Response to Dr Alison Broinowski oration

"Adolescent or geriatric? The future of the United Nations?"

Delivered by Dr Sev Ozdowski, OAM, Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the Sydney Peace Foundation and AIIA, Sydney University, 19 May 2005


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, the Eora People, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

It is my pleasure to be asked to provide short commentary on the address and propose a vote of thanks to Dr Alison Broinowski.

My congratulations to Alison for her elegant and thought provoking address. I would have expected no less from my esteemed colleague. It should also be noted at the outset that in most respects any discussion between Alison and I on this subject would be characterised by furious agreement. Nevertheless I do believe that in the area of "emphasis", we may exhibit some subtle, but important differences of opinion. Perhaps I am more optimistic when it comes to the future of UN and see America"s and Australia"s critiquing roles in a more benign light. But more on that later.

Sydney Peace Prize

Before commenting on Alison"s speech, I would like to acknowledge the United Nations Under Secretary-General for the Protection of Children in Armed Conflict Mr Olara Otunnu from Uganda who is the winner of this year"s Sydney Peace Prize. Mr Otunnu has been hailed for his commitment to human rights and efforts to protect children in times of war.

Children in Immigration Detention Inquiry (CIDI)

My congratulations to the Sydney Peace Foundation. The award winner is a good choice and the award is timely in the context of our discussion tonight about the future of the UN.

This year"s winner has also touched my heart because of his work for children - work with which I am quite familiar. As you would know this month is the first anniversary of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention ("A last resort?") being tabled in Federal parliament.

Last week I called on the Federal government to urgently review Australia"s system of mandatory immigration detention, in response to these revelations of wrongful detention and deportation of Australian citizens and also in response to ongoing concerns over the mental health of detainees.

The recent revelations concerning the mistreatment of adult Australians reinforce the findings that were made one year ago in the Commission"s report on children in immigration detention.

The report detailed numerous and repeated breaches of the human rights of children in our immigration detention centres.

The report found that Australia "s mandatory detention system breaches human rights because it fails to ensure that detention is the last resort and for a short period only, and fails to make the best interests of the child a primary consideration. It has also drawn attention to the connection between prolonged detention and mental health issues.

The Inquiry found that DIMIA"s failure to implement repeated recommendations by mental health professionals to remove certain children from detention with their parents was cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of those children in detention.

There are still 69 children behind razor wire (including in Nauru). Some of those children were in detention when the report was tabled a year ago.

It is undisputed that the detention environment is either the cause of mental health issues for long term detainees and/or exacerbates existing conditions - the recent Federal Court decisions for the two Baxter detainees reinforce this assertion.

CIDI findings: backward looking?

When responding to"A last resort?" one year ago, the government rejected the major findings and recommendations, dismissing them as "backward looking'.

The facts revealed so far in the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez cases suggest that our findings were far from backward looking - rather they were tragically prophetic. When there is no provision for an independent individual assessment of each and every person, and no requirement for judicial oversight, the risk of serious mistakes becomes unacceptably high.

The mandatory detention laws and the oversight regime that causes so much difficulty are still in place. We all need to continue our work to ensure that the recommendations of "A last resort?" are implemented.

Turning now to the UN and Alison"s address. And it is here that "emphasis" becomes a point of minor departure from Alison"s views of the future of the UN, and mine.

As I mentioned earlier, I am more optimistic and believe that change is needed, especially in the way UN deals with human rights issues. In my response I will therefore focus on three issues only:

  • The reform of the UN Human Rights Commission which I know best out of many UN agencies, because I have dealt directly with it over many years.;
  • The role of US in the UN reform;
  • The contribution to UN reform by Australia.

But first let us acknowledge the UN"s Record

It is only fair, if I"m going to support change, that I first itemize some of the UN"s undoubted achievements. To list but a few without trying to be exhaustive:

  • The UN"s unique contribution out of the ashes of WWII to international community and peace; as a child in Communist Poland I vividly remember the contributions made to our well-being by UNRA in the post WWII years; and the opportunities to learn about the world provided by UNESCO;
  • Codyfying, enhancing and publicising fundamental human rights. My current research project in high schools of Australia suggests that the UN"s role in protection of human rights is well known among high school students;
  • Enlarging of the concept of a "civil society" and
  • Continuing efforts to further advance the universality of human rights. And I am delighted to have opportunity to work on a new UN Convention protecting rights of people with disabilities.

From my personal point of view, without the UN we would not have universal human rights standards. We would not have the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We would not have had my Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. And possibly we would not have HREOC. Australia"s work in East Timor was undoubtedly made easier for being pursuant to a UN mandate and our policing work in Cyprus, over many, many years the same.

So let us acknowledge the UN"s role in the past as an important secular standard setter and advancer of democratic institutions.

So what has changed in recent times? What is it about the operation of the United Nations Human Rights Commission that has attracted such trenchant criticism from the United States, and in a slightly less aggressive tone, from Australia? Why is it that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has recently flagged the need for reforms?

Kofi Annan"s 7 April 2005 speech to the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) on the need for reform

In this speech Kofi Annan criticised UNHRC for the "politicization of its sessions and the selectivity of its work" to the extent that "the Commission"s declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole, and where piecemeal reforms will not be enough". He then went on to suggest that a new "Human Rights Council" should be more accountable and representative with members elected by a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly and that they should have a solid record of commitment to the highest human rights standards.

This move by Kofi Annan addresses one of the key complaints of the US and Australia against the way the UNHRC currently operates; namely that members of that body, with very poor domestic human rights" records use membership of the UNHRC to avoid criticism of their domestic human rights" abuses. The Secretary General then went on to suggest other reforms of the UNHRC which are beyond the scope of this piece. But this brings me back to one of my small points of departure from Alison"s talk tonight; namely to what extent have the US and Australia been motivated by a genuine desire for reform of the UN in their previous utterances or are they merely respectively pursuing national self interest? Do their own records on human rights issues make them well qualified to stand in judgement?

The role of the US in UN reform

It is certainly true that domestically the United States presents as a strong civil society. It has a significant body of human rights legislation, institutions and culture - specifically a solid tradition of functioning democracy, a robust Bill of Rights and affirmative action laws, a vibrant civil society and transparency of operation of the Executive arm of government.

In its international persona its record is more complex. As a long established superpower - currently occupying that pinnacle alone - it variously pursues unilateral, bi-lateral and multilateral policies depending upon the circumstances, the degree of self interest involved and the magnitude of the stakes. The choice is often pragmatic and/or opportunistic. Notwithstanding this, a dispassionate analysis would acknowledge that the US nevertheless has an impressive record in international human rights: a very significant role in the establishment of the United Nations, substantial financial and in-kind contributions to a wide variety of bona fide pro-democracy movements - Solidarity springs to mind - and a lively involvement and interest, in the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

But equally it is undeniable that at times there will be a conflict between America"s superpower status, with all the associated trappings of unilateral economic and political considerations and the purity of its motives when it comes to international human rights advocacy and calls for democratic regime change. Recent history shows that there have been occasions when America has used the banner of democracy to also advance its unilateral interests. Consequently - as with all other countries - care needs to be taken when dealing with America"s stated goals in the realm of international human rights agendas. A case by case approach is advisable.

The US calls for reform of the UN, and the solutions it offers must therefore be considered in light of the comments above.

The contribution by Australia to UN reform

Australia has a demonstrated capacity to punch above its weight in its involvement with international affairs, and the UN and human rights is no exception. Its domestic credentials in this regard are solid without being spectacular: a human rights culture, embodied by the "fair go" ethos has given rise to a well rounded and vigilant civil society anchored by an appropriate menu of anti-discrimination laws. However this positive picture is somewhat marred by the absence of domestic laws protecting civil and political rights in contradistinction to other mainstream industrial countries.

On the international stage, Australia"s status made it heavily reliant on multilateral arrangements which in the past induced it to prioritise "good international citizen" behaviour as evidenced by its support for the UN. Recently however, there has been a shift in emphasis towards bilateralism, of which Australia"s trade agreement with the US is the most obvious example, but other alliances are also important: Japan, Britain and of course China. However the UN still provides Australia with a clearing house for multilateralism with regard to the rest of the Asia-Pacific region and other countries.

In fact from a regional perspective, while Australia is supportive of democratic evolution and the strengthening of human rights mechanisms, this manifests itself more in the form of technical assistance; rather than proselytising amongst our northern neighbours on the virtues of human rights and the need to strengthen their record in this respect. Even when the Solomon Islands was experiencing wide-scale human rights abuses, as it began its slow but steady descent into the chaos of a failed nation-state, Australia waited until it had the backing of other Pacific nation states such as Fiji and Papua New Guinea (to name but two) before engaging constructively with the crisis. It must be recognised however that the ensuing "Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands (RAMSI)" has done an excellent job in curtailing human rights" abuses and re-establishing a working democracy.

US and Australian concerns about the operation of the UNHRC

Leading on from this necessarily brief analysis of the US and Australia"s stance regarding human rights, I believe it is fair to say that both countries have strong human rights traditions and interests. In fact, very few other countries can match their achievements in the field of human rights. When it came to their engaging with other countries in the UN on this issue, it was a source of frustration that many of these countries had no human rights tradition, and limited interest in it as a concept except as a slogan and/or political device.

This inevitably caused irritation and friction, especially on the UNHRC when countries with appalling records of domestic human rights abuse would criticise other countries with good records. Australia especially found such behaviour, when directed against itself, particularly galling. Also, when countries with a bad human rights record criticize the human rights record of democracies like the US or Australia, it generates an inevitable criticism of the entire role and function of the United Nations.

However I believe Australia, in criticising the current system, is genuinely interested in reform, with the aim of making the UN system work more effectively. I believe this for two principle reasons. Firstly, I think the government and the majority of Australians believe that states function more effectively when they do so within a bona fide democratic framework.

This is not only important from those countries own HR perspective, but it provides the possibility of dramatic improvement in living standards. As the May 9 2005, World Bank press release on global progress on "governance" 1996 to 2004 explains:

  • "Good governance standards can deliver significant improvements in living standards for people in developing countries.....";
  • "A key finding is that a realistic (one standard deviation) improvement in, for example, the Rule of Law (or in other dimensions of governance, such as Voice or Accountability, or in Control of Corruption) in a country can be expected to result, on average, in about a 300% increase in per capita incomes in the longer term.....";
  • "The research finds that improved standards of living are in fact the result of improved governance - and not the other way around.....";

Secondly, in international terms Australia is a very small player and our economic lifeblood is almost totally regulated by the extent to which our trading partners adhere to the letter and "spirit" of a whole raft of international trade agreements. Therefore we can"t afford to "cherry pick" between those treaties we want observed and those we would rather ignore. Treaties implying obligations towards UN inspired human rights" standards, using this criterion, become just as important for our long-term future as those which help secure our economic and trading interests, emanating from the WTO. Therefore we would want to see the UN bodies that help set those standards acting in a manner that is beyond reproach, so that countries feel obliged to heed their call.


In conclusion therefore I agree with Secretary General Kofi Annan that the UNHRC needs urgent reform and that we should reserve judgement on the likely efficacy of his proposals to give them a chance to work.

I believe that Australia"s criticisms have been motivated by a real desire to see the UN system function better, because it is in Australia"s long term interests for that to be the case; coincidentally Australia also believes that outcome will also be of benefit to the rest of the world.

In America"s case I"m prepared to suspend judgement on the motives behind her support for Kofi Annan"s reform agenda, but at the very least, whatever the motive, American support is very important if the reforms are going to be given a chance to develop and flourish.

Reflecting finally on where this leaves Alison and I on the UN"s future; it means we both believe it is a very important body that must be given the chance to demonstrate that it can function efficiently in helping the world develop peacefully. Our difference of emphasis lies only in what it means when countries like America and Australia constructively criticize in order to improve UN performance.