Statement to the 61st session of the Commission on Human Rights

by the Hon. John Von Doussa, Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, delivered on 13 April 2005.


Agenda item 18(b) of the 61st Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights 13 April 2005

Overview

On behalf of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (hereafter referred to as the Commission), I welcome the opportunity to make this statement.

The work undertaken by our Commission in the last year reflects many of the human rights issues confronting national institutions and State parties. These include:

(a) the treatment of the mentally ill;[1]

(b) the development of a systemic approach to discrimination against men and women in employment, including on the basis of family responsibilities; [2]

(c) researching appropriate and effective means of providing services and programs to Indigenous peoples; [3]

(d) developing practical human rights education programs for school teachers and students; and

(e) monitoring against human rights norms the legislative schemes put in place to combat terrorism,[4] to process asylum seekers who arrive at our borders without travel documents and to protect women and children against trafficking for exploitation.

The common question raised in these topics is what adjustments need to be made to laws and policies to accommodate the needs and rights of those who are marginalized, vulnerable and subject to discrimination.

Our Commission relies significantly on the internet to disseminate information on its functions and activities. This is proving a major success. Our Commission's website contains comprehensive human rights teaching packages for schools and best practice guidelines for employers and service providers on how to avoid discriminatory practices. In the last year, the number of visits to the Commission's website increased by 20 per cent to nearly 49 million hits.

Human rights education has long been a part of our mandate. We strongly support the forthcoming World Programme for Human Rights Education, and look forward to working with the Australian Government in its local implementation. We consider the Programme has considerable potential to inject practical human rights principles into primary and secondary education curricula, previously criticized for overlooking education in human values.

Mr Chairman, as I mentioned at the last session of the CHR, the Australian Government has proposed in the past legislation that would fetter the use of the statutory powers of the Australian Human Rights Commission to intervene in Court proceedings that raise human rights issues.[5] Our Commission publicly opposed this legislation on the basis that it would challenge our independence in a manner that would not be in accordance with the Paris Principles.[6] A consequence of the calling of the last federal election in Australia is that this legislation lapsed. There is currently no legislation to this effect before Parliament. In the event that legislation is put before Parliament again that repeats this challenge to our intervention power, we would continue to have concerns as to the consequences that it has for our independence. This is a concern widely held by many politicians, community leaders, academics and the NGO community in Australia.

Regional technical assistance programs

Our Commission continues to be a strong supporter of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions and we are keen to share our expertise and knowledge with other national institutions in the region. To this end, our staff have presented workshops on the development of policy and assessment of legislation in a human rights context, on complaints handling and on human rights investigation and inquiry techniques to the staff of national institutions in the region. We are presently working on a program to update members of the judiciary in the Pacific Islands Forum States on steps being considered by the OHCHR and governments in the region to strengthen human rights mechanisms.

The new arrangements for Indigenous Affairs

As the Member States present would be aware, Mr Chairman, there has been considerable criticism of the Australian Government's decision in 2004 to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. That body of elected Indigenous representatives administered services to Indigenous people on behalf of the government. This decision was part of a fundamental policy change by the Government to mainstream the delivery of services to Indigenous communities. The change of policy has been heavily criticised in some quarters and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner has reported to the Australian Parliament on some concerns he has about these changes and action he will be taking to ensure Indigenous people's human rights are not breached.[7] We acknowledge that if implemented successfully, these policies have the potential to work and are adopting the position that time should be allowed for the new policies to be implemented and take effect before judgement is passed on them.

Enhancing participation of National Human Rights Institutions at the United Nations

Mr Chairman, the Australian Human Rights Commission welcomes the report of the Secretary General on the Effective Functioning of Human Rights Mechanisms: National Institutions and Regional Arrangements, and strongly supports its implementation.

We have circulated to the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC), a paper that we have prepared to further discussion on ways that the participation of national institutions may be enhanced. That paper will be discussed as part of the ICC agenda on Thursday afternoon.

The paper proposes a way forward to implement the Secretary-General's report by allowing accredited national institutions to speak on agenda items before CHR other than Item 18b, by granting national institutions their own document series (thereby permitting national institutions to make written rather than oral statements on agenda items), and by strengthening the accreditation process which the ICC applies.

We would welcome these measures being included in the national institution resolution. If that is not to happen, then we would urge that participation be enhanced in this way by a statement by the Chair before the next meeting of the CHR. This would permit some changes to occur in the short term until consensus on the implementation of the Secretary-General's report is achieved.

Mr Chairman, I conclude by again thanking you and the Member States present for the opportunity to address you today.


1. Dr Sev Ozdowski, the Commissioner for Human Rights, in association with the Mental Health Council of Australia, has conducted community consultations on the state of mental health in Australia. A summary of the consultations will be sent to the state and federal governments.
2. Please see: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/sex_discrimination/strikingbalance/index.html
3. The Social Justice Commissioner's observations to the senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs can be viewed at: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/speeches/social_justice/senate_select.html
4. The Commission's submissions are available at: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/legal/submissions/index.html
5. The Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Bill 2003 (Cth).
6. See Conclusions of Roundtable meeting on National Human Rights Institutions and the Administration of Justice held 13-14 November 2003 in Copenhagen (annex I to the Secretary-General's report entitled Effective Functioning of Human Rights Mechanisms: National Institutions and Regional Arrangements E/CN.4/2004/101).
7. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner has outlined the monitoring program in his Social Justice Report 2004, HREOC, 2005: available at http://www.humanrights.gov.au.

Address

Australia