STATEMENT BY THE NGO ROUNDTABLE ON THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT’S REVIEW OF THE UN HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM
On 7 June 2000 a high level NGO Roundtable meeting was called by the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, the United Nations Association Australia and Amnesty International to discuss the Australian
Government's review of its involvement in the UN human rights system. A list of organisations and academics that have accepted the NGO Roundtable’s invitation to endorse the following
statement appears at the end of this Statement.
On 30 March 2000 the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer MP, announced that the Federal Government would undertake a whole of government review of the operation of the UN human rights
treaty committee system. It has been reported that the Government has particular concerns about conduct of the various UN human rights committees and their consideration of NGO input into the
The NGO Roundtable would welcome an opportunity to participate in the Review and calls on the Government to release the terms of reference of the Review to facilitate a wider examination of the
substantive issues. The Roundtable believes the Government should postpone any final decisions about the outcomes of the Review until it has undertaken community consultation and sought the
views of non-government agencies and academics with specialist expertise in the field. This approach would be consistent with the principles of good government, transparency and
accountability. In addition we note that the report of the parliamentary inquiry into ‘Australia's relations with the UN’ currently being conducted by the Joint Standing
Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence (JSCFADT) is due to be released later this year. We anticipate that this Report will provide the Government with valuable information on the
broader issue of Australia's relationship with the UN generally.
Australia's participation in the UN human rights system is a voluntary act of sovereignty which brings with it both obligations of good government and corresponding benefits to the Australian
people. We acknowledge that there are improvements that can be made in the UN mechanisms for human rights protection. In particular, there is a need for greater resources, better
coordination and more effective enforcement. However, the NGO Roundtable rejects any proposal that would lead to a diminution of Australia's participation in the UN human rights system and a
reduction in the level of human rights protection for people in Australia.
The protection and promotion of human rights is part of Australia's core commitment to the international community and a principal aim of the UN Charter, which reflects Australian community values
or tolerance and respect for the rights of others. Any action by Australia should therefore be considered in the wider international context. In particular, Australia plays a critical role
in promoting universal human rights principles in the Asia-Pacific region and has a history of constructive involvement in the UN. Australia therefore has a wider responsibility to adopt a
domestic policy that strengthens the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN human rights system and is consistent with its foreign policy objective of promoting respect for human rights
Principal treaties and optional complaints mechanisms
The NGO Roundtable would be deeply concerned if the Government considered withdrawing Australia from any of the international human rights treaties and strongly opposes such a step. This
includes, the optional individual communications procedures established under the first Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); article 14 of the
Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination and article 22 of the Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Since 1991 there has been a total of approximately 48 cases brought under the three complaints mechanisms. To date a violation has been found in only 3 of the 27 cases that have been
finalised. This record demonstrates that the treaty monitoring bodies discharge their function in an appropriately professional manner. Complete or partial withdrawal by Australia would set
a dangerous precedent and damage Australia’s international reputation by placing Australia alongside Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana as the only nations to purport to withdraw from the complaints
In accordance with Government policy, any treaty action of this nature is subject to the new domestic treaty making procedures and therefore subject to the scrutiny of the Joint Standing Committee on
Treaties. The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties requires adequate time to examine the public policy issues, with appropriate consultation with the community, to ensure the Government's
commitment to transparency and public participation in the treaty making processes is fully implemented.
The NGO Roundtable encourages the Government to commit itself to improve the timeliness of Australia's periodic reports and ensure that the reports provide useful, evaluative material on key human
rights issues. In addition, we expect the Government to commit itself to the early involvement of NGOs in the reporting process. Such an approach is consistent with the recommendations of
the treaty monitoring bodies and fulfils one of the objectives of the reporting process, which is to stimulate domestic dialogue and increase transparency. Proper consultation during the
development of these reports will provide the Government with an opportunity for discussion and identification of areas of difficulty before formal consideration of reports. It would also reduce the
need for NGOs to raise issues directly with the human rights treaty bodies.
UN Reform Agenda
The NGO Roundtable supports the efforts of Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who together with the Chairpersons of the Treaty Monitoring Bodies, Special Rapporteurs and the chairs
of the various Working Groups, are all actively engaged in pursuing a reform agenda. It also supports the general direction of Professor Philip Alston’s recommendations, agreed by the
Australian Government, in relation to this reform. The Report of the Working Group on Enhancing the Effectiveness of the Mechanism of the Commission on Human Rights, and the adoption of its
recommendations during the Commission’s 56th session, demonstrate continued commitment to strengthening and achieving efficiencies in the existing system. The recommendations include,
among other things, a rationalisation of working groups and special rapporteurs and an increased allocation from the UN general budget.
Australian proposals aimed at reforming the UN human rights system generally should be developed in consultation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, relevant domestic NGOs and academics with
specialist expertise in the field. The aim of any such proposals should be to enhance the capacity of the UN to effectively scrutinise human rights issues and not to undermine this system.
The NGO Roundtable makes the following recommendations to the Australian Government.
That the Australian Government:
Principal Treaties and Individual Communications
- Publicly reaffirm Australia's commitment to the UN system of human rights protection and to Australia's continued participation in all international human rights treaties to which
Australia is already a party.
- Continue Australia’s recognition of the competence of the Human Rights Committee, the Committee against Torture and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to
accept and consider individual communications of all people subject to the Australian jurisdiction.
- Improve Australia's periodic reports by ensuring timely submission of reports that provide useful, evaluative material on key human rights issues. Improve the coordination of report writing
and consider centralising the report writing function as one way of achieving this objective.
- Clearly address the international law issues raised by the UN committees in their questions on notice to the Australian Government and during the formal consideration of reports.
- Actively support and resource the involvement of NGOs from early in the reporting process through to participation in the UN committee hearings.
- Table all reports, summary records and concluding observations in Parliament and publish all documentation on one centralised Government website.
- Strengthen the domestic procedures for Federal, State and Territory Government consideration and implementation of concluding observations and recommendations by treaty monitoring bodies.
- Accept UN treaty body comments on Australia’s domestic human rights practices as being made in a spirit of frank and open dialogue and consider how the Australian Government can positively
give effect to recommendations made.
Civil society and NGOs
- Recognise the crucial role NGOs play in the defence and promotion of human rights both in Australia and internationally. Ensure that reform proposals protect the participation of civil
society and NGOs in treaty body procedures and the Commission on Human Rights and do not expose human rights defenders to the risks of retaliation.
Strengthening human rights mechanisms
- Identify and support suitable candidates for election to all international human rights treaty bodies to which Australia is a party.
- Provide tangible support for the efforts of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to build the capacity of the treaty and other human rights mechanisms to enable them to discharge their mandates
effectively. This should include support for an increased contribution from the UN regular budget and a voluntary financial contribution by Australia to the High Commissioner’s Plan of
Action for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.
- Strengthen the workings of thematic mechanisms and special procedures to anticipate and react to human rights situations, both in preventative and reactive manner.
- Work to ensure that the workings of the Commission on Human Rights are strengthened and that debates on human rights in given countries are 'depoliticised' so as to reduce the
negative impact of block voting by for example, promoting the abolition of the no action motions
- At the next opportunity renominate Australia as a member of the Commission on Human Rights and provide adequate staffing to ensure Australia's active and effective participation in the
- Take concrete steps to fully implement the Plan of Action for the UN Decade on Human Rights Education. Ensure that education initiatives address all sectors of the population including
parliamentarians and the judiciary as well as the general public.
Optional Protocol to CEDAW