(Sydney) – The Australian government should make the protection of human rights a central focus of its foreign policy, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the recently reappointed Foreign Minister Marise Payne that was released today.
In a February 2019 speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Payne said, “Democracy, the rule of law, individual freedom and the right to all to dignity and respect – these values have guided Australians for generations. And these are the values which Australia has sought to promote as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.”
“Australia should treat its membership in the UN Human Rights Council as both an opportunity and responsibility to be a leader in defending human rights abroad and at home,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Promoting human rights values includes publicly raising rights issues with foreign leaders, not just making generic statements of concern in Geneva.”
Human Rights Watch urged the foreign minister to strengthen Australia’s voice at the UN Human Rights Council by providing leadership on assessing the human rights situation in specific countries. In particular, Australia should partner with like-minded countries to develop resolutions to address serious violations in countries that have evaded the council’s scrutiny such as China, the Philippines, Bahrain, and Egypt. The 41st session of the Human Rights Council commences today in Geneva.
The Australian government often favors a “quiet diplomacy” approach in raising human rights concerns with other countries. Human Rights Watch urged the foreign minister to ensure that private advocacy is paired with public pressure to ensure that private discussions are not used to shield violators from international scrutiny.
The Australian government should consider enacting a law or regulation similar to the US Global Magnitsky Act, to impose targeted sanctions including travel bans and asset freezes against individuals with records of human rights abuse. The United Kingdom and Canada have passed similar measures. The government should also consider a stronger system for human rights vetting of foreign armed forces receiving Australian training.
“Imposing targeted sanctions against human rights abusers would be a powerful deterrent to countries in the region to consider repercussions from the Australian government,” Pearson said. “Systematic vetting would also help deter foreign security forces from committing human rights violations by imposing concrete consequences for those abuses.”
Human Rights Watch urged the government to support the Safe Schools Declaration, an intergovernmental pledge by countries to protect students, teachers, schools and universities from attack during times of war. So far 91 countries have endorsed the declaration, including Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, but not Australia.
Human Rights Watch said that Australia’s credibility as a human rights leader in the region has been seriously damaged by its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially those who are offshore. Human Rights Watch reiterated its call to dismantle offshore processing once and for all.
Human Rights Watch included a memo with the letter, outlining human rights concerns in several countries in Asia and the Middle East in which sustained pressure and engagement from Australia could make a significant difference in promoting respect for human rights. The countries in Asia are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. The counties in the Middle East are Bahrain, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia including its role in Yemen, and Syria.
The Australian government should consider establishing an advisory group on human rights that meets biannually and provides strategic advice, especially on crisis situations, Human Rights Watch said.
“Australia’s leadership on human rights will be strongest when the government is seen as walking the talk that it gives overseas, and that means also addressing the limitations of its own human rights record,” Pearson said.