Australia has reconfirmed its desire for a seat on the UN’s powerful human rights council. However, its international reputation has been battered by a UN human rights official postponing a trip to Australia because, he says, the government refused access to detention centres, and threatened “reprisals”, including jail, against people who spoke to him.
The condemnation comes as a report from rights groups Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) warns Australia must “lift its game” on human rights in order to be a credible global citizen.
The new Turnbull government remains committed to winning a seat on the powerful United Nations human rights council – mandated with “the protection and promotion of all human rights around the globe” – competing with Spain and France for two places on the 47-member council.
The foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, told Guardian Australia this week: “the government is strongly committed to its bid for a seat on the human rights council for 2018-20 – the first time we have sought a seat on the council”.
Bishop said Australia’s track record at the United Nations had shown it was a good global citizen and a powerful advocate for change.
“Our time on the UN security council shows that Australia can make a significant contribution in advancing the rights of women and girls, strengthening governance and democratic institutions, promoting freedom of expression, and advancing the protection of human rights.”
But Australia’s international reputation at the United Nations – whose general assembly is meeting in New York – has taken a hit from a statement from the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau.
Crépeau took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement in Geneva condemning Australia for blocking the UN’s access to detention centres and for its Border Force Act, which threatened jail for people who spoke to him about conditions for migrants.
Crépeau was due to visit Australia from 27 September to 9 October, but his trip has been indefinitely postponed.
The Australian Border Force Act 2015 carries a two-year prison sentence for people who disclose “protected information” about detention centre operations.
The law “would have an impact on my visit as it serves to discourage people from fully disclosing information,” Crépeau said.
“This threat of reprisals with persons who would want to cooperate with me on the occasion of this official visit is unacceptable.”
He said Australia – as the country ultimately legally responsible for the offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru – had refused all access to the centres, which have been the sites of violent riots, child sexual abuse allegations, inadequate medical care, assaults and other human rights breaches, and have been consistently condemned by the United Nations, human rights groups and parliamentary inquiries.
“Since March 2015, I have repeatedly requested that the Australian government facilitate my access to its off-shore processing centres,” Crépeau said.
“I was … extremely disappointed that I was unable to secure the cooperation needed to visit any off-shore centre, given the international human rights and humanitarian law concerns regarding them, plus the Australian Senate inquiries on the off-shore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which raised concerns and recommendations concerning these centres.”
Crépeau’s comments follow a joint report from rights-focused non-government organisations HRW and the HRLC, “Australia at the Human Rights Council: Ready for a Leadership Role?”, that argues Australia’s approach to human rights “too often has been passive and, of greater concern … at times … inconsistent and unprincipled”.
Australia’s authority on human rights issues had been “diminished” by ongoing human rights abuses raised by its asylum policies, HRW’s Australia director, Elaine Pearson, said.
“Australia sets a bad example in the Asia Pacific by exporting cruel refugee policies that violate rights,” Pearson said. “Australia will not be a forceful defender of human rights if its own house is not in order.”
“Australia has overlooked human rights abuses, and supported abusive regimes in Sri Lanka and Cambodia in exchange for cooperation on asylum seeker policies such as boat turn-backs and regional resettlement.
“The stain on its reputation in Australia as it exported its cruel and inhumane refugee policies is something the government must now grapple with.”
But Pearson said a change in government leadership gave Australia the opportunity to be a more principled leader on human rights in the region.
“I think we will see a significant change under a Turnbull government. There is a lot more space for Australia to be a more credible player in the international arena.”
In its bid for a seat on the human rights council, Australia is part of the ‘western Europe and others’ group, and is competing against Spain and France.
Two out of the three countries will be elected in the 2017 ballot. The three-year term runs from 2018 to 2020.
“Australia has a pretty good chance of winning a seat on the council,” Pearson told Guardian Australia.
But the UN’s human rights council is not without critics of its own.
Saudi Arabia, a country which has a poor record on religious freedoms, women’s rights, and has reportedly beheaded more than 100 people this year, has just been elected to the post of chairman of the council’s consultative Group, a group of five ambassadors which appoints 77 key rights envoys around the world.
Chairmanship of the group is a significantly influential position.
“It is scandalous that the UN chose a country that has beheaded more people this year than Isis to be head of a key human rights panel,” executive director of UN Watch, a campaigning NGO, Hillel Neuer said. “Petro-dollars and politics have trumped human rights.”
A spokesman for the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said it was “disappointing and unfortunate” Crépeau had decided to postpone his visit, but that the government stood ready to arrange a future visit.
“The department of immigration worked closely with the office of the special rapporteur to develop a comprehensive program and facilitate engagement across government.
“The program included meetings with key government officials, service providers, other organisations and visits to the detention network.”
The spokesman said access to the detention centres offshore on Papua New Guinea and Nauru was the responsibility of those countries.
He said that a number of organisations, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, the commonwealth ombudsman, the UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organisation of Migration had visited detention centres “without the need to respond in this way”.
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