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Issue #1804      November 22, 2017

Criticism as Australia elected to UN council

Australia has been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council for a three-year term.

But that hasn’t stopped the UN Human Rights Committee from slamming Australia for its “chronic non-compliance” to international human rights standards, including the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Vice-chair of the committee Yuval Shany said in Switzerland that Australia had an “unacceptable” approach to implementation of the human rights committee’s decisions and “has very little to be proud of”.

UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz recently accused the Turnbull government of riding roughshod over the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and called on the government to completely revise its approach to Indigenous affairs.

Shany said it’s “unacceptable” for Australia to “routinely reject” the committee’s views, or “self-judge” UN human rights treaties compliance, saying the country can’t “pick and choose” its compliance with human rights law.

“The lack of implementation was ·completely off the charts for the committee”, Shany said.

“It’s incredible for a country that claims to have a leading role in global human rights,” he said.

The Australian delegation responded that the implementation of views would have to be an area where the committee and government “respectfully disagree” as Australia does not see the views of the committee and other treaty bodies as legally binding.

Australian ambassador and permanent representative to the UN in Geneva John Quinn said Australia “was not complacent” and acknowledged there were things the country “could do better”.

He said violence against women and improving the lives of Indigenous people as well as constitutional recognition were particular issues for Australia.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop nominated the empowerment of women globally, Indigenous rights, abolition of the death penalty and crises in North Korea and Syria as the issues Australia would pursue during its tenure.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott’s attack on a 2015 report into children in immigration detention was also raised during the examination of Australia’s human rights record, as was Attorney-General George Brandis’ call for the resignation of then Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs before the report’s publication.


The same-sex marriage plebiscite was also criticised by the committee, with member Sarah Cleveland remarking: “Human rights are not to be determined by opinion poll or a popular vote”.

Other issues raised by the committee included, transgender and intersex rights, domestic violence, the sterilisation of intellectually disabled women and girls, and the balance between anti-terrorism laws and personal liberty.

The UN Human Rights Committee also took aim at the failure to scrap the fines laws that resulted in Yamatji woman Ms Dhu’s death in custody. Ms Dhu died in custody in a South Hedland police cell after being locked up for three days over unpaid fines.

Carol Roe, Ms Dhu’s grandmother, said she was still waiting for truth and justice.

“Australia needs to answer for everything that they have done to my people and especially for how they treated my granddaughter. Australia must be held to account,” she said.

In the past few weeks WA’s fines laws have seen a breastfeeding mother put behind bars, and a heavily pregnant woman at risk of being jailed because she couldn’t afford to pay her fines.

A promise to lead on Indigenous people’s rights was a central pillar to Australia’s successful bid to gain a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

Indigenous Peoples’ Network Australia’s Michael Coughlan, who was in Geneva, said the fines laws are a driver of the high rates at which Aboriginal people are over imprisoned.

“We know these laws are harmful and we know they unfairly trap too many Aboriginal people,” he said.

“They belong in the garbage. Nobody should be subjected to the indignity and dangers of prison simply because they cannot afford to pay a fine.”

Amnesty International called on the Australian government to end its hypocrisy on human rights at home.

Amnesty campaigns manager Michael Hayworth pointed out that Australia locks up Indigenous children 25 times more than other children and that cases of self-harm or abuse of Indigenous children have been reported in children’s prisons in every state and territory.

“If we’re serious about being a human rights leader we need to lead by example, instead of trampling on the rights of people fleeing persecution and the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said.

“Leadership comes with consistency. We can’t say one thing on one hand and give wholehearted commitment to some human rights agendas while carrying out policies of deliberate abuse on the other. It’s completely hypocritical.”

Koori Mail

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