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  • Writer's pictureRaychel Plath

Australia's Universal Periodic Review: Human "Wrongs"

On 20 January 2021, Australia participated in their third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as part of their obligations as a member state of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). I watched the entire 3+ hours of Australia's UPR so you wouldn't have to.

What is the UPR?

The UPR feels like having to submit a presentation at a tutorial in class. Your presentation typically demonstrates that you've done some of the course work, just enough to claim class 'engagement'. Only to have your classmates offer 'constructive criticism' about what you haven't done right. Here's what Australia as a member of the UNHRC did and didn't get right.

All UN Member States are required to submit to a periodic review. The aim is 'to support all 193 UN Member States in better assessing their human rights needs as they evolve, in a timely and periodic manner.' Member State delegates were allotted 55 seconds to provide commentary and/or recommendations on the state of human rights within Australia.

Australian representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of Health and the Department of Home Affairs were provided with an opportunity to deliver a high-level response to these comments and recommendations. They also responded to any questions which may have been submitted earlier by member States.

So what actually happened at the UPR in January?

Generally, member States supported Australia ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OP-CAT) and committing to the Paris Agreement.

However, some member states also referenced Australia's need to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families' Rights (ICRMW). Additionally, Australia's hesitation in approving The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a communications procedure (OP-CRC-IC) delayed providing more significant protection to people with disabilities.

Specifically, Australia received 344 recommendations in total, including:

  • 29 States recommended Australia change the criminal age of responsibility from 10 years of age to 14 (kind of awkward for the Attorney-General who decided in July 2020 to not raise the age.

  • 39 States provided various recommendations regarding Australia's refugee and asylum seeker policies, including aligning these policies to international standards adopted by the UN; reducing time spent in detention and reviewing offshore detention practices.

51 States recommended the need for greater protection against racism and hate speech for Indigenous and First Nations people, migrants and minority groups.

  • Nine of these States specifically recommended constitutional recognition of Indigenous and First Nations people, to ensure legal protection and political representation.

  • Bahamas recommended, "that cashless debit and income management schemes are non-discriminatory in design and implementation, particularly for Indigenous populations." This was an interesting recommendation, especially in light of the Cashless Debit Card program trial being extended for another two years amidst concerns that said the program is racist.

  • Finally, Haiti recommended a "study, in close consultation with stakeholders the possibility of a universal basic income."

Did anyone throw any shade?

The residing President of the Human Rights Commission Nazhat Shameem Khan gave specific instructions to keep out "...issues of a political, bilateral and territorial nature...". Some member states couldn't resist.

The Russian Federation stated, "we also have to react to the excessive pressure placed by authorities on journalists who are investigating the war crimes committed by Australian military personnel in Afghanistan. "

Ireland called out "the slow progress in addressing the equality gap that persists for Indigenous peoples."

The Republic of Belarus flat-out said, "Australia is dodging its international obligations in the protection of the rights of Aboriginal persons and Labour migrants." Incentivised by the Republic of Belarus's statements, Pakistan stated that "we also share concerns regarding budget cuts and the intimidation of Australia's HRC by public officials." The issue of inadequate funding for the AHRC was also broached by Paraguay and Sri Lanka.

However, China did the biggest mic-drop by advising that Australia has to "stop using false information to make baseless charges against other countries for political purposes."

Most awkward moment

This award definitely goes to the UK delegate. Whom requested that Australia implements "the Closing the Gap strategy while ensuring shared decision making and genuine partnerships with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people."

Why is the UPR important?

The UPR can be a tool for advancing certain rights within member States and holding member States accountable (to an extent) on an international platform. However, even if a member State agrees to a recommendation, this doesn't automatically make the individual human right a legal right within that state.

For example, following Australia's UPR in 2015, Australian delegates responded to recommendations on legalising same-sex marriage in the final report. The UN published the transcript on 22 July 2016 and advised that 'the response was dependent on the Australian public's future decisions through … a plebiscite on legalising same-sex marriage'.

The proposed national plebiscite was rejected by the Australian Senate in November 2016 and again in August 2017, instead of moving to a voluntary postal survey. The legalisation of same-sex marriage did not become Australian law until 9 December 2017.

Australia has committed to reviewing all recommendations and providing a response at the 47th Session of the HRC, scheduled for June/July 2021.

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