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Thursday, 5 April 2001
Page: 26593


Mr NUGENT (3:04 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Would the minister update the House on the government's diplomatic initiative to reform the United Nations human rights treaty committee system. Is the minister aware of any alternative views?


Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —First, I thank the member for Aston for his question and particularly recognise the great interest he has shown in human rights issues and the performance of the United Nations committees. In August of last year the government announced the outcome of our review of the interaction with the six core human rights treaty committees. Honourable members will be aware that this government has been extremely critical of the performance of the United Nations committee system. Our review revealed considerable weaknesses in the way the treaty committees operate, including a lack of recognition of the primary role of democratic governments, a lack of coordination between the committees and at times a distinct failure by some of those committees to act within their mandates.

There is widespread agreement within the United Nations system about the need for reform and there is concern about the credibility of the United Nations treaty committee system. As we said at the time, it is not that we are against the system itself; it is our view that if the system is to be credible and to have any impact then it has to work efficiently, effectively and be a system which addresses the core issues. In our discussions over the last few months with both the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, both of them have agreed that the United Nations human rights committee system does need reform.

Today the Attorney-General, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and I have announced a high level diplomatic initiative to give momentum to our campaign for the reform of these United Nations committees. As part of that initiative, we will host a ministerial meeting in the margins of the General Assembly in New York in September to discuss with other ministers ways of improving the system. We will host three workshops over three years to examine key reform issues and build consensus around practical achievable measures.

But Australia will not stop there. In recent times we have had great success in winning elections in the United Nations system. We had Professor Ivan Shearer elected as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee—in the teeth, by the way, of opposition from the Australian Labor Party. I am glad to say the international community supported the Australian candidate, even though the Labor Party quite clearly opposed Professor Shearer because we would not run Elizabeth Evatt, who had two terms on the committee. So when we said we would run Professor Shearer the Labor Party said that was a disgrace and they opposed his campaign. Despite that, he was elected by the international community, which knows more about the credibility of this country than the Australian Labor Party does.

The member for Aston asked whether there are alternative approaches, and there is a quite clear alternative approach. As the Labor Party demonstrated in August of last year, it is totally opposed to any reform of United Nations committees. It does not support reform of the committees. The Labor Party has been applauding when United Nations committees have quite wrongly and quite inappropriately criticised this country. The first people to the microphones to cheer this country's critics over the last five years have been the Australian Labor Party. There is actually a quite simple difference between this side of the House and that side of the House: on this side of the House we stick up for Australia, and on that side of the House you stick up for our critics.