Australia nearly a shoo-in for UN Human Rights Council seat as France drops out of race

EXCLUSIVE: SBS World News understands Australia is now all but certain to take one of two free seats on the Human Rights Council, as France's withdrawal leaves the places open for Spain and Australia.

Australia’s two-year-long campaign for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council may end with a no-contest victory thanks to French diplomats pulling out of the race, SBS World News understands.

Australia, Spain and France were competing for two vacant seats on the Council, with the winners to be decided by a vote of all United Nations member countries in October.

But now, SBS World News has learned France will postpone its bid until 2021.

The two vacant seats are reserved for countries in the Western European and Others Group, of which Australia is a member.

“Unless there is a late candidate, Australia will effectively be elected later this year,” said Professor Donald Rothwell, an expert in international law at the Australian National University, who was informed of the development by SBS World News.

Australia and Spain will still need to win the majority-approval of the UN General Assembly at the elections in October, but Professor Rothwell points out the UN will have little choice but to approve the bids unless another applicant materialises.

The Turnbull Government has been pushing hard for a place on the HRC, with former Liberal minister Philip Ruddock flying around the world as the country's Special Envoy on Human Rights in a bid to shore up votes.

In May, the ABC reported Mr Ruddock’s campaigning in 23 countries had cost taxpayers more than $200,000.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s office would not comment on reports of France's withdrawal but told SBS World News that Australia's bid would continue.

"The Australian Government is continuing its positive campaign for a seat on the Human Rights Council," the minister's statement read.

"We will continue to campaign to ensure the South Pacific region is represented, for the first time, on the Council and we are looking forward to making a positive contribution."

Australia has made a series of “pledges” to the United Nations as part of its HRC bid. It promised to hold a referendum to recognise Indigenous people in the Constitution, campaign to end violence against women and girls, and advocate for the protection of journalists and freedom of speech, among other issues.

Elaine Pearson, the head of Human Rights Watch in Australia, said it was a shame the process would be stripped of its competitiveness.

“Australia, France and Spain all signed up to a joint statement reinstating the importance of a competitive nature of these elections, and that's why it's particularly surprising and disappointing that France would withdraw from this race,” Ms Pearson said.

“A competitive process puts more pressure on the candidates to win a seat, so this means there is more scrutiny of the human rights records of the individual candidates.”

Australia still needs to address its own human rights abuses: advocates

Human rights groups have long criticised Australia for failing to address human rights concerns at home, particularly on Indigenous affairs and the treatment of asylum seekers.

Amnesty International Australia’s Michael Hayworth said it was important for Australia to still follow through on its commitments.

“This makes it even more critical that Australia demonstrate leadership on human rights,” Mr Hayworth said.

“We need a national plan of action to address the incredibly high rates of Indigenous youth incarceration. We need to stop the offshore detention of people who've come here seeking our safety.”

“We need to urgently act not just because of this human rights council bid but also because those human rights abuses are causing irreparable harm to families and communities.”

The HRC has been criticised in the past for allowing the membership of countries with poor human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Egypt.

“I don't think any country who sits on the Human Rights Council right now has a perfect human rights record,” Ms Pearson said, accusing Saudi Arabia of deliberately undermining the work of the Council.

Professor Rothwell said the human rights records of applicants was “not actually critical” in practical terms.

4 min read
Published 12 July 2017 at 5:41pm
By Marija Zivic, James Elton-Pym, Daniela Ritorto