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Human writes

On the ground at Australia’s Universal Periodic Review

UN Geneva

The second Universal Periodic Review of Australia took place under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council on November 9. Such reviews, which entail wide ranging scrutiny of a state’s human rights record, take place ever 4.5 years for each UN member state.

This is Australia’s second UPR, with the first having taken place in 2011. I was pleased to be on the ground to witness proceedings.

The process

The UPR process entails the following. The state under review (in this case, Australia) produces a 20-page national report on its own human rights record.

Two other official reports are compiled by the UN. One is a summary of the state’s interactions with UN human rights processes. In Australia’s case, this includes a number of individual cases where UN treaty bodies have found instances of breaches of international human rights law. The third report is a compilation of information from other stakeholders, namely civil society and national human rights institutions – such as the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Other information is also available, such as individual submissions from NGOs and UN agencies.

Australia was represented at its UPR by a number of senior public servants, mainly from the following departments: Attorney-General’s, DFAT, PMO and Immigration. Two politicians accompanied the delegation, both from the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Joint Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee - its chair and deputy chair (Phillip Ruddock and ALP Senator Anne McEwen).*

Australia’s delegation had 70 minutes to present its report, and respond to questions and recommendations from other states. Any other state was able to intervene with comments and recommendations, so long as it advised the Human Rights Council in advance. The available time is then split between them.

More than 100 states intervened on Australia – indeed it was the fifth-largest number of interventions for any country in this second round of UPR. As so many countries wished to speak, the time allocated to each was short – 65 seconds!

It is amazing how much can be said in 65 seconds (though the chair was rather forgiving - Egypt spoke for nearly 80 seconds). In that time, most states managed to convey, briefly, some elements of praise for Australia. The proposal for a referendum on Indigenous recognition and the advent of the NDIS were particularly popular.

Many states congratulated Australia on the progress it had made since its last UPR. This was more a function of UN diplomatic nicety rather than reality – UPR generally involves a respectful and polite dialogue. This commentator firmly believes Australia’s human rights record has gone backwards since 2011.

Furthermore, while Australia accepted the vast majority of the recommendations from the 2011 UPR, the AHRC has reported that only 10% have been fully implemented. Only Russia pointed this out, during what was perhaps the most hostile intervention in terms of tone. Other states, such as Denmark and the Maldives, commented on specific 2011 recommendations that had been accepted but not fulfilled.

The issues

In the lead-up to UPR, representatives from Australian civil society organisations travelled to Geneva and briefed a number of country delegations. These engagements were crucial in ensuring the wide range of topics that arose, and probably in provoking the interest that led to so many interventions.

Most of the 65 seconds were taken up with issues of concern and recommendations for human rights improvement. The dominant issue, which came up in about two-thirds of the interventions and about half of the recommendations, was Australia’s asylum seeker policy. While the delegation defended Australia’s policies, citing the familiar tropes of stopping drownings and combating people smuggling, there was no sign that the international community bought those arguments.

Many recommended an end to turnbacks, offshore processing and mandatory detention (particularly for children). Some were concerned over possible refoulement in the swift rejection of asylum claims and returns to countries such as Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Others were also concerned about the lack of transparency – a particular feature of Operation Sovereign Borders.

The concern over asylum policies was reflected by countries from all UN regions, including staunch allies such as the UK and the US, neighbours like Indonesia and Fiji, frontline states that host millions of refugees such as Turkey and Kenya, and source countries like Afghanistan. Bangladesh called Australia “a poor benchmark” on the issue. Brazil explicitly noted “the deterioration” in asylum seeker rights since 2011.

Other dominant issues concerned the rights of Indigenous people (closing the gap, disproportionate representation in criminal justice), people with a disability (discrimination, forced sterilisation, indefinite detention for some charged with a crime), women (stopping family violence, achieving equality), and children (particularly in the area of juvenile justice).

Another common recommendation was for Australia to ratify the human rights treaties to which it is not yet a party, especially the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which would authorise independent international oversight of places of detention. This was a recommendation that had in fact been accepted from 2011, but is not yet fulfilled.

Other issues which arose multiple times, from handfuls rather than dozens of countries, included calls for Australia to combat Islamophobia, to address human trafficking and modern forms of slavery, to enact comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, to adopt national human rights legislation, to increase aid, to adopt a national action plan on business and human rights, to protect elder rights, and to enact marriage equality legislation.

Surprisingly, Australia’s counter-terrorism laws attracted little comment. France recommended proper procedures before citizenship is removed; India recommended reviews of surveillance powers (Brazil alluded to such laws in wanting more privacy protection); and Pakistan added a general recommendation to ensure that counter-terrorism laws do not breach human rights.


Australia is a part of the international community. It has voluntarily submitted to international human rights obligations, and the UPR process applies equally to all states. Australia has a policy of itself intervening in every state’s UPR.

In reporting on UPR, and the Human Rights Council generally, the media has often fixated on the identity of some of the intervening states. After all, it may seem quite bizarre that Pakistan is offering advice to Australia on its counter-terrorism laws and human rights. Such critiques often fail to mention the many recommendations which come from states with comparatively good human rights credentials.

Certainly, some of the recommendations came from states with far worse human rights records than Australia. But does that matter if the recommendations or matters of concern are true? For example, North Korea expressed concern over acts of violence against refugees and asylum seekers. While it may have the worst human rights record in the world, North Korea’s intervention related to a very serious matter which deserves national and international scrutiny.

Human rights are not a contest; they are minimum standards of required respect for human beings. Australia must take all of the recommendations seriously, regardless of the source of those recommendations.

The recommendations will be officially released on November 12. Australia will have until March to decide whether to accept or reject them.

Australia will likely reject many of the recommendations regarding asylum seekers, given the bipartisan support for most current policies. However, in doing so, Australia will be testing the international community’s patience, and perhaps entrenching pariah status on the issue.

In other areas, Australia can be expected to be more amenable to accepting recommendations. The key then will be for government and civil society, as well as the international community, to ensure proper follow-up and implementation. Hopefully Australia will take its commitments to this second round of UPR more seriously than the first, which is likely given it is running for a seat on the Human Rights Council from 2018.

  • This article was amended 11 hours after posting, to reflect the correct parliamentary Committee to which Mr Ruddock and Senator McEwen are attached. Typos were also fixed. I have also now linked an article which demonstrates the media’s fixation with rogue nations in the UN (apologies, it may be paywalled).

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