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Australia’s commitment to human rights to be examined by international committee

28 Nov 2017

In this last year, events including Indigenous youth being assaulted in detention, the killing of young Elijah Doherty and the treatment of refugees on Manus Island, have highlighted Australian race relations are not as they should be. Having recently been elected unopposed to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Australia has a fundamental obligation to ensure that it acts as a world leader in regards to human rights.

In this last year, events including Indigenous youth being assaulted in detention, the killing of young Elijah Doherty and the treatment of refugees on Manus Island, have highlighted Australian race relations are not as they should be. Having recently been elected unopposed to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Australia has a fundamental obligation to ensure that it acts as a world leader in regards to human rights. The UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights expects Australia will start to lead by example when it comes to human rights – our government must show through actions, and not just words, that human rights really matter and we will uphold our Treaty obligations as we have agreed to. One of those key Treaties is the The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Australia signed the ICERD in 1975 and implemented it nationally through the Race Discrimination Act 1975.

Unfortunately race discrimination, racism and racist violence remain a significant problem today in Australia. While our laws and policies are not overtly or expressly racist, systemic, institutional and structural forms of race discrimination continue to impact Indigenous people and people from the CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) migrant and refugee communities. We can acknowledge the progress made, but we also have to have an honest dialogue about the challenges we face. Too many Aboriginal lives are blighted by lack of realisation of the right to racial equality. For migrants and refugees, the situation is also troubling and the recent treatment of people at Manus Island does not make us proud as a nation.

This week in Geneva, Australia’s compliance with ICERD will be reviewed by a Committee of independent experts who will also hear from the Australian civil society represented by non-government organisations (NGO’s) concerned about the human rights set out in the Treaty. Our delegation has arrived in Geneva to speak to a ‘shadow report’ we have prepared for the Committee and endorsed by 53 community-based organisations in Australia. The report outlines issues that need to be addressed as a priority being inconsistent with our Treaty obligation to ensure non-discrimination on the basis of race, culture and ethnicity.

The Committee will be engaging in important dialogue with the Australian government and also asking questions about issues of concern. As independent experts appointed by their countries they bring a wealth of knowledge to the table and Australia should use this as an opportunity to seek to improve its human rights record. The Committee’s exchange with Australia about human rights record is likely to be informative, robust and critical. By the end of the Committee’s questioning the Australian government should be left in no doubt we must do better when it comes to race relations in our country.

The shadow report outlines as the key areas of concern including racism as a growing problem in Australia, the shortcomings in anti-discrimination law, violence and discrimination against Aboriginal women, deficiencies with native title, the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out of home care, issues facing migrant workers, refugees and Australia’s offshore detention process. The report notes a visit in 2017 by the UN Special rapporteur on Indigenous peoples that ‘found deeply disturbing the numerous reports on the prevalence of racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.’ The impacts of race discrimination and prejudice on migrant and refugees in Australia is also being recognised as pervasive and traumatic for those experiencing it. The report acknowledges the need to combat racism through proactive legal and policy reforms and calls on the Australian government to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and refugee and migrant communities to support, strengthen and develop anti-racism education programs.

The UN Committee will identify progress and make significant recommendations to Australia about issues of concern. Unfortunately our government has not always considered reports of the Treaty bodies with the respect they deserve. However, this attitude reflects a serious error of judgement as the reports are international law and Australia is bound to give effect to our treaty obligations. It’s time we made up our minds on human rights, we are either for or against and our commitment to human rights must be clear and unambiguous.

Unquestionably, it is in our interests to improve our engagement and commitment to human rights, by treating more seriously international human rights law developed by way of the Treaty body committee processes.

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