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Australia takes a seat at the UN Human Rights Council


On 16 October 2017, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly elected 15 new members to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, including, for the first time, Australia. For the next three years (as of 1 January 2018) Australia will work alongside countries like Afghanistan, Angola, Congo and Pakistan to uphold human rights around the world. Australia was expected to contest one of the two vacant seats against Spain and France in the Group of Western European and other States. But in mid-July the French withdrew their candidacy. As such, Australia and Spain were elected unopposed.

Background

The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) was established on 15 March 2006 by UN General Assembly Resolution 251 to replace the Commission on Human Rights. Although Resolution 251 was supported by 170 member states, four opposed (Israel, Marshall Islands, Palau and the US) and three abstained (Belarus, Iran and Venezuela). The US voted against the resolution arguing it ‘did not go far enough to exclude some of the world’s worst human rights abusers from membership in the new body’.

The HRC—as a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly (UNGA)—elevated the issue of human rights within the hierarchy of UN bodies, whereas its predecessor, the Commission of Human Rights, was a functional commission of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

In voting for Resolution 251, Australia joined with Canada and New Zealand (known as CANZ) to support the establishment of the HRC, but warned:

The Council must avoid the shortcomings of the Human Rights Commission. CANZ would have liked the resolution to contain an even stronger threshold for membership. The CANZ delegations pledged that they would not vote onto the Council, countries that were under sanctions of the Security Council for human rights related reasons. To make the Council a success, it was necessary to cultivate a new culture that was inclusive, and in which there was no place for double standards.

The Commission of Human Rights, which was established in 1946, was replaced mainly due to complaints about ‘excessive politicization’ and states seeking membership ‘to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others’—however, it seems these problems still exist. The US recently criticised the HRC for bias towards Israel while ignoring serious issues in Congo and Venezuela (current HRC members). Media reports suggested the US considered withdrawing from the HRC as a consequence.

Membership

Resolution 251 stipulates the HRC membership consist of 47 member states that are elected:

… directly and individually by secret ballot by the majority of the members of the General Assembly; the membership shall be based on equitable geographical distribution, and seats shall be distributed as follows among regional groups:

Group of African States (13)

Group of Asia-Pacific States (13)

Group of Eastern European States (6)

Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (8)

Group of Western European and other States (7)

Australia is in the Western European and other States group.

Council members serve three-year periods and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. HRC members can be suspended if they commit ‘gross and systematic violations of human rights’, which is decided by a UNGA vote of a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. Such was the case with Libya in 2011, which Australia supported.

As of 1 January 2018, the HRC membership will consist of the following member states:

Country

Term expiry

Country

Term expiry

Belgium

2018

Iraq

2019

Burundi

2018

Japan

2019

Côte d’Ivoire

2018

Rwanda

2019

Ecuador

2018

Saudi Arabia

2019

Ethiopia

2018

South Africa

2019

Georgia

2018

Tunisia

2019

Germany

2018

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

2019

Kenya

2018

United States of America

2019

Kyrgyzstan

2018

Afghanistan

2020

Mongolia

2018

Angola

2020

Panama

2018

Australia

2020

Philippines

2018

Chile

2020

Republic of Korea

2018

Democratic Republic of the Congo

2020

Slovenia

2018

Mexico

2020

Switzerland

2018

Nepal

2020

Togo

2018

Nigeria

2020

United Arab Emirates

2018

Pakistan

2020

Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of)

2018

Peru

2020

Brazil

2019

Qatar

2020

China

2019

Senegal

2020

Croatia

2019

Slovakia

2020

Cuba

2019

Spain

2020

Egypt

2019

Ukraine

2020

Hungary

2019

 

 

Australia and the HRC

At the time the HRC was established, Australia supported the organisation, viewing it as an improvement on the previous human rights body. However, within a year, the Australian Government expressed its lack of confidence in the capacity of the HRC to pass a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

In November 2010, Australia lodged its first national report as part of the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. The outcome of Australia’s first UPR was tabled in Parliament with no criticism from the Government of the 145 recommendations. However, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Julie Bishop, expressed ‘concerns about the operation of the United Nations Human Rights Council’ in electing member states such as Libya and Cuba to the Council. Ms Bishop called for the HRC to be reformed, an agenda she continues to pursue within the UN now as Foreign Minister.

Australia’s candidacy

Prior to the 2013 federal election, the then (Labor) Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, announced Australia’s candidacy for a seat on the Human Rights Council (HRC) for the 2018–2020 term—the first time Australia had sought membership of the HRC.

In October 2013, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reiterated Australia’s candidacy for a seat on the HRC in a speech to the UN General Assembly. As part of Australia’s candidacy bid, the Government made a number of pledges, one of which was to ‘pursue a referendum to recognise’ Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution.

In February 2016, the Government announced that the former Howard Government minister Philip Ruddock would be Australia’s inaugural Special Envoy for Human Rights, whose role, amongst other things, was to ‘promote Australia’s candidacy for membership of the Human Rights Council’. Whether Mr Ruddock will now become Australia’s human rights representative in Geneva is unknown at this time.

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