Recently in New York, the UN General Assembly elected Australia as one of 15 new members of the UN Human Rights Council. Australia will serve on the Council for three years from 2018.
The Council is the engine-room of the UN human rights system. It is comprised of 47 countries, although all UN members can be involved in its activities. Seats on the Council are allocated regionally. This distribution means that the Western Europe and Others group, in which Australia is a member, can be readily out-voted by coalitions of African, Asian, Latin American and Eastern European countries.
An informal Like Minded Group operates within the Council, with members such as China, Russia, Arab and African states. This group tends to be overtly hostile to human rights scrutiny and has worked to undermine protection of human rights defenders.
The criteria for membership of the Council is a hotly debated topic. At the time of the Council’s establishment, the United States argued that countries that had been sanctioned for human rights abuses by the UN Security Council should be excluded from membership. This argument was not successful. Indeed, the election of countries such as Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and, this week, the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Council suggests that little attention is paid to a state’s human right’s credentials.
It is disappointing that in this election all regional groups, except Asia, nominated exactly the number of countries due to be elected - in the process avoiding any comparative assessment of human right records. A commitment to competitive elections would be likely to enhance the quality of members.
The Council oversees and develops human rights standards, investigates the implementation of human rights laws in particular areas and in particular countries, and reviews human rights protection in all UN members. In many respects, the Council has played an important role in protecting human rights at the global level. For example, the Council has adopted new standards on enforced disappearances and on the right to water and sanitation.
However, there is strong strand of resistance within the Council to tackling human rights questions of discrimination against women and on the basis of sexuality. Members of the Like-Minded Group have successfully introduced resolutions endorsing ‘traditional values’ and traditional family structures in an apparent attempt to counter assertions of women’s rights and those of sexual minorities.
The system of the Special Procedures is a notable feature of the Council. These are independent human rights experts who report and advise on human rights issues. There are currently 44 Special Rapporteurs covering a range of themes, from violence against women and the rights of indigenous peoples, to the enjoyment of human rights by older people. There are 15 more Special Rapporteurs focusing on human rights situation in particular countries including Cambodia, Myanmar and Palestine.
Australian lawyer Philip Alston is currently an outstanding Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He has been fearless, for example, in publicising the UN’s responsibility for bringing cholera to Haiti and highly critical of the UN’s legal advisers’ attempts to avoid accountability for this.
The Council has also appointed a special Commissions of Inquiry to investigate serious human rights violations, for example in Syria. While these commissions have often prepared penetrating reports, it has been harder to get the Council to act on them. A recent report on the scale of human rights abuses in Burundi, for example, has failed to prompt any action from the Council.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is perhaps the most intriguing development in international human rights monitoring by the Human Rights Council.
In essence, the UPR requires all 193 member states of the UN to undergo a review of its human rights commitments and practices every four and a half years. This universal scrutiny has provided some pressure on states to improve human rights implementation.
Across the world, civil society groups have been resourceful in using UPR recommendations to bring pressure for human rights protections at the national level. States have also however developed techniques to resist real improvement, such as accepting UPR recommendations only to ignore them in practice.
Australia has emphasised that it will take a ‘principled and pragmatic’ approach to human rights protection as a Council member. It has identified a number of valuable areas of focus including gender equality, freedom of expression and prohibition of the death penalty. Many aspects of the campaign suggest however that Australia sees its role on the Council primarily as monitoring other countries’ human rights performance.
Australia’s election campaign overlooked two serious human rights issues consistently raised by UN human rights institutions: the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees, as well as the situation of Australia’s indigenous population, especially their high rates of imprisonment. There are other serious risks to the protection of human rights in Australia, such as broad secrecy laws and the expansion of Executive powers.
Australia has the capacity to play an important role on the Council by promoting progressive human rights standards, and by insisting on consistent application of those standards, even to its allies.
It will however increase its credibility internationally if it takes the international human rights system more seriously at home.
Banner image: Flickr/UN Geneva