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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 17138

Senator COONAN (5:48 PM) —Senator Cook's motion that we are debating this afternoon is based on a fundamental misconception, and that is that the government has abrogated its responsibilities for Australia's participation in the United Nations human rights committee system. That is manifestly not the case as the government has made it clear that it is not walking away from the system. Its actions are motivated simply to bring about reform. There cannot be any serious argument that the treaty committee system is not in need of reform. This has been widely recognised by other member countries from time to time.

The procedural problems and the composition of the human rights committees are systemically flawed. The procedures of the committees do not presently meet the standards and judicial process of independence required by a small claims tribunal in Australia, let alone bodies whose views can have an impact upon our constitutional arrangements and our domestic law. It is an absolute nonsense to suggest that the United Nations committees come anywhere near the standards we require in our own country of review and rigour in judicial decisions. The lack of transparency and accountability, the closed hearings, the failure to have regard to pertinent evidence, the failure to test any of the evidence and occasionally it would seem actual—or certainly perceived—bias all amount to a seriously flawed system, and one that we simply would not tolerate if we were looking at it in this country. How many committees do we have in the Senate to ensure the most rigorous processes of fairness? Senator Ludwig serves with me on at least one of them where we look every week that parliament sits on whether or not there is an appeal system, whether it is fair and whether people can actually be heard.

It is a curious paradox, and one that I do not think has been pointed out by any previous speaker although it has been a long debate and I may have missed it, that in these days of quite legitimate public demand for greater participation in our parliamentary democracy and for greater accountability of publicly elected representatives—I wholeheartedly endorse these—there are those in our midst who at the same time are clamouring to air their grievances in an undemocratic committee system. It is a curious paradox because what we are doing is airing our grievances, or at least some of our citizens seem to wish to do this, in a system ill-suited—at least the way it presently runs—for its purpose and ill-suited to taking a role in a sophisticated legal system that most developed democracies enjoy and certainly that we all aspire to.

The shortcomings of the committee system then should frankly be conceded instead of our beating around the bush about it. There really ought not to be any argument that the committee system, the way it is presently constituted, is seriously flawed. I am very surprised that has not been frankly conceded by anyone on the other side, apart from Senator Cooney. I think Senator Ludwig may have been getting around to it as his concluding point, but then he was shut out by time.

Let us assume that there are a couple of people from the opposition who would frankly concede that this committee system is flawed. The issue is: what do you do about it? We should really get on with restoring the integrity of the system. This would certainly be the most effective way to further the monitoring of human rights, would it not? As it stands it is in danger, I think, of driving complying countries, such as Australia, out of the process altogether, which is not desirable. Australia is not the only country to have community concerns about the breakdown of the committee system. When the government announced that it was undertaking a review, it was suggested in an editorial in the National Post—which I think is based in Toronto—that Australia may be starting a trend. That editorial said in part:

It is objectionable that a country like Canada should be lectured on human rights by UN committees whose members are drawn in part from states where female mutilation—

presumably that means female genital mutilation—

censorship and arbitrary imprisonment are widely practised.

Even if UN committees were Simon Pure, that would not legitimise their intrusions. If nations can be required, even in theory, to change their domestic policies by external bodies then they have ceased to be either self-governing or democratic. It merely adds insult to injury when the UN perverts the notion of human rights to justify such interventions.

Australia is right to question its membership of the UN treaty system—Canada should follow suit.

Of course we have never questioned our membership of the United Nations treaty system, so the editorial is quite incorrect in that respect. But the sentiment, I think, comes very close to mirroring the concerns that have been widely expressed by the community and given action to by the government in suggesting that we should pull back from participation in the committee system until we can get it reformed.

Lest anyone listening to this debate thinks that Australia is standing alone in its concerns, in mid-1998 Australia, Canada and New Zealand formally submitted a joint paper to the Human Rights Committee looking at five areas of reform in which to improve the committee's rules of procedure. I am surprised it was only five areas of reform. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and, most recently, Norway have made statements relating to treaty body reform to the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights. In early 1999 the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson—a celebrity politician if ever there was one—commissioned a major report on treaty commission reform, and Australia is actively participating in this process. So it is not as if Australia is standing alone in voicing its concerns.

I do not really think there is much room to cavil with the proposition that Australia does have a proud record on human rights. We have a sophisticated legal system to both define and protect our rights and freedoms, be they political, personal, religious or civic. The extent to which the United Nations committee system has lost the plot can be seen in the recent report under the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination—it has been mentioned this afternoon—where Australia compares unfavourably to the performance of China, Russia and Pakistan, which is of course under a military dictatorship. Australia, as a substantially complying nation, is a soft target for committees that have simply failed to come to grips with the gross violations, the almost unspeakable violations, of human rights in Rwanda, Kosovo, Srebrenica and, perhaps more pointedly, certainly in respect of Australia, East Timor—that is, before the government, with, I must say, multi-party support and the overwhelming support of the Australian people, had the decency and the moral and physical courage to commit our troops to help a defenceless people.

Is it any wonder that the Australian community is asking what is going on with these committees? Just as compellingly the Australian people are entitled to ask whether the Labor Party is happier attacking Australia than defending it. Certainly we get that impression this afternoon. Is it really suggested by those in opposition that we should invite to Australia the United States special rapporteur on torture? What is the special rapporteur going to find here? We need a reality check. Surely the Labor Party is not unaware that treaty body reform is long overdue. In 1999, 1,146 reports were overdue under the six human rights treaties and in 1999 it was estimated that 2,500 pieces of correspondence to the Human Rights Committee were awaiting reply. Interestingly enough, in relation to the United Nations, a Labor man who has some previous form in covering Labor hypocrisy—and I refer to Mr Della Bosca—said:

An international agency should not be dictating Australian policies.

Mr Della Bosca's observations, as with his observations about Labor's nonsensical position on the roll-back of the GST, are spot-on. There is no doubt that we desperately need nuts and bolts reform of the United Nations committees. The government's position is entirely justified and, I suspect, long overdue. I have not had a chance to talk about CEDAW, but that is another misconception that Senator Cook's motion perpetrates.