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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 2140


Ms JULIE BISHOP (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (4:48 PM) —The coalition has always been a strong supporter of human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, believing that those who live in freedom should defend and advance the human rights of those who do not live in freedom. The Universal Periodic Review is one of the important processes that come with membership of the United Nations, and I welcome this update on Australia’s participation in that process.

I remind the House that one of the Howard government’s significant foreign policy achievements was the establishment in 1998 of a ministerial-level human rights dialogue with China, after Prime Minister Howard proposed such a dialogue on a visit to China in 1997. The issues raised in the ministerial dialogue include: freedom of assembly, of speech and of religion; human rights in Tibet; treatment of ethnic minorities; the death penalty; and the treatment of prisoners, including political prisoners. This remains the only ministerial-level human rights dialogue China has established with another country, which I believe reflects a high level of respect for Australia’s approach to human rights. Australia has also held regular human rights dialogues with Vietnam, and I was pleased to attend the most recent dialogue, held in Canberra on 18 February. The discussion was constructive, with both sides willing to have an open debate on matters of some sensitivity.

While I welcome the update on the Universal Periodic Review from the Attorney-General, I am disappointed he did not voice any concerns at all about the operation of the United Nations Human Rights Council. While no nation can claim a perfect record on human rights, it is somewhat hypocritical for the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country known for its increasing repression of civil society, to raise concerns about Australia’s alleged:

… systematic discrimination on the basis of race in particular against women of certain vulnerable groups …

I note that Iran has also called for Australia to:

Take effective legal measures to prohibit the use of excessive force and “Tasers” by the police against various groups of peoples …

Given Iran’s repeated brutal and violent crackdowns on peaceful protests, please forgive me if I find this particular recommendation somewhat galling. There were others, and I am surprised the Attorney-General took no issue with Iran’s stance. This feeds into broader concerns about the operation of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which, for the purposes of the periodic review, included Cuba and Libya. While I welcome the decision to suspend Libya from the council due to the appalling events in Libya in recent days, I have concerns about how Libya came to be on the council in the first place, given that, through membership on the council, countries should be held to the highest standards of the council’s mandate.

Problems associated with the United Nations’ approach came to a head at the 2001 Durban Review Conference on racism, which had Libya as chair of the preparatory committee and Iranian President Ahmadinejadas a keynote speaker. Delegates from numerous nations, including Australia, walked out of the conference in protest at his speech, the key theme of which was anti-Semitism. Eight years later, the United Nations appeared to have learned little from the 2001 experience. A draft working paper for the Durban II conference was circulated, with an almost exclusive focus on alleged human rights abuses by Israel and with a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism. Some nations announced they would boycott the conference while others urged a radical redraft of the document. The final version of the document was more acceptable, but concerns remained about the conduct of the conference.

At the time I urged the then Rudd government to show moral leadership and announce a boycott of the conference, which it finally agreed to do but only at the very last moment. My fears were well grounded as Iranian President Ahmadinejad was keynote speaker and launched into an extraordinary but predictable tirade against the United States, Israel and numerous other Western nations. Once more, his speech triggered a mass walkout of delegates. If regimes with scant regard for human rights are allowed to use the United Nations Human Rights Council as a global platform from which to air their repugnant views it will cause serious damage to the reputation and credibility of the council itself.

I note that the Human Rights Council replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2006 after the commission had been discredited because of highly politicised bloc voting patterns that allowed pariah states to gain membership and thereby effectively avoid criticism. A 2009 background paper by the US based Council on Foreign Relations stated:

Despite a high-profile effort to reform the world’s top human rights panel, the new UN Human Rights Council continues to face the same criticisms that plagued its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights … bloc voting, loose membership standards, and bias against Israel are keeping the two-year-old council from living up to expectations as a responsible watchdog over global human rights norms.

There is a clear need for ongoing reform of the council. It is reported that more than 70 non-government organisations have written to the United Nation’s Secretary-General raising concerns about voting practices that undermine the intended work of the council.

I can understand the motivation of regimes that abuse human rights for wanting to dominate the council, thereby seeking to claim some form of moral equivalence with countries that consistently embrace basic freedoms and human rights and thus diverting attention away from themselves and avoiding scrutiny. However, it is the responsibility of those nations which genuinely support universal human rights to prevent those regimes from achieving their goals.

The coalition strongly supports the work of the United Nations in promoting and advancing human rights globally. We urge the United Nations to reform its processes to ensure that it protects the integrity of bodies such as the Human Rights Council. It is not in our national interests, nor in the interests of the oppressed peoples of the world for this work to be subverted by those with ignoble intentions.