Australia is halfway through its human rights council term and 'failing to address abuses'


As Australia marks the halfway point in its three-year term on the UN's council, there are calls for it to do more to address issues at home and abroad.

Human rights advocates around the world are calling on Australia to take a more active role as it crosses the halfway point of its 2018-2020 term on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Addressing the 41st session of the council in Geneva this week, former Manus Island detainee Abdul Aziz Muhamat said more than 100 people had attempted suicide on Manus Island alone in the past month.

Mr Muhamat, who was granted asylum in Switzerland earlier this month after spending six years on Manus, said the men and women still held in Australia's offshore processing centres are being "completely destroyed - physically and mentally".

Former Manus Island detainee says Australia must be accountable
Former Manus Island detainee says Australia must be accountable

"We don't have time. Not a day, not a week, not a month. People are attempting suicide every hour. This is a humanitarian crisis that requires urgent action," he said.

"Each day, it is getting worse and worse. I fear for the lives of over 800 vulnerable people stuck in limbo on Manus Island and Nauru." 

His speech came just days after global advocacy group Human Rights Watch penned an open letter to Foreign Minister Marise Payne, urging her to "strengthen" Australia's voice in the global human rights arena and shut down its offshore processing centres for good.

"There is no doubt that Australia’s credibility as a human rights leader in the region has been seriously damaged by its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially those who are offshore," it read.

"People awaiting resettlement to third countries, including Australia, should be able to find safety in transit countries, be able to earn a living, see their children go to school, and live free from detention. And offshore processing should be dismantled once and for all."

Foreign Minister Marise Payne was urged to close Australia's offshore processing centres in an open letter from Human Rights Watch.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne was urged to close Australia's offshore processing centres in an open letter from Human Rights Watch.

On Wednesday, Australia renewed security company Paladin's contract to continue work on Manus Island despite calls to axe the $423 million deal.

Speaking to SBS News shortly after he addressed the council, Mr Muhamat said he had been received warmly in Switzerland, but was struggling to move on from his six years on Manus knowing that his friends were still there.

"I have been guaranteed asylum and am a free person, but I still feel like physically I'm free and I'm in Switzerland, but mentally and psychologically and my heart, my entire concentration is still on Manus, and it just makes me feel I need to do more and more and more," he said.

"We have people who are dying under our watch, we have people who are attempting to end their life every hour that we spend or we speak, so what can we do to help these people? Not only listening to their story, but what can we do to help them?"

Human Rights Law Centre legal director Edwina MacDonald, who is in Geneva to monitor Australia's activities on the Council, told SBS News Australia has made some contributions in the first half of its term.

"But I think if you ask the question 'Has Australia made a difference to the human rights violations we’re seeing across the world, have they impacted on the lives of people who are experiencing those human rights abuses', I think the answer to that question has to be no," she said. 

"Iceland joined the council at the same time as Australia, and what we’ve seen is Iceland lead a joint statement last session on Saudi Arabia, and at this session they're leading a draft resolution on the Philippines, and Australia declined to join the core group for that draft resolution, and we haven’t seen any leadership from Australia on statements or draft resolutions on country-specific issues." 

Ms MacDonald also said there was a marked difference in the rhetoric Australian officials were using in Geneva compared to the everyday rhetoric they have been using back home.

"What we want to see from Australia is an improvement in the human rights situation back home," she said.

"We are continuing to see men and women held in inhumane conditions in offshore detention, we are continuing to see incarceration of Aboriginal women in disturbingly high and increasing rates, we’re continuing to see punitive welfare measures and measures that are discriminatory against Aboriginal people." 

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told SBS News that Australia had been an "active and constructive" member of the council for the past 18 months. 

"Australia has made robust statements in response to disturbing human rights situations in a number of countries," the spokesperson said.

"We also focus on abolition of the death penalty, LGBTI rights, freedom of religion or belief, rights of persons with a disability, and civil society engagement. These will continue to be Australia’s priorities for the remainder of our membership term."

Watch: Australia making no impact on human rights.
Watch: Australia making no impact on human rights.

But the Department spokesperson did not answer SBS News's questions about whether it would respond to Human Rights Watch's request to dismantle its offshore processing facilities. 

Beyond this, experts also believe there is more Australia can do to contribute to the council during the second half of its term.

Associate professor Amy Maguire from the University of Newcastle has been developing a project that analyses the influence member states have on the Human Rights Council.

She said Australia had failed to show leadership on "one or more" country situations within the jurisdictions of other council members. 

The United Nations Human Rights Council.
The United Nations Human Rights Council.

"It is somewhat challenging to assess Australia’s achievements, because the pledges made in the bid for council election were mostly vague or else represented commitments to processes that were already underway." 

"My expectation is that Australia is unlikely to take many such leadership opportunities during this term on the council, as this would require a substantial increase in its overall ambition for its first term."

The 41st session is set to conclude on 12 July. Australian representatives will then return to Geneva in September for the next session.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (up to age 25). More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.

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