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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 10:11 | SYDNEY

A human rights agenda for the Rudd Government

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7 April 2008 10:35

Guest blogger: Hilary Charlesworth (pictured), Professor of International Law and Human Rights at the ANU continues our international law thread kicked off last week by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

During the period of the Howard Government, human rights were given a low priority internationally. One low point was in 2000, when Attorney-General Daryl Williams, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock issued a joint press release slamming the UN human rights treaty bodies.  The cause of this outburst was criticism of Australia’s human rights record by one of these bodies, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Perhaps the nadir was Australia’s vote against the adoption of a protocol to the Convention against Torture in 2002. The protocol aimed to strengthen national institutions working against torture and allowed visits to places of detention by a UN Committee against Torture. To refuse to sign on to such a protocol is one thing;  to actually vote against its text is a much stronger step, and the fact that Australia’s fellow negative voters in this case were China, Cuba, Egypt, Japan, Libya, Nigeria and the Sudan suggests how problematic Australia’s position was.

The Howard Government regarded itself as a model UN member, with a magnificent human rights record, and thought that criticism should be reserved for the seriously bad and ugly. Notable exceptions to the general lack of interest in the international human rights system during the Howard years were Australia’s championing of the International Criminal Court and its support for the development of the new Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

Against the overall lacklustre Australian engagement with the international human rights system over the past decade, it would not be difficult for the new Rudd Government to do better. One important step already flagged is accepting the rejected protocol to the Torture Convention. Another is Australia’s recent endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Howard Government voted against last year.

Other steps that the Government should take soon include accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which allows individuals a right of international complaint if Australian law does not fulfil the terms of the Convention. Australia should also support the drafting process for a similar protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Australia also needs to temper its adversarial relationship with the UN human rights treaty bodies. It has typically ignored the comments of these institutions about human rights problems in Australia and must now rebuild trust and respect.

At a bilateral level, Australia should review the success of its ‘human rights dialogues’ with China and Vietnam. These are delicate, but significant, processes, but there is little concrete evidence of whether they are working productively. The recent Chinese moves against human rights activists suggest that there is a long way to go. There is a risk that the dialogues may become a formal and empty ritual. Australia can be a stronger and more effective advocate of human rights in these bilateral contexts if it itself engages energetically and constructively in the multilateral human rights institutions. 

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