
Mr Sidoti —I think that, practically, it can only be overcome by constantly arguing for appointment based on merit.
CHAIR —You also talked about an increased allocation from the core budget for human rights. From what other areas would you take an allocation to put it into the Human Rights Commission?
Mr Sidoti —I am afraid that I am not an expert on the UN's budget, so I cannot come before you and pinpoint areas where allocations should be removed.
CHAIR —It is very tight.
Mr Sidoti —I know it is very tight.
CHAIR —Especially when some people do not pay.
Mr Sidoti —That is what I was going to say. It is made even more difficult by the fact that its major contributor, the United States, is so far in arrears and has such an enormous debt to the United Nations that it makes it very, very difficult for the UN.
I must say that, personally, I think the UN will always be hidebound in its operations so long as it is dependent entirely upon its member states to provide its budget. I think there are strong arguments that the UN needs to have access to independent sources of funding. And the idea that has been advanced from time to time about a small levy on international air fares to provide direct funding to some of the UN's operations, or some other way of providing direct funding, is a very worthy objective, and it is the only way in which we will see the United Nations starting to be more independent in its operations and having the resources that it needs to go about its work. Unfortunately, most states like to see the UN hidebound by being constantly cash strapped in this way. The fact, though, is that the office of the high commissioner, with 200 staff trying to operate globally and with a number of staff—many staff—now located in small isolated offices in human rights trouble spots, that kind of office simply cannot do the job that is being required of it.
In her statement on Monday announcing her withdrawal from office, Mrs Robinson referred explicitly to the complete underresourcing of her office—the underresourcing in absolute terms—and the need to ensure greater equity within the UN system and more resources in absolute terms than what it currently has. From my experience, I can only say that that is certainly the case. Her experience is far deeper than mine, and I rely on her words as well to say that it desperately needs more resources one way or another.
CHAIR —You obviously did not hear the head of the tourism task force talking about passenger movement levies this morning, because there is a proposal for another levy for another matter.
Mr Sidoti —I am aware of that. But I must say that where an individual, whether on business or for tourist purposes, is spending $2,000 or $2,500 even of our poor Australian dollars on international travel, another $5 is neither here nor there.
CHAIR —That was not what was said this morning. In your recommendations, you talk a lot about moving to try to get Australians elected to bodies, to be part of commissions and to seek re-election to the Commission on Human Rights. My observations of the United Nations are that, in almost every instance, elections to UN bodies become a very political process and there are deals done. I am not sure that merit always counts in the positions—even elected positions—and they are usually formulated well in advance. For instance, if we were to try to become a non-permanent member of the Security Council, because the slot has already been agreed to amongst member states for a long time, if you try to miss out then it is some time before you actually get a go again. I think that is the same in some of these other proposals that you put forward about having Australians or Australia put on various bodies.
I do not think it would be feasible for us to try to do all of these things at once, because there is a sort of an allocation as to how you do things. I do take on board the fact that you are suggesting that we have not been on certain bodies for a certain time and it is time we at least get the slot in place to get in there in the future. My observation is that they are very political decisions.
Mr Sidoti —Your comments also meet my experience. For that reason, though, these areas, in my view, need to be given a high priority. Because trade-offs are done, in my view we should be prepared to trade support for other candidates for positions in parts of the United Nations that are not as important to us as the human rights bodies are. We should seek to have a major role in this particular area of UN work.
—You raise the instance of human rights bodies. If you were to believe the Australian media and some of the press I saw in New York when the decision was taken not to renominate Dr Elizabeth Evatt and nominate Professor Ivan Shearer to the human rights committee, he was written off. I think he was even described as a non-entity by somebody back here in Australia. It does give some truth to the actual standing of Australia at the United Nations that Professor Shearer was the fifth person elected out of 17 members on that committee to the human rights committee. That would give us some inference that the standing of Australia within the international community, particularly at the United Nations, certainly has not suffered any long-term damage from any statements that may have been made last year. I do not know whether you would concur with that or not. He was an outstanding candidate, by the way.
Mr Sidoti —Yes, I certainly concur that there has been no long-term damage. As I indicated, in my view we pulled away from the brink before it was too late. I was greatly relieved in September that that was the case. Our standing, too, is due to the fact that we do nominate outstanding candidates for these positions. Elizabeth Evatt was an outstanding member of the human rights committee and extremely highly regarded for her contribution. From memory, when she was elected to her second term, she came in first or second in the voting list on that occasion. That was a reflection of the fact that during her first term she was recognised for the leadership role she played within that committee. Clearly, on any committee the calibre of members varies. Some are very good; some are less good. The Australians, whether it be Elizabeth Evatt in her roles on the women's committee or the human rights committee or Philip Alston in the role he played on the committee on economic, social and cultural rights, made outstanding contributions.
The greatest concern in relation to the decision to nominate Professor Shearer that I experienced among some of my colleagues was that it was thought to be difficult to get another Australian elected at that stage. There is a certain amount of momentum. It was not seen as being as difficult for Elizabeth Evatt to be re-elected as it would have been to have a new candidate, whoever it might have been, elected. That did not prove to be the case. I for one was very pleased when the nomination of Professor Shearer was successful, because it has meant that, again, we have an Australian on the committee. This is the third consecutive term that we have had an Australian on that committee.
CHAIR —I think it was a pity that even the chairman of the Australian United Nations Association should describe a candidate from Australia as a non-entity, which I thought was a very unfortunate intervention at the time when we were trying to get somebody elected.
Mr Sidoti —I know Professor Shearer and I have enormous regard for him. Certainly, there were some comments that I think could be described as having been intemperate—that is, those comments of the minister I referred to earlier. I was particularly relieved, as I say, that the pessimism as to the prospects of the candidate proved to be unfounded.
CHAIR —Due in fact by a lot of excellent work by our ambassador and some others over there as well.
—I commented earlier to you before we started formally that we have a very high calibre diplomatic group working in these areas. Penny Wensley and David Stuart in New York would be amongst the most effective representatives that we could hope to have at the heart of the United Nations.
CHAIR —I would concur. I have taken up enough time.
Senator BOURNE —First of all, I think you probably would have been heartened if you had heard the evidence from both DFAT and Immigration that we have had over the last two days. I must say it was very temperate when they were discussing the UN treaty system. I am sure I am thinking of exactly the same statements as you, which were made early last year and which shocked me. So I think that that is going along in a way that most Australians would want it to go along now, which has, I must say, pleased me a great deal. You mentioned Philip Alston's recommendations, which I recall were being worked on by DFAT at one stage in trying to push those along. I do not know if they still are, and I have lost the opportunity now to ask them. Do you by any chance have a copy of any of those recommendations? There were two or three occasions on which he made them.
Mr Sidoti —There were a couple of reports. I do not have them at the moment, but I am sure I can find them or the department can find them.
Senator BOURNE —I think I can ask DFAT to try to find those.
Mr Sidoti —The department has been undertaking a review of the treaty committee operations to come up with recommendations for the government as to the policy positions that it should advocate. So far as I am aware, the results of that review have not yet been made public, but I would hope that it would pick up and endorse many of the recommendations that Philip Alston made so that we can see very strong Australian support for that direction of reform.
Senator BOURNE —Yes. You made a fair bit of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the difficulties in that office. It strikes me that the office was only created seven years ago or something like that. Is it the geographical allocation of positions and the lack of resources? Are they the only two significant problems—and goodness knows they are significant enough—or do you think there are other problems in that office that we could look at trying to identify ourselves?
Mr Sidoti —Although the office in its present form was only established in the first year of Mrs Robinson's high commissionership, it did have a successor body in the Centre for Human Rights. The centre had existed for some time and was based in Geneva—in fact, I think for probably most of the 50 years, although I am not sure about that. When the high commissioner was appointed for the first time, the high commissioner was allocated a small personal staff who constituted his office. There was some division of accountability and responsibilities, so a decision was taken soon after Mrs Robinson became high commissioner to merge the small personal staff and the Centre for Human Rights into a single office reporting directly to the high commissioner.
What that means, though, is that the office, although only established four years ago, inherited the existing personnel and the existing management systems of the former Centre for Human Rights. The management systems themselves are antiquated. In part it is almost like the proverbial vicious cycle. There is very little devolution of decision making. It is necessary to get multiple approvals for even some of the most mundane decisions. That stymies the operation of the office. However, a lack of devolution is understandable if there is little confidence in the quality of the people who are making the decisions at lower levels.
What do you fix up first, the management system or the calibre of the personnel? I would not want to be thought to be saying that everybody there is ineffective, because that is not the case. There are some extremely good officials within the office. Almost all of the ones who are extremely good feel deeply frustrated by the bureaucracy, the poor management systems and the poor calibre of many of those whom they have to work with. Reform really requires a reform of management systems to introduce what we would consider to be contemporary management systems rather than the fairly outdated mode of centralised bureaucratic decision making. There also needs to be changes in the personnel at many levels.
Mr NUGENT —In relation to the position that Mary Robinson is giving up, is that allocated on a geographical basis? In other words, will her successor have to come from a different region?
Mr Sidoti —Formally, no. The position is filled on the appointment of the secretary-general with the approval of the general assembly, as I understand it. I do not know whether that approval is formally through a resolution of the general assembly or consultation with the member states in their various geographical groupings. So there is no rigid rule of geographical rotation as there is, for example, in the position of secretary-general itself. Nonetheless, I would anticipate that there would be strong pressure, particularly from the Asian and African groups, in relation to the next appointment. The first high commissioner came from South America. The second high commissioner came from Europe. My knowledge of the workings of the UN system leads me to anticipate that the African and Asian groups will be strongly pressing for someone from their regions to fill the position.
I think the claim of the Asian group would be considered stronger, because the present secretary general comes from Africa first and, second, with the completion of the term of office by the high commissioner for refugees, who was from Japan, the Asian group does not have the same level of senior participation as it had previously. So there will be geographical considerations and arguments, although not necessarily a formal geographical rotation requirement.
Mr NUGENT —Given that you are representing yourself here and you have the luxury of having to answer to nobody and perhaps being more forthright than many of our witnesses, in your view and experience, given that you have already told us the sort of person you think should be selected, would there be an adequate pool of such people from the Asian region?
Mr Sidoti —I have no doubt that there would be an adequate pool of such people. In fact, I am sure that I could nominate a short list, on a couple of hours reflection, of excellent people whom I have worked with and know personally, let alone many others.
—So you do not have any worries about that?
Mr Sidoti —No, I do not have any worries about the adequacy of the pool. What I have worries about is that, because so many of the states in our region are not good participants in the human rights system, have not, in fact, ratified many of the core human rights treaties and would constitute some of the hardest line states in UN human rights forums, the candidates that they would be advancing from this region—
Mr NUGENT —Would not be on your list?
Mr Sidoti —Would not be the ones on my short list.
Mr NUGENT —Yes, all right. I take your point. On this whole vexed question of the treaties committees, we have talked about resourcing and about problems of staffing and so on. My inclination is to say—and I would tend to agree with you if we are expressing personal opinions—that I think we need to be as involved as possible in these things. The more we put up nominees for different appointments—even if we do not get them—I think that we need to be seen to be active. I think one of the questions that has undoubtedly concerned this government and in its remarks last year was, in fact, its perception of the imbalance of influence of NGOs versus government input. It does seem that a lot of the people who are involved in those committees come out of that NGO background. In relation to those who are articulate, capable, competent and who perhaps have an agenda, because the committees are not adequately resourced or, in many cases, perhaps poor-quality individuals are running them, it means that those few competent activists, if you like, might have the ability to have undue influence. Would you care to comment?
Mr Sidoti —I would agree with many of the points you make. Certainly, a significant part of the problem is that the committee last year, the race discrimination committee—all the committees—are seriously underresourced and so have virtually no independent information gathering role of their own. They are almost totally reliant upon information provided to them by governments and by non-government organisations.
In part, it is understandable that they should be naturally suspicious of government reports on their own performances, because so many government reports are notably lacking in honesty. I need go no further than to refer to the way in which we prepare the reports in this country. Much of the implementation of human rights treaties lies within the responsibility of the states. The states and territories are asked to provide information to the Commonwealth in the course of the preparation of our country's report. The Commonwealth, understandably but incorrectly, takes the view that its most appropriate role is simply to pass on within the report the states' comments without any commentary, without any independent analysis of its own. So that even in areas where the Commonwealth is distanced from the actual area of implementation, the report plays no effective role in providing the committee with informed and balanced assessments. So we see, for example, defences of activities like mandatory sentencing or, in the past, Tasmania's anti-gay laws—those kinds of positions—contained within Australia's country reports.
One of the reasons why Australia historically has had a good reputation in UN human rights circles is that we are seen as having been more honest than most. Australian representatives, on behalf of our government, repeatedly have been prepared to talk about our shortcomings. The best way to ensure fair treatment by treaty committees, in my view, is to ensure that our country report is honest, balanced and represents the range of views about particular issues rather than seeking to be defensive or self-serving, or simply having the Commonwealth act as the purveyor of information given by defensive state governments. That is a far better way to address the problem of committees giving too much attention to non-government organisations—honesty in the reports themselves.
Mr NUGENT —But even if you accept that sort of premise, is there not a danger that in a liberal democracy like Australia, where NGOs can virtually do and say what they like—and I am not knocking that but it means that they have the platform and the funding, often with government assistance, to travel the world and appear before all sorts of organisations and committees—and the government itself, if it is an ideal government and is, as you suggest, frank and open about its shortcomings, and in my experience I think that still happens fairly substantially in this country, is there not a danger, therefore, that because information is available on a country like Australia, and it would apply to other liberal democracies as well, it is easy, therefore, to look at issues there? They may be valid in their own right but they may not be on the scale of being bad, particularly compared with many others that run closed societies where NGOs cannot function, where governments do not cooperate and really where the treatment of individuals is quite horrendous. Therefore, I think that part of the concern of the government last year, as I understand it, was that there was a feeling that perhaps too much emphasis was being put on countries where it was easy to operate and not enough on countries where it is difficult to operate. One of the countries might be, for example, one where I know you have been doing some training of individuals of recent times—a recent addition to ASEAN. Could you comment on whether, in fact, there is an appropriate balance on those committees and the countries that they are looking at and whether they are really tackling the difficult issues or just taking the soft options, to oversimplify it?
Mr Sidoti —There is a risk that, simply because of the availability of information, more attention is paid to a country like Australia than to a country that has an appalling human rights record. That is certainly the case, although I would say that the strength of international NGOs is such that even countries that have particularly closed domestic systems find themselves being criticised and critical information being provided to the committees by international NGOs and often very, very good information. Perhaps, though, the greater difficulty is that some of the worst offenders are the least likely to have ratified the treaties. So they never actually come before the committees to be questioned. That is certainly the case with many states within our region that we consider to have the worst records. They are never, in fact, questioned about the system.
CHAIR —Or they do not report.
—Or they do not report. Although to be fair, our reporting record for much of the nineties was among the worst in the world on many of the treaties. Often we did not report, either. I think that because some of the worst offenders are not there, because there is less information, it is true to say that there may be a risk that we will attract greater attention than our human rights performance actually deserves on a relative scale.
CHAIR —Just finally—I know that we are out of time—the question has been raised about the composition of the various treaty body committees. They are often called a so-called committee of experts and the word `expert' is often questioned. I guess the reason I would question it is that the members elected to some of these United Nations committees are elected through the same political process that every other body seems to go through. I wonder whether or not some of the members of these committees very loosely fall into the category of experts.
Mr Sidoti —No-one could deny that the calibre of members varies enormously. I certainly do not deny that. There are some members of committees who are extremely good. The title of `expert' is properly applied to them, because they are experts. There are others who are not, whose election owes more to international politics than it does to individual calibre and expertise. At this stage, that is the nature of the international system. It is the luck of the draw.
For that reason, though, Australia has been quite active over the years and, as I understand it, remains so in trying to ensure the highest calibre of committee members through the election process, although we, too, become involved in the politics of it. That is inevitable, because it is a political process. We have had a pretty good record in putting up good candidates of our own—and I have referred to them today—and having them elected because they are seen as being good candidates, but also in supporting the election of other good candidates. To the extent to which we play politics, I think the politics that the Australian government has played have been well intentioned and high minded and not at the seedier end of the international spectrum by any stretch of the imagination. But neither we nor anybody else can ensure the election only of people who are well qualified for the position.
CHAIR —I guess it is not unlike a number of other committees; if you can get a half a dozen people of very high calibre they tend to influence the committee, anyway.
Mr Sidoti —And that certainly has been the experience. I must say as well that some committees are of a higher calibre than others. There is not a uniform standard across all six of the human rights treaty committees.
Mr NUGENT —We are talking about UN committees, not parliamentary committees.
CHAIR —Senator Bourne and I were comparing Senate committees to reps committees.
Mr Sidoti —You will never find me casting the least aspersion on the quality of parliamentary committees.
—We are out of time. I thank you very much for appearing before us today, Mr Sidoti. Your contribution is well respected and certainly we do take notice of your submission. It is one that we will be using when we are considering the details of our final report. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you can correct any errors of grammar or fact, and Hansard may wish to check some details of your evidence before you go. Once again, I say thankyou very much for giving us your time today.