Australia's Engagement in Improving Global Human Rights
Australian Government and NGO Forum on Human Rights, Parliament House
Speech. Check against delivery, E&OE
22 June 2011
The Australian Government deeply values our relationship with National Human Rights Institutions and the non-government sector.
Your work is driven by your passion, made effective by your advocacy and underscored by your commitment.
You help to hold to account governments of all political systems and persuasions around the world – including our own.
And we expect nothing less.
Today, as we gather to discuss human rights, the international community is much more engaged in the protection and promotion of human rights than perhaps any other period since the end of the Second World War.
There have been some major advances, including in the way we deal with these issues institutionally.
In 1990, 82 Member States were a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in 2011 there are 167 state parties – more than double.
In 1990, 87 Member States were a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in 2011 there are 160 state parties.
In 1990, there were fewer than 10 National Human Rights Institutions and now there are close to 70.
In 2006, a defunct Human Rights Commission was dismantled and replaced by the Human Rights Council. This was a positive step forward.
The Human Rights Council is increasingly showing itself to be capable of robust action, including on a variety of institutional, country-specific and thematic human rights concerns.
Over past months, the Council has acted on Libya, Syria, Iran, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Cambodia and Burma.
We continue to work with like-minded countries to improve the effectiveness of the Council, including our goal of increasing the participation of NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions.
A fundamental mechanism of the Council, of course, is the Universal Periodic Review.
Since this mechanism was established it has become a strong peer-review process backed up with capacity building.
By the end of this year, the Universal Periodic Review will have reviewed the human rights records of all 192 United Nations Member States.
The international community’s response to the Arab spring this year, illustrates the progress that we have made.
By invoking the Principle of the Responsibility to Protect and mandating a no-fly zone, the international community averted the “butchering of Benghazi”, stopping the Qaddafi regime from descending on a city of some 700,000 people.
We are also working with the US and the European Commission to lead the humanitarian response providing vital food, medical aid and basic services to the victims of the conflict.
Australia also worked through the United Nations Security Council and with Human Rights Council members and regional organisations towards ensuring Libya was removed from the Council.
In the case of Syria, we worked over recent months with likeminded countries and others to ensure Syria withdrew its candidacy for the Human Rights Council. And Australia has worked towards ensuring that a Special Rapporteur on human rights be established in Iran. On gender issues, the establishment of UN Women last year, headed by my friend and colleague Michelle Bachelet - the former President of Chile - has been a landmark development in consolidating and mainstreaming gender equality and women’s empowerment issues across the UN system.
A development Australia is proud to support both politically and financially.
Last week a resolution submitted by South Africa and co-sponsored by Australia successfully authorised a study by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights into discriminatory laws and practices, and acts of violence, against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
This is the first time in the history of the United Nations that a resolution has been passed affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex peoples.
On the death penalty, the underlying global trend is strongly towards abolition, with 31 countries having abolished the penalty in law or in practice over the last 10 years. Last year, Gabon abolished capital punishment, becoming the 139th country to either abolish or cease to use the death penalty in practice.
And in a little over four years, 149 states have signed onto the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
No, human rights are not yet enjoyed universally.
Not all countries yet treat them as inalienable and indivisible.
Egregious violations continue in some places.
But yes, we have come an exceptionally long way in a very short period of time.
Australia’s human rights tradition has been a tradition of activism, of ambition and of advocacy.
Rather than sit on the sidelines and criticise, discredit.
Rather than lament or wring our hands in despair, Australia chooses to be pro-active, constructive, and engaged.
Since 2008, Australia has signed up to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and acceded to the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Last year, Australia made representations to all countries – without exception - which continue to carry out the death penalty or which continue to have it on their statute books.
Australia has pulled its weight in contribution to global peace and security efforts around the world.
Since 1947, Australia has contributed more than 65,000 personnel to more than 50 United Nations and other multilateral operations.
We have over 3,000 Australians on duty today, working where they are needed in places such as Sudan, Solomon Islands, East Timor, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
This operational commitment is underpinned by our leadership in the international debate which seeks to ensure that core human rights principles – such as Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the protection of civilians in armed conflict – are given full prominence in the development and conduct of international peacekeeping missions.
Australia is a founding supporter of UN Women and a strong advocate of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.
As part of this year’s Budget, the Government will invest almost $100 million over four years for initiatives to eliminate violence against women and support women affected by violence in developing countries.
Last November I signed the Australia-US Partnership on Ending Violence Against Women with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Both nations are jointly funding regional activities in support of this Agreement.
A dialogue on violence against women in the Pacific will be held in Australia in November, co-hosted by the US Department of State.
Australia signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities the day it opened, and joined up to its Optional Protocol in August 2009.
In 2009, our current Senior Australian of the Year, Professor Ron McCallum, was appointed the Convention’s inaugural Rapporteur and in October 2009 was elected Chair of the Committee.
I take this opportunity to congratulate Professor McCallum on his recent re-election as Committee Chair.
Australia's Development for All: Towards a disability-inclusive Australian aid program 2009-14 strategy ensures persons with disabilities are included in, and benefit equally from, development assistance.
As just one example, Australia is working in partnership with the Paralympics Committee in Fiji in getting 1,000 children with disabilities to play sport every afternoon.
Over 25 years in the making, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a remarkable recent achievement led by Indigenous Peoples.
Only four member states voted against the Declaration when it was adopted in 2007 Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
I can only imagine how hurtful that must have been for Australia’s First Peoples and for the Indigenous peoples of some of our closest allies.
In 2009, this Government announced our support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
New Zealand, Canada and the US subsequently joined us.
Australia supports the good work that the United Nations is doing through its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, including through our successful nomination of a leading scholar on Indigenous legal rights and international law, Megan Davis to the Permanent Forum.
At the bilateral level, the Government employs many tools from our human rights policy toolkit.
Australia’s regular Human Rights Dialogues with China, Vietnam and Laos are an example of the tools we use for frank dialogue with foreign governments.
Our delegations can sometimes include members of Parliament (including from the Opposition) and the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The Government consults NGOs in relation to the dialogues and seeks their involvement in parallel meetings where possible.
Australia’s Human Rights Dialogues with China and Vietnam both have associated Human Rights Technical Cooperation Programs delivered by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
We greatly value the Commission’s commitment to strengthening this aspect of our human rights work globally.
We should also acknowledge that where persuasion and dialogue does not yield results, in some cases, sanctions are necessary.
In the case of Libya, Fiji, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Somalia, the Former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo and, soon, Syria, we are implementing relevant UN Security Council resolutions and autonomous sanctions to send a clear message that human rights violations and abuses are just not on.
A seat on the United Nations Security Council – for which we are a candidate for 2013-14 – will provide Australia with even greater leverage to influence the global debate on human rights – not just in terms of the sanctions regime but much more broadly to promote the core values and principles to which we are so strongly committed as a nation.
Australia puts our money where our mouth is: we do what we say.
Through our aid program, we are making a difference to human rights in developing countries – on the ground, every day.
Our focus on governance means Australia’s aid program creates conditions that support the enjoyment of civil and political rights, particularly government effectiveness, accountability and transparency.
The aid program actively promotes human rights through its policies, programs and country strategies and we fund a number of significant human rights initiatives.
This year Australia granted $6.5 million to grassroots human rights initiatives all around the world through our Human Rights Fund.
One of these grants supported a program in Mali to help end female genital mutilation in the district of Kayes.
The project works in 40 villages to provide education on women’s rights and health issues.
And it has trained five local doctors and 20 healthcare service providers to identify and treat genital mutilation complications.
It’s a small but significant step in strengthening women’s rights and Mali’s health system.
Australia will provide up to $50 million over five years for human rights and anti-corruption activities in Indonesia under the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Justice.
The Partnership for Justice began in February this year.
It will make it easier for marginalised groups to access the court system and support civil society and human rights commissions to push for law and justice sector reform.
This year, Australia also contributed around $80 million in law and justice development assistance to the Pacific.
Through this, Australia is assisting Papua New Guinea combat family and sexual violence.
Three new Family and Sexual Violence Units have been set-up and have already responded to over 1000 victims.
Australia has also helped establish a Human Rights Desk in the PNG Solicitor General’s Office and develop a human rights training course for village court officers.
This work has helped increase the number of female magistrates in the Village Courts system, from 40 in 2007 to 500 by the end of 2010.
Australia has contributed $3.5 million to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission since 2006 and expects to contribute a further $1 million later this year.
In extremely difficult conditions, the Afghan Human Rights Commission has made some impressive achievements.
In the last four months, for example:
Around 170 000 people accessed information on human rights through pamphlets and other publications of the Human Rights Commission
More than 2 300 people, including 754 women, were educated on issues such as: democracy; the rule of law; the rights of women, children and people with a disability; and the relationship between Islam and human rights
Each month, an average of 52,600 people visit the Human Rights Commission website.
Australia is also the largest donor to the Asia Pacific Forum on National Human Rights Institutions contributing approximately 30 per cent of the Asia Pacific Forum’s core funding Today I also wish to announce that Australia is providing over $1 million to the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Asia Pacific Forum to further strengthen national human rights institutions across the Commonwealth and Asia-Pacific.
This builds on increased funding to the Australian Human Rights Commission over recent months for support to the newly established ASEAN Inter-Governmental Human Rights Commission.
In at least 89 countries around the world, enjoying the right to freedom of expression, thought, religion and belief comes with dangerous consequences. Prisoners of conscience are locked-up in at least 48 countries.
Around 69 million children do not attend primary school.
It is still the case that many girls will remain illiterate for life.
Around 30 per cent of all women in the world will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, with these rates skyrocketing in conflict zones.
The fight to achieve universal abolition of the death penalty is by no means over.
Last year, six countries carried out executions after not having done so for years.
The history of human rights is a history of the evolution of standards-setting into accepted principles of international law.
Our collective notions of what constitutes the inherent values which humankind should strive to uphold is the subject of constant debate, discussion and, hopefully forward progress.
So over the next few years Australia will be playing its part in the big picture debates which will contribute to the evolution and creation of new human rights norms.
We need to work to ensure that the protection of civilians is understood, guaranteed and respected.
We need to ensure that there is no backtracking from the high water mark on R2P achieved through the international community’s action on Libya.
We must continue to work towards ensuring the positive trend of countries signing onto the key human rights conventions continues.
The Government will work with businesses, including multinational corporations, so that they factor in human rights issues in the planning and implementation of their activities.
The international community needs to consult businesses, along with civil society, properly and fully on this forward agenda.
We continue to work on a Declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Cross-regional divisions remain and the task at hand is not an easy one.
Australia is also working on issues of sexual and reproductive rights.
Again, this is not an easy human rights topic for some but we continue to push the envelope of change.
We will be fully engaged in the debate over new international machinery specifically to increase protections for older persons.
And on how to enhance the participation of our future – children and youth – in international human rights mechanisms.
In December last year, a street vendor by the name of Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight to protest his ill treatment by officials in Tunisia.
His desperate act sparked a series of revolutions that continue to rock the Arab world.
The Arab Spring proves once more that human rights are universal values and aspirations.
That it is the right for all humanity to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their race, religion, class or sex.
These are not just Western constructs.
They are what all members of the human family deserve.
That thousands have demonstrated across the Middle East and North Africa for democratic expression, that hundreds have died in the pursuit of this expression, should strengthen our resolve to push forward on the challenges we face and build on the goodwill that the international community has shown in the promotion and protection of human rights.
Sometimes it takes an individual to provoke collective action.
But often only through collective will, do things get done.
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