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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE Human Rights Subcommittee
Human rights mechanisms and the Asia-Pacific
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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE Human Rights Subcommittee
Human rights mechanisms and the Asia-Pacific
Dr Harris Rimmer
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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE Human Rights Subcommittee
(Joint-Tuesday, 7 April 2009)
HARRIS RIMMER, Dr Susan Gail
Dr Harris Rimmer
GREENWELL, Mr John Henry
WITHEFORD, Mr Andrew Simeon Chang
KENNON, Ms Eleanor
COX, Mr James John
RADEMAKERS, Ms Linda
WINTER, Ms Sarah
McDOUGALL, Mr James Duncan
HARRIS RIMMER, Dr Susan Gail
CHARLESWORTH, Professor Hilary
Dr Harris Rimmer
FERNANDES, Dr Clinton
- Senator FORSHAW
Content WindowJOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE Human Rights Subcommittee - 07/04/2009 - Human rights mechanisms and the Asia-Pacific
CHAIR —Welcome. Although the subcommittee prefers that all evidence be given in public, should you at any stage wish to give any evidence in private, you may ask to do so and the subcommittee will consider your request. Also, although this subcommittee does not require you to give evidence under oath, you should be aware that these proceedings are legal proceedings of the parliament and, therefore, have the same standing as proceedings of the chambers themselves. Before we proceed to questions and discussion, I invite you to make a few opening remarks.
Dr Harris Rimmer —UNIFEM Australia is extremely pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the review by the Human Rights Subcommittee into human rights mechanisms around the Asia Pacific region. We thank you very much for the invitation to appear. We think this inquiry is extremely timely and it also builds on the important work that this committee has done in previous inquires—for example, the link between human rights and aid, various inquiries into bilateral dialogues and other more general inquiries into Australia’s aid program in the Pacific. I will say just a few words about UNIFEM and then take you through the key points of our submission.
UNIFEM Australia exists basically to support the work of UNIFEM—we focus particularly on our region: the Pacific and East and South East Asia—through raising funds for UNIFEM in the region and also through advocacy. We have four key strategic goals: reducing women’s poverty and exclusion; ending violence against women; reversing the spread of HIV-AIDS among women and girls; and supporting women’s leadership in governance and post-conflict reconstruction. All four of those strategic goals are at play in the Pacific, East Asian and South-East Asian regions, in relation to the rights of women.
In the Hansard of previous meetings of this committee on this subject, I have noticed that members of the committee—including, I think, you, Mr Ruddock—have asked questions about what the significant human rights issues in the region are, and that is where we might be of use to the committee. We have lots of facts and figures and information to support the fact that gender discrimination is one of the biggest issues in our region and difficulties are being experienced in finding institutional mechanisms to combat this discrimination. That is partly because there is very low representation of women in parliaments in the region, partly because of the lack of strong human rights mechanisms in our region and partly because of the very difficult issues of culture and dialogue between UN agencies and member governments.
One issue that we point to in particular is that violence against women in our region is at pandemic levels, particularly in Papua New Guinea and Melanesia. We also draw your attention to the impact of HIV-AIDS on women in the region. As part of this whole picture, we have to recognise the lack of gender equality in governance and leadership positions in the region. This is particularly so in the Pacific, with it having only two per cent of women elected as leaders in local, provincial and national positions, which is the lowest percentage in the world. From our point of view, mechanisms that will have an effect in the Asia Pacific region should be measured against how far they will promote women’s rights and how efficacious they will be in promoting those rights. I will close my opening remarks at that point.
CHAIR —Thank you very much. First I will take up your last comment, which is that mechanisms obviously should be measured against the impact they have on the rights of women in those countries. We already have various mechanisms through international and national bodies that deal with issues around gender equality and improving the rights of women, and we are looking not just at the geographical area of Asia but also at the effectiveness of existing human rights mechanisms, as we consider what sorts of recommendations we would make for this particular region in terms of human rights. I would be interested to get UNIFEM’s views on whether existing mechanisms have been effective at all in dealing with women. If possible, can you pinpoint those that you think might have been more effective than others?
Dr Harris Rimmer —The value of UNIFEM’s approach is seen in it being very multilayered. UNIFEM, obviously, is an intergovernmental organisation that is based in New York. It has one regional office in Thailand and another quite small one in Suva, in the Pacific. Also, there is now a separate office in Papua New Guinea and smaller offices will be opening in other areas of the Pacific.
UNIFEM works on many levels. It works primarily with governments and it often works around big areas of law reform or implementation of treaties. One of those issues—and it is a big one—is the implementation and ratification of CEDAW; and another is Security Council Resolution 1325 on women’s participation in peace building and peace operations, which is very important in places like the Solomon Islands and Bougainville. So UNIFEM undertakes that sort of very high-level diplomatic activity, which is important. Where it is resourced, it is effective. It seems that there is a lot of energy and interest from various parliaments around the Pacific and Asia in these initiatives; but they have to be resourced and put in place structurally so that they are not just at the whim of the particular person who is there at the time and liable to fall apart after that person leaves.
UNIFEM has put extra effort into this region, which is starting to pay off. One of its most recent initiatives is that, in June-July, there will be four new Millennium Development Goals and international human rights officers deployed in the Pacific—and I will get to the MDGs in a moment. UNIFEM also works very closely with civil society, partly through liaison with the other UN offices, which are all based together. There is the new One UN strategy, which is where UN agencies try to work as one in terms of their contact with civil society. UNIFEM funds a lot of Pacific NGOs to do work in the areas of HIV-AIDS and poverty, particularly in terms of women’s access to markets and leadership activities. The area of civil society is a very profitable one that the committee should think about. I know that you have taken some very good evidence from the RRRT. It would be excellent to get further evidence from Pacific and South Asian NGOs, which are very developed and very sophisticated, as you saw from the evidence given.
One of the issues specific to NGOs is that often they are very small and are working in very remote areas. In trying to assist them to gain funding, UNIFEM has set up what is called the Pacific Facility Fund. That helps NGOs to get their governance requirements to a level where they can apply for and successfully administer grant funding. You all know that DFAT has a human rights grants program at a very small level; even those very small grants entail quite a heavy load of administration and accounting for money spent and quite a level of bureaucracy. UNIFEM is trying to make sure that Pacific NGOs have the capacity to deal with those sorts of governance requirements.
In terms of regional mechanisms, UNIFEM is very involved in the Pacific Islands Forum. There are a few other mechanisms; sometimes there are meetings of ministers who deal with women’s or community affairs issues. A lot of the mechanisms in the Pacific, in particular at the civil society level, are arranged around the churches; so the Pacific Council of Churches is a very important organisation. But it is extremely difficult in the Pacific to engage across all the islands and across all the groupings—from Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia—in an effective manner, so that is the challenge.
Just coming back to the Millennium Development Goals, two of them feature gender equality: firstly, the education of girls and, secondly, maternal health. That has added extra impetus to the search for gender equality outcomes, particularly in the Pacific region. The Pacific is one of the regions that are not going to meet the MDGs at all in those two areas. One of the important ways to promote human rights, particularly in the Pacific region, is through development outcomes. That is why in our submission we have focused on the fact that sometimes it is important to build human rights into what we are already doing, for example, in the aid program and in our discussions with the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the IMF and in trade dialogues.
At the moment, all Pacific countries are very interested in the very important forum of climate change and its effects on human rights and human security. Climate change, as we know, will have an inequitable effect on women and girls. Research into the tsunami found basically that, during the tsunami, women were more vulnerable and were drowned at greater rates than men because of a range of issues: inappropriate clothing preventing their escape, and their waiting for permission to be told to leave—all these various things. I have the research to hand, if you would like me to table that later on. We know that climate change will have an impact on everyone in the Pacific; and that might be an area where we can start talking, in a profitable way, about human rights and human security.
CHAIR —Thank you. That is a very interesting point and it would be interesting to get hold of that paper.
Mr RUDDOCK —I was very interested in the emphasis that you placed on Melanesia, but I was surprised at the absence of comment in relation to West Asia, for instance—honour killings and specific policies of some groups to deny women even elementary schooling. I do not know how you rank these things. In a sense, I can understand in relation to Melanesia, given the stage of development and so on, that there will be cultural issues. But your presentation seemed to be short on comment in relation to another aspect of the region that we are looking at. I wonder whether you want to address how we might deal with some of those issues.
Dr Harris Rimmer —Absolutely. We did not address such issues, because UNIFEM Australia tends to focus on Australia’s aid program in our region, which is heavily concentrated on East Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific. But West Asia has very strong issues in terms of the human rights of women. All those things that you mention have been the subject of UNIFEM research and advocacy at the intergovernmental level. At the moment particularly, UNIFEM is very engaged in discussion around Afghanistan and the Shiite status laws; I have those to hand also, if you would like to look at them. At the recent International Women’s Day, we focused on acid attacks against women and girls in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.
To answer your question: no, they are not easily ranked. In fact, we say that they should not necessarily be ranked, because a lot of the issues around gender discrimination, in fact, come out in very culturally specific ways, even though they are based on the same concepts of inequality of women and girls. So the strategies have to be different, but the cause or the fundamental problem is the same across many societies. You can try to address and research or understand the basic cause of inequality across societies, but the strategies in each place have to be independent. That is what UNIFEM does. That is why we have officers all around the world in various local places.
I find it interesting that, when thinking about women’s rights problems, we often think of women under the Taliban, women in Iraq, popular examples of women in Somalia, women not being able to drive in Saudi Arabia or whatever is in the press, but we tend to forget issues amongst smaller countries in our own region; for example, it is not headline news that women represent only two per cent of the Pacific parliaments. But such issues are equally important and that is one place where Australia can have a particular impact. That is why we have raised those issues today; but certainly we are not suggesting that, in terms of human rights protection, West Asia is better in any way.
Mr RUDDOCK —Your organisation is global and I just want to tease out that other issue. As far as I am concerned, when I focus on women’s issues and look for comment but often see that it is absent, it is in relation to things like honour killings that I have seen and been aware of in Pakistan—but they occur in other parts of West Asia as well. I think we are losing ground in relation to women’s education in places like Afghanistan, with the Taliban and so on. To my way of thinking, when you are losing ground, it is far worse than failing to make it up.
Dr Harris Rimmer —We are losing ground in the Pacific as well; we are losing ground in many places. Education of girls is one of the MDGs, and one of the worst indicators globally is going to be in the Pacific and in PNG. Maternal health—
Mr RUDDOCK —Is that a matter of resourcing or of deliberate policy?
Dr Harris Rimmer —I see what you mean. I think it is not only resourcing but also a question of not valuing the education of girls, in a cultural sense. If you look at the last report on the MDGs, we are not doing so well right here. However, having said that, I would be the first to say that Pakistan in its treatment of women in Swat Valley, that deal with the Taliban, was reprehensible. I am sorry that the Australian government did not do more to say that, when Stephen Smith visited there. All of those things are exceptionally important. Our submission focused on this particular region because of the Australian aid program and its emphasis, not through any lack of interest.
Mr RUDDOCK —Bringing you back to our direct terms of reference, we are looking at possible models. Does the sort of discussion that we have had about differences within the region lead you to the view that we, as a committee, in the options that we bring forward, ought to recommend subregional-specific arrangements rather than look across the board?
Dr Harris Rimmer —UNIFEM Pacific works on a subregional level because of logistics and practicalities and often it is very difficult to have small offices in very remote parts of the Pacific; so I think, for the Pacific, a subregional mechanism could definitely work. But I do not think there should be an either/or proposition. Partly it has to be the decision of the people in those areas as to what kind of design of mechanism is most useful to them. All I would say is: try to think very creatively. When it comes to the protection of human rights, very many mechanisms can be used. Incorporating a bit more human rights ethos into the existing ways that we interact with the Pacific and East Asia would be one of those mechanisms. Others would be the national human rights institutions and subregional mechanisms that already exist in various ways, such as through the churches and the Pacific Islands Forum. But also it would be thinking of things that will impact on civil society in the region. I think we just need lots and lots of levels. I think a large formal Asia Pacific mechanism may evolve over time, but now is probably not the precise time to win that political support. That is what we should be aiming toward, but it might be a question of small incremental steps being taken upwards to that outcome.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG —I am interested in the comments that you made about, in particular, the two per cent of women in leadership roles. In looking at the different reasons for that, perhaps education is a key one and I am sure there are others. Can you flesh out what you think Australia’s role could be in helping to encourage a change to increase the numbers regarding women’s participation, whether it is in local community leadership positions or officially in parliament?
Dr Harris Rimmer —Certainly. UNIFEM has employed quite a few strategies over the years—in East Timor very successfully—by training women basically in how to present to the media. In fact, I think Senator Margaret Reynolds did the UNIFEM training for Timor elections, which resulted in 27 per cent of Timorese women being elected to parliament, which was one of the best ratios in the world let alone our region. That was very successful, but it also built on the respect that women had in terms of their participation in the independence movement. It remains to be seen whether that can be carried forward now.
In the Pacific, we have a program with NZAID. It does three things. Basically, it trains women in politics and it has establishment of the national Women in Politics organisation in each program country; it identifies potential women leaders in key government decision-making bodies; so it finds the movers and shakers and makes sure that they get leadership training. Also, they develop a database of participation of Pacific women at all levels of decision-making; so basically they make sure that those women are networked and know where everybody else is so that they can help each other. They are focused at the moment on Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu. But they find that a lot of the difficulties with women being elected are just that often there is a perception that it is incompatible with their duties as a wife and mother. So it is often women who do not have children who enter politics, which I think is not so different from the rest of the world. Also, there is the perception that women should be deferential in the chief-type systems in some of these countries. Generally, it is just about building women’s confidence, and that is what UNIFEM tries to do. It tries to say, ‘You are important, your views are important, you have the capacity to present those views and we’re just going to help you with the style.’
Senator HANSON-YOUNG —So it is that practical training on the ground.
Dr Harris Rimmer —Yes.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG —In relation to the Millennium Development Goals, you spoke about how we are failing in the region particularly with education of women and the maternal health goal. Apart from lack of resources, why do you think that is; or is it purely lack of resources and, if so, which resources and where? Is that something that Australia should be looking at? Alternatively, is it how those resources are being put to use?
Dr Harris Rimmer —In a recent presentation at AusAID, Rita Taphorn, one of our Pacific officials, said that the financial crisis is having an effect; when families are stretched, it is the boys who get sent to school. So it is partly resources but it is partly cultural. So there is this resource issue, as Pacific countries are finding it harder to cope—and they are coping with more natural disasters with extreme weather because of climate change. They are having an impact even on family budgets and, as in lots of countries in West Asia, the decision is made that, where money is tight, only the boy will go to school. In terms of maternal health, the issue is usually lack of access to an institution or a hospital where there are long periods of travel. So it is that remoteness, which is the same issue we have in Australia, really. That issue of remoteness to hospital is a big driver in maternal health. They are the two main issues.
The Australian government has increased its contribution to maternal health. A few statements have come from Bob McMullan recently about the importance of maternal health in the region, and I think there is some extra money. But, again, the aspect of discrimination against women must be addressed; there is no point in just giving more resources, if we do not understand the structural reasons for women not being valued for particular roles. So it is a question of deepening our understanding as well as of throwing more money that way.
Ms GRIERSON —In your submission, you say that achieving broader Millennium Development Goals in areas such as HIV, education, poverty alleviation and governance—they are fairly important ones—is directly limited by violence against women. Having been to countries where I have visited a fracture clinic and known that 80 per cent of patients are beaten women, I wonder whether you can tell us about successful programs for limiting violence against women.
Dr Harris Rimmer —I would like to table a document from a Pacific regional workshop on eliminating violence against women, in which some successful strategies are discussed. One of the most successful is something that we also do in Australia, which is to involve men as ambassadors, basically saying, ‘This is not the Pacific way; this is not the way that men should treat women.’ That has been a very effective strategy. The other one is making sure that women feel that, if they do complain, not only will they be taken seriously but also they will be assisted in particular ways.
Ms GRIERSON —How do we bring that about?
Dr Harris Rimmer —Through very simple measures, such as by making sure that there are refuges, for a start. One of the things that UNIFEM has done is helped with refuges. It has also made sure that there is a law reform program so that violence against women is actually seen as a crime; so a lot of training goes on with police. The strategies are very similar to the strategies here, and it is hard. We know that it is hard. It is hard here, it is hard in the Pacific and it is very hard in PNG. But a couple of issues that the Pacific has to deal with are, firstly, the remoteness issue, which we do not have to deal with—we do, actually—and, secondly, women’s lack of access to power structures. If there are only two per cent of women in parliament, for example, there is not really anybody there to represent the issue of violence against women. So it is about making sure that the men in parliament who are interested in promoting female equality get as much support as possible and about getting more women into parliament.
Ms GRIERSON —So, in East Timor, where you were part of a campaign to get women into governance positions, has that been followed up in terms of their role in taking on those issues for human rights for women?
Dr Harris Rimmer —Yes, it has; it is fraught, but it has. This is my thesis topic, so I will try to keep it very short.
Mr RUDDOCK —Send us a copy.
Dr Harris Rimmer —The penal code that was promulgated two days ago has a new domestic violence law in it.
CHAIR —Good. I wanted to ask about the legal system.
Dr Harris Rimmer —So that is real progress. There are some issues with the law that are very similar to those that we have here, such as making sure that the experience for the witness is not too distressing. But, yes, I think it did have a big impact. In places like East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville and even Tonga, we know that, in post-conflict areas, there is a spike in domestic violence; there seems to be a correlation between public violence ending and intimate violence rising. It has been a real challenge for Timorese women, having fought for so long for their independence, to find themselves subject to domestic violence. They have been very, very active in making sure that one of the first priorities in the penal code is a domestic violence law and also that the police actually will respond to that law. In fact, in East Timor, in the Dili court, something like 50 per cent or 60 per cent of all cases are domestic violence cases. So I am not saying that it is ideal, but they are being prosecuted, which is something. So there has been some impact there.
Senator FORSHAW —This is more of a quick comment and perhaps for you to comment on it. Another committee of this parliament that I sit on, the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, is conducting an inquiry into economic security challenges for PNG and the South West Pacific. With the constant themes we hear, there are two issues. One is that, with the economy of many of these smaller countries, putting PNG aside for a moment, opportunities are very limited outside of tourism—and even that is difficult at the moment. The second is the cultural norms, particularly the chieftain or clan sorts of structures that exist. As you know, on top of that, there is Australia’s reputation with some of these countries; they may look upon us as ‘interfering colonial’, et cetera. I am interested in how we factor in coming to grips with the economic challenges that clearly impact upon women, maybe even more so than on men, and those cultural sorts of norms it is hard to break through to get, for instance, extra representation into the parliament. I am not sure whether you have any further comment. This is not a question; it is a really hard nut to crack.
Dr Harris Rimmer —Yes. It is a really important observation though. That is what I was saying: while it is important to have specific discussions about human rights in the Asia Pacific, it might be even more important that we talk about human rights when we deal with topics like economic security, defence and climate change, for example. As I said previously, these things are very, very intertwined. In Pacific countries, the financial crunch is having an impact on the education of girls. It is having an impact on violence because the male breadwinner feels powerless, which then has an impact on intimate violence. It is very difficult to tackle these issues. But we are not going to get even to first base if we do not understand some of the social aspects of why these problems play out in the way they do.
Senator FORSHAW —Should we be bringing this up more on the agenda of the South Pacific forum, at the risk of getting more opprobrium from various leaders around the region?
Dr Harris Rimmer —There are ways and ways. You are right about the perception of Australia in the Pacific. That is why I am a little worried about the concept of Australia somehow setting up a mechanism in the Pacific; I do not think that will fly.
CHAIR —That has been pointed out before.
Dr Harris Rimmer —Yes. I think a better approach is to say, ‘Australia has these issues like you do.’ That basically is the approach that New Zealand takes too: ‘We have the same issues, we are on the same journey and we are part of the same enterprise. These are some of the strategies that we have found to be effective. Can we help you and give you some money to help you? But you will have ownership and design.’ I think that is a more effective strategy. I think that owning that Australia has the same basic problems is very effective. We have problems with our remote and regional communities being economically viable and we have problems with cultural attitudes towards women in some of our communities. So it can be done on a shared basis and we can share experiences, and that might be more effective. But, with those economic discussions, I think it is very important to understand that there is a social policy dimension to these problems.
CHAIR —Thank you very much. Unfortunately, we will have to end our questioning there because we have other people wanting to present. I thank you very much for coming today. I note that you wished to table a couple of documents. If you give those to the secretariat, they will pass on copies to all members of the committee. Other than that, thank you very much for coming before us today; your evidence has been very informative. I think it has been a good start to what is going to be a very interesting day.