Australia gets a rigorous human rights review in Geneva

By Marius Smith and Sarah Joseph

We were lucky enough to be on hand in Geneva overnight to witness Australia’s appearance at the UN Human Rights Council as part of the Universal Periodic Review.

More than 100 nations reviewed Australia’s human rights record and made approximately 300 recommendations on how Australia can strengthen human rights protection. Asylum seekers, Indigenous issues, women and children’s rights, disability and discrimination were prominent issues.

It was gratifying to see so many nations keen to focus on Australia’s human rights record, and we hope that the list of recommendations will form a road map for the government to address important issues that desperately need attention and reform. Below is our initial media release . Keep an eye on our blog for more reaction in coming days.

You can also check out early media stories quoting us in Fairfax, The Guardian and the ABC.

UN GenevaMedia Release: The world sees much room for improvement of Australia’s human right record

The international community has flagged many of Australia’s most pressing human rights issues before the UN Human Rights Council today.

Australia’s Universal Periodic Review was dominated by concern over Australia’s asylum seeker policies, including at least 60 recommendations to end or alleviate asylum seeker boat turn backs, mandatory detention, and offshore processing. The possibility that Australia returns asylum seekers to persecution also drew attention.

“Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has drawn the attention of nations from every region of the world. Today, it was manifestly clear that we are not role models on issues of asylum. We are pariahs”, said Castan Centre Director, Professor Sarah Joseph.

“The Australian delegation justified the policy on the same lines as the government: stopping drownings at sea, combating people smuggling, and prioritizing UNHCR refugees. However, there was little indication that the international community bought these excuses.”

While Australia’s efforts to improve Indigenous peoples’ rights were praised by a number of countries (especially the proposal for a constitutional referendum to recognize Indigenous peoples), there were extensive concerns on a range of issues, including the gap with non-Indigenous peoples in health, education, housing and employment.

“While meaningful Constitutional recognition is an important issue for Australia, the world recognizes that we are closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians far too slowly.”

Violence against women and children featured prominently, as did the gender pay gap between men and women. “It was satisfying to see that the efforts of so many activists in Australia to raise issues of violence and discrimination against women have been noticed not just at home, but right around the world.”

Disability issues such as involuntary sterilization, violence against persons with a disability and indefinite detention were also raised regularly. On the other hand, the NDIS was much praised. “We were pleased to see such a strong recognition of disability issues. Australia has a long way to go to end discrimination and violence against people with a disability, and to ensure that their wishes are respected.”

Other notable issues raised were racial and religious discrimination (particularly Islamophobia), children’s rights, marriage equality, and the need for a federal Human Rights Act.

Over 40 countries recommended that Australia ratify various international treaties and implement the recommendations of certain bodies. “Consecutive Australian Governments have claimed that we are an outstanding international citizen, but today showed that that clearly is not the case”, said Professor Joseph. “In recent decades we have failed to fully participate with the international human rights system. If Australia is to lead on human rights, that will need to change.”

“During today’s session, many countries praised elements of Australia’s record, but the 110 countries that spoke highlighted just how far we have to go to fully protect human rights” said Prof. Joseph.

Sarah Joseph and Marius Smith have travelled to Geneva thanks to the SACS Consulting Group’s Leadership Awards and the Monash Law Faculty. 

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