On 23 and 24 March this year Australia will front the 95th session of the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) at New York. Under the reporting mechanisms of the UNHRC, Australia is required to submit a Periodic Report on its compliance with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) every five years.

The Howard governments have left Australia’s once-proud human rights record in tatters. For a former diplomat keen to flex his muscles on the world stage this will be particularly galling for Kevin Rudd – his Ministers and bureaucrats will have to spend a lot of time going over dead ground to redress the legacy of Howard’s international human rights dark ages.

The Howard government’s attitudes to the UN following the 2000 round of hearings were summed up in this assessment by Professor Hilary Charlesworth of the ANU:

In its official response and in subsequent interviews given by the Prime Minister and his key ministers, the government denounced the committee’s findings as a violation of Australia’s sovereignty. The Prime Minister remonstrated that ‘in the end we are not told what to do by anybody’, and added in a separate interview that such matters should be resolved by Australians in Australia without having to ‘dance attendance on the views of committees that are a long way from Australia.’

At the time, the offence taken by the Howard government shocked members of the UNHRC and representatives of other nations and distressed many Australians that had faith in Australia’s long history of support for UN mechanisms.

Following the 2005 round the Howard government changed tack and adopted what Charlesworth characterised as a ‘low-key approach in response to negative views and decisions.’

David Marr, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald described Howard’s approach:

Canberra has learnt one lesson superbly. Instead of raging and complaining about Geneva’s intrusion into Australia’s domestic affairs, it’s much better to shut up. The effort ministers put into denigrating the committee system the last time round only gave the issue more oxygen. After the latest verdict a little more than a fortnight ago, there was no thunder from Howard, Downer or Ruddock. Not even a press release. Silence effectively killed the story.

The current Australian Periodic Report was submitted by the Howard government in June 2006.

Following the receipt of that Periodic Report the UNHRC prepared a List of Issues in response and invites responses. It is then usual that a State will make a Response to the List of Issues prior to attendance at the UNHRC in session – when non-government organisations may also provide information relevant to the issues before the UNHRC.

The current UNHRC List of Issues is dated 24 November 2008, and identifies 24 issues of concern about Australia’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights.

The list of issues raises concerns about Australia’s anti-terror laws:

Please explain how the State party ensures that its anti-terrorism legislation, notably the Anti-Terrorism Act (No. °2) 2005, is compatible with the rights guaranteed by the Covenant, in particular regarding the increased powers provided to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO); the imposition of preventative detention and control orders; and the powers to stop, question and search.

And in relation to our treatment of black Australia, the UNHRC sought further responses in relation to four issues: the disproportionate imprisonment rates of black Australians; how, further to the Rudd apology, Australia proposes to make the native title system more equitable and will follow-up on recommendations by the ATSI Social Justice Commissioner; and the disproportionate number of indigenous children in the juvenile justice system with mental illness and intellectual disabilities.

But it is the fourth indigenous issue that will be the most difficult matter for the government to adequately respond to. That issue concerns the findings of the Wild/Anderson “Little Children are Sacred” report of 2007.

In that regard the UNHRC seeks that Australia:

…comment on the allegation according to which the follow-up measures taken to respond to the findings of this report (Northern Territory Emergency Response) were adopted without adequate consultation with the Indigenous communities and would suspend, in part, the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Australia’s written response to the UNHCR Issues of Concern of 21 January 2009 fails to answer the question as to why the NT Intervention was “adopted without adequate consultation with the Indigenous communities”.

In relation to the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act the Australian response also fails to address the motivation and justification for the suspension of that Act, noting instead that the Government intends, in the spring 2009 sittings of the Australian Parliament, to introduce legislation restoring, or amending other legislation so as to conform with, the Racial Discrimination Act.

As Crikey noted last week, one effect of Howard’s bullying approach to the UN and its various committees has been the stifling of effective representation by non-government organisations, particularly those representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests.

And Howard’s effective silencing of black Australia at the UN continues despite Rudd’s rhetoric about his government’s advances in the recognition of Aboriginal rights.

The closest that black Australia gets to a seat at the table at the UN is the substantial joint submission by the National Association of Community Legal Centres, the Human Rights Law Resource Centre and Kingsford Legal Centre.

Few at home are asking Rudd about what his ‘modern, civilised government’ is doing to address the egregious failings of his and previous Australian governments towards Aboriginal Australia.

But there are plenty at the UN with long memories and a keen disposition to separate Rudd’s weasel words from the reality of his and previous Australian government’s disregard for the fundamental human rights of black Australians.

Peter Fray

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