In mid-October, Australia was elected for the first time to the UN Human Rights Council. Australia, of course, is no stranger to working in the UN, having previously served on the Security Council five times. As a middle power, Australia has long worked to uphold international law and the international rules-based order. Australia’s stated goals for its term on the Council reflect its longstanding policies and values of equity and fairness. According to Freedom House, these policies and values make Australia one of the freest countries in the world. Pragmatically, this reputation also serves to wash away Australia’s dual sins of offshore processing of asylum seekers and continuing rise in aboriginal disadvantage.
Australia’s goals on the UNHRC
Australia’s campaign for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council began like any other, with a laundry list of promises and arguments in favor of their candidature.
Australia’s five-pillar campaign promised to:
- Advance the rights of women and girls
- Promote good governance and stronger democratic institutions everywhere
- Promote and protect freedom of expression
- Advance the human rights of indigenous peoples around the globe, and
- Promote strong national human rights institutions and capacity-building
The specific undertakings also included a continued campaign against capital punishment, as well as steadfast opposition to the use of torture. In addition, Australia undertook to “promote and enhance regional cooperation to combat trafficking in persons and slavery.” The country has a longstanding commitment to anti-slavery well beyond the confines of government policymakers. Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, a wealthy Australian mining magnate, established the Walk Free Foundation, which publishes the Global Slavery Index (GSI) that ranked Australia 52nd out of 167 countries in 2016 in its estimated percentage of the population in modern slavery (tied with 15 other Western countries).
Australia’s Human Rights Bona Fides
Australia was an early innovator and adopter of international human rights. In 1945, the country’s minister for external affairs, Herbert “Doc” Evatt, led an assertive delegation to the United Nations’ founding in San Francisco. Evatt and the Australian delegation insisted the Great Powers give voice to lesser powers. Later, in 1948, Evatt was elected as president of the General Assembly, where he helped draft and oversee the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Australia has also long championed domestic human rights reforms; in 1967, as part of its efforts to repair the ravages of internal colonialism, the country asked voters to participate in a referendum to amend the Australian constitution. With roughly 90% agreement, voters approved constitutional changes to count aboriginal Australians in the census and allow the federal government to make laws on behalf of indigenous Australians.
Indigenous Australians won another landmark human rights case when the legal principle of terra nullius was overturned by Australia’s High Court. The concept of terra nullius fictionally asserted that when British colonists found Australia uninhabited when they arrived and therefore claimed that indigenous peoples did not hold land title. The net effect of this was to alienate the indigenous people from their land. In 1992, the High Court overturned terra nullius and allowed for the creation of native title through the Native Title Act of 1993.
Australia’s Achilles Heels
In recent years, Australia has received a few black marks against its human rights record, the most severe of which concern its policy towards asylum seekers. While Australia has a solid track record of welcoming refugees, its generally open attitude has been challenged by its reaction to those arriving by boat. Water-borne asylum seekers are generally from the Middle East and South Asia and mostly depart from Indonesia for Australia’s Christmas Island. In an effort to disincentivize these asylum seekers, Australia has twice resorted to using offshore processing, whereby asylum seekers arriving in the country by sea are not processed on mainland Australia, but rather in camps located in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Between 2001 and 2007, the Liberal-National coalition Howard government used this so-called “Pacific Solution” to halt water-borne asylum seekers and the smugglers who helped them. In 2008, the Labor Rudd government briefly ended offshore processing, though the number of water-borne asylum seekers numbers rapidly grew. Then, in 2012, the Julia Gillard-led Labor government restarted offshore processing.
Currently, the majority of asylum seekers languish in Papua New Guinea and Nauru with little prospect of finding asylum in Australia. The Obama administration negotiated with the Australian government to take in many of those waiting in Papua New Guinea and Nauru near the end of his term. President Trump recently complained publicly about the agreement, but has agreed nonetheless to abide by its original terms. Today, offshore processing persists though the number of water-borne asylum seekers has essentially stopped (although air-borne asylum seekers continue to arrive on mainland Australia).
Australia’s offshore processing policy has received criticism both domestically and internationally. In 2017, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights wrote that it was “… alarmed by the punitive approach taken by the State party in recent years towards asylum seekers arriving by boat without a valid visa.”
Internationally, the plight of Australia’s indigenous peoples might be less well known. Indigenous Australians suffer disproportionally from many preventable diseases, such as type II diabetes, that result in a shorter life expectancy than non-indigenous Australians. Starting in 2006, the Australian government, working with state governments and NGOs, began work on Closing the Gap. The objective of Closing the Gap is to reduce the gap between the health and life outcomes of indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians. In the intervening years, few of the program’s goals have been met. UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, described progress as "woefully inadequate," but not for lack of funding. This inadequacy is more likely due to the combined complexity of the problems and appropriateness of the policy interventions.
Thus, Australia’s election to the Human Rights Council continues the country’s 70 plus years of deep involvement with the United Nations. Throughout its long career in the UN, Australia has worked hard to support the international order. In many ways, Australia’s engagement with human rights should come as no surprise given the country’s opposition to capital punishment, torture and slavery and its support for women’s empowerment. Of course, Australia is not immune to criticism. Its policies on handling water-borne asylum seekers have been contentious both at home and abroad. Moreover, the persistent and deeply troubling inability to effectively address aboriginal disadvantages stands out as a policy failure. Despite its inconsistent record, Australia will likely remain a keenly engaged participant on the human rights stage, and in doing so, Australia may very well see its own human rights efforts bend back on domestic Australian politics as well.
Professor Alan Tidwell is director of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. Prior to joining Georgetown University, he was a program officer with the United States Institute of Peace, where he specialized in conflict resolution and capacity building in Southeast Asia. His most recent edited book is entitled Land, Indigenous Peoples and Conflict, published by Routledge.