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Thursday, 26 November 2015
Page: 9190

Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (18:58): Earlier this month I attended the presentation of Australia's Universal Periodic Review to the working group of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. I attended in my capacity as Deputy Chair of the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade of this parliament. The Hon. Philip Ruddock MP also attended as chair of that committee and Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. I acknowledge Mr Ruddock's successful efforts to gain the approval of both the Attorney-General and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for Australian parliamentarians to attend this year's UPR. I also acknowledge Mr Ruddock's work at the Universal Periodic Review and at other side events, particularly his advocacy against the death penalty, a matter subject to an inquiry currently being undertaken by the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the parliament.

During and after Australia's UPR presentation, there was some media reporting that highlighted some of the comments made about Australia by other nations during the UPR process. I thought it might be useful to explain more fully the UPR process and why Australia participates in it, and what actually happened at this year's events at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. It was disappointing to read of the immigration minister, Mr Peter Dutton's, comments about the UPR process this year. He was reported in The Australian newspaper on 11 November 2015 as having said that the UPR process of the human rights council of the United Nations is a 'farce'. That is despite his own department, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, being represented by senior officials and actively participating in the UPR process, as well in side-meetings and briefings. And these comments by Mr Dutton, the immigration minister, were also made in the context of the Australian coalition government's current campaign to secure a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council for the period 2018-20. That announcement was made by the foreign minister, Ms Julie Bishop, in September 2015, and, presumably, she had the support of the whole of the government, of which he is a cabinet minister. And I note that Labor supports Australia's candidacy for the Human Rights Council; however, it seems not everyone in the Turnbull government does, which could make it difficult when seeking the support of other nations for Australia's candidacy.

On the actual UPR process: I note that the UN Human Rights Council was established in 2006 and replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights, which had been established in 1947. Arguably, by the early 2000s, the old Commission on Human Rights had come to be seen by the majority of United Nations member nations as not fulfilling its mission to promote and develop human rights norms or its related purposes of investigating human rights issues and crises. The new Human Rights Council was subsequently established by a decision of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and it is one of the 47 seats on that council that Australia seeks to fill.

One of the functions of the Human Rights Council is the Universal Periodic Review, wherein the human rights records of every one of the 193 members of the United Nations is reviewed by the council. That occurs approximately every four years, so this year was Australia's second review. Every United Nations member state gets reviewed by its peers with regard to the human rights obligations of states as set out in the UN Charter, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the human rights treaties to which a state is a party, any voluntary pledges or commitments made by the state and any applicable humanitarian law.

During the UPR process, a state makes a presentation about its human rights record, and any other state may make comments and recommendations about actions other states have taken or should undertake in the view of the commenting state. And, yes, this does give rise to the situation where countries like the United States of America can, as it did this year, stand up and recommend, for example, that Australia should consult its Indigenous peoples when considering the viability of remote communities and should strengthen efforts to combat violence against women.

The United States made these comments, while at the same time some states within the United States of America maintain and operationalise possibly the most egregious abuse of human rights possible because they allow and use the death penalty. Therefore, the execution of the nation's own citizens by the state occurs in the United States of America.

During the second UPR of Australia's human rights records 110 countries, including our friends the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand, provided 291 recommendations about actions Australia should take to improve on our human rights record. The broad themes that the majority of countries raised with regard to Australia included that Australia should ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, that Australia should do more to protect and enhance the rights of our Indigenous Australians and that Australia should comply with its international and human rights obligations with respect to asylum seekers and refugees, particularly in the context of offshore detention. A number of other matters were raised, including the rights of people with disabilities, marriage equality, the impact of climate change on the achievement of human rights and the rights of women, especially in relation to domestic violence and workplace equality in Australia.

Of course, not all commentary was negative. Most countries also acknowledged Australia's leadership over many years in the promotion and protection of human rights, and Australian representatives were able to highlight our good record, including many initiatives of the former Labor government such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the establishment of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery.

It is confronting to sit in a theatre with more than 100 other states and have your own human rights record examined and commented upon by other nations, some of which have questionable rights records themselves. It is especially confronting as a member of parliament, with legislative and policy responsibility for your own country's observance of human rights norms and laws. But rather than dismiss out of hand the whole process of the UPR, as Minister Dutton has done, I believe Australia should use the UPR as another mechanism to hold all of us in this parliament accountable. I note the comments made by Australia's ambassador and permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, His Excellency Mr John Quinn, in his opening statement of this year's UPR, wherein he said:

Australia strongly supports the UPR process as an important opportunity for all UN Member States to cooperate, collaborate and share ideas.

He also acknowledged:

The UPR also provides a framework for the Australian Government to deepen our engagement with civil society and the Australian community on human rights.

And he noted:

The Australian Government welcomes a vigorous, wide-ranging and balanced human rights debate in Australia and will work closely with the Australian Human Rights Commission and civil society in the follow-up to today’s dialogue.

As Ambassador Quinn noted, the participation of civil society in the UPR process is important and a very welcome development in the global governance of human rights—although those of us who are elected representatives may often bridle at the criticisms made of us by civil society.

The active participation of parliamentarians in the UPR process is unusual. Many NGOs and other nations commented on Australia's decision to allow parliamentary participation in the process and noted the contributions made by Mr Ruddock and by me—mostly in a good way.

There is sometimes a disconnect between Australia's participation and decision making in international forums and our parliamentary processes. I acknowledge that it is the role of the executive to make those decisions in international forums; however, I believe parliamentary participation has benefits in terms of transparency and accountability. As I said, it was disappointing to know that back home at least one minister of the government was disparaging about Australia's participation in the UPR when the rest of the world acknowledged the good work that Australia does as well as urging us to do better.

I look forward to Australia securing a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. I can only hope that the ill-timed comments of the minister for immigration, Mr Dutton, do not cruel our chances.