(Sydney) – Australia should “lift its game” on human rights at home and abroad to strengthen its bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Law Centre said in a report released today. The government has announced its candidacy for the Human Rights Council for the 2018-2020 term.

The 36-page report, “Australia at the Human Rights Council: Ready for a Leadership Role?” examines Australia’s readiness to operate effectively as a Human Rights Council member if elected. The government should demonstrate more leadership on global human rights issues, respond more constructively to concerns about its own human rights performance, and engage more closely with nongovernmental organizations, the two groups said.

“For Australia to be seen as a human rights leader on the world’s premiere human rights body, it should improve its rights record at home and its promotion of rights abroad,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Global leadership on human rights means Australia can’t sit back and let other countries do the heavy lifting on countries in crisis.”

Australia sets a bad example in the Asia-Pacific by exporting cruel refugee policies that violate rights. Australia will not be a forceful defender of human rights if its own house is not in order.

Elaine Pearson

Australia director at Human Rights Watch

New Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should seize this opportunity to fix Australia's approach to human rights at the UN, which until now has been uneven and at times inconsistent, the groups said. Last year, Australia used its seat on the UN Security Council to successfully leverage strong action on Syria and North Korea. But although it actively supported some of the Human Rights Council’s work at the Security Council, Australia has not shown similar decisive leadership on human rights issues at the Human Rights Council itself. Australia’s observer status as a non-member of the council may contribute to the limited role it has played, but other observer countries have played a more active role in responding to countries in crisis, the organizations said.

“Australia has adopted an inconsistent and at times even unprincipled approach to human rights abuses in neighboring countries for its own domestic political advantage,” said Emily Howie, director of advocacy and research at the Human Rights Law Centre. “The obvious example is the way it has turned a blind-eye to human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in order to obtain cooperation from Sri Lankan authorities to prevent people in need of protection from reaching Australia by boat.”

In March 2014, Australia opposed a significant resolution at the Human Rights Council to establish an inquiry into allegations of some of the most serious human rights abuses in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years, including the deaths of up to 40,000 civilians in the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Australia has also glossed over grave human rights violations in Burma and Cambodia, undercutting the work of the council’s independent experts.

Australia’s distinguishing advantage is its potential to act as a bridge-builder to Asia-Pacific nations, the organizations said. Its candidacy provides an opportunity to influence regional players to promote respect for human rights and legal standards at the council. However, Australia’s record on refugee protection in the region has been to denigrate international standards, rather than uphold them.

“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.”

Council members are expected to “fully cooperate with the council,” but Australia has at times shown disregard for the UN system. For instance, in March 2015 in response to a UN expert’s report that Australia’s asylum seeker policies violated human rights law, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that “Australians were sick of being lectured to by the UN.” As a possible future member of the council, the Australian government should show greater respect and support for UN human rights mechanisms, including when they raise Australia’s human rights problems.

One area in which Australia has demonstrated leadership at the council is in the annual resolution on national human rights institutions. However that initiative was undermined by the government’s attacks on the independence and integrity of the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2015.

The Human Rights Council is the UN’s preeminent human rights body, responsible for tackling the most serious human rights crises and for strengthening promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. A total of 47 countries sit on the council, selected from five regional groups. Australia, Spain, and France will all campaign for a spot on the council for the Western European and Others group, but only two spots are open for the 2018-2020 term for members of that group.

“There are glaring inconsistencies between what Australia says in Geneva and the contempt shown for the UN by some politicians,” Howie said. “To show that it’s ready take a seat on the council, the Australian government needs to immediately lift its game and act to strengthen the UN’s human rights work.”