Why the government fears the UN

April 5, 2000


Why the government fears the UN

The Australian government has been rattled by criticism from United Nations human rights committees. On March 24, the UN's Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued a report severely criticising mandatory sentencing, despite immigration minister Philip Ruddock and an unusually large number of bureaucrats having been dispatched to Geneva to lobby the committee.

Ruddock's rabid and misleading statements about Aborigines controlling land equivalent to the area of France and Spain would not have helped the government's case.

Gay McDougall, who monitors race relations in Australia on behalf of CERD, told ABC Radio's AM program on March 25, "The committee expressed a number of serious concerns about the situation in Australia with the Native Title Act as amended, mandatory sentencing, with the situation of reconciliation, the great disparities in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights between the indigenous populations and non-indigenous".

McDougall said that CERD believed that the Australian government should "take a good look" at overturning mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory and Western Australia because it has the responsibility for ensuring state and territory laws are consistent with UN human rights and anti-racism conventions.

The latest UN criticism of the government's abuse of indigenous people's rights coincided with the release of an AC Nielsen poll on March 28 that showed 53% opposition to the NT's mandatory sentencing laws. The poll found that 65% opposed mandatory sentencing for juveniles.

An earlier furore erupted when the contents of the UN Human Rights Commission's (UNHRC) report on mandatory sentencing were revealed in the press on March 17. It concluded that mandatory sentencing is "a violation of the right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial court".

Even more infuriating for Canberra was the fact that the Fairfax newspapers unearthed a copy of the original draft report produced by the UNHRC which included a much stronger condemnation of mandatory sentencing. These criticisms were watered down in the final report after ferocious lobbying by Australian diplomats. The original report concluded that Australia's mandatory sentencing laws breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as other conventions on racial discrimination and the independence of the judiciary.

Canberra attacks

Confronted with these critical reports, the Australian government has echoed the refrains of far-right groups such as One Nation and other nutty conspiracy mongers.

Foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer and attorney-general Daryl Williams responded to the UN criticism by attacking the UN human rights committees. Downer announced on March 30 that Australia would pull out of UN committees and review international treaties it has signed. He criticised the former Labor government for signing too many treaties.

The March 31 Sydney Morning Herald reported Downer as saying that the government was "appalled at the blatantly political and partisan approach" of CERD. "[UN human rights committees] are based on an uncritical acceptance of the claims of domestic political lobbies and take little account of the considered reports submitted by the government", Downer whined.

The government began its campaign of non-cooperation by cancelling a delegation, just 24 hours before it was due to leave, to a UN conference on biological diversity and indigenous issues on March 27. The government may have feared that it would be criticised for its heritage legislation, currently before the Senate, which will significantly undermine the protection of indigenous people's sacred sites.

Not just history

The government does not want to accept the UN criticism for the same reason that it refuses to apologise to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for the racist policies of previous governments. It argues that past racist policies have nothing to do with current government policy and that racist injustices do not occur any longer.

UN criticism of the Australian government's present laws as racially discriminatory brings this argument unstuck. UN committees have pointed out that racist policies towards indigenous people in Australia are not confined to history books but continue today.

Criticism of current Australian governments' racist policies have not been confined to mandatory sentencing and the Wik legislation: governments' failure to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, inaction on the concerns of the stolen generations, and Canberra's gutting of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) have also been rebuked.

And it is not just in relation to indigenous rights that the Australian government has been criticised by UN human rights committees.

In 1997:

  • the UNHRC found that Australia's policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers breached its obligations under international law;

  • CERD expressed concern when the government cut HREOC's budget by 43% and changed its structure;

  • the UN committee on the rights of the child (UNICEF) recommended law reform to benefit children and expressed concern about "the unjustified, disproportionately high percentage of Aboriginal children in the juvenile justice system" and the detention of child asylum seekers;

  • the UNHRC stated that Australia had breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by arbitrarily detaining a Cambodian asylum seeker for more than four years while pursuing his asylum claim; and

  • the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women stated its concern at "policy changes that apparently slowed or reversed" Australia's progress in gender equality and expressed alarm at cuts in federal funding for health services and legal aid.

In 1998, a World Heritage Committee fact-finding group found that the Jabiluka uranium mine posed "severe ascertained and potential dangers to the cultural and natural values of Kakadu National Park". Despite this report, lobbying by the Australian government succeeded in preventing the World Heritage Committee from adding Kakadu National Park to the "World heritage in danger" list.

A report issued by the International Labour Organisation on March 30 called on the Australian government to amend the Workplace Relations Act and the Trade Practices Act to remove provisions that prevent collective bargaining and outlaw sympathy strikes.

Reactionary role

The federal government plays a reactionary role in UN discussions on human rights and environmental protection by attempting to water down agreements. In discussions on the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 1998, the government advocated changing the reference to self-determination for indigenous people in the first article of the draft to "self-management".

On March 21, Ruddock called for the UN Convention on Refugees criteria for refugee status to be made even narrower. In trade negotiations over a framework agreement with the European Union in 1997, Canberra refused to agree to a binding clause on respect for "basic human rights as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

The heat on the Australian government over its human rights record is likely to intensify. Three UN committees are planning visits to Australia this year to investigate its human rights record: the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will investigate abuses in migrant detention centres; the UNHRC will investigate mandatory detention; and the Committee Against Torture, will investigate at least two complaints it has received against Australia.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has asked the UNHRC to allow time to also discuss Australia at the World Conference on Racism, scheduled for September. Next year, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will consider Australia.

Since the government has explicitly rejected modifying Australian laws to ensure compliance with UN conventions on human rights, it is likely to come in for more criticism.

Because the federal government does not want to see strong indigenous rights and anti-racist movements develop, ministers are trying to undermine the moral authority of the UN committees.

Prime Minister John Howard, Downer and Williams are seeking public support in the government's dispute with the UN committees by appealing to racism and nationalism. Downer has accused UN committees of being like a "dictatorship" that interferes in the internal affairs of sovereign countries.

Downer claims that UN human rights committees are made up of unaccountable people, but HREOC president Alice Tay has pointed out that the Australian government supported the election of each member of CERD. The members of most UN human rights committees are elected.


The federal government is not unhappy with all UN committees. It picks and chooses which UN committees it listens to. When the president of the International Narcotics Control Board wrote to Howard in December to oppose the establishment of drug injecting rooms, Howard seized on the recommendation gleefully.

The federal government is prepared to use its powers to overturn state legislation if it breaches international trade agreements, but not human rights agreements. For instance, it has announced that it will legislate to overturn the Tasmanian government's ban on imported salmon, at the behest of the World Trade Organisation.

The Australian government, along with the governments of other rich countries, has an advantage that poor Third World countries do not have when they front UN human rights committees. Australia's relative economic and political power give it more opportunity to influence the outcomes.

The government is being hypocritical when it complains of UN committees' interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries. After all, UN human rights committees only have the power to make non-binding recommendations. Even the UN General Assembly - in which almost every national government in the world is represented - does not have the power to make binding decisions.

There is only one UN body which has the power to do that and which can, and does, interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign countries - the imperialist-dominated UN Security Council. The Australian government does not criticise the Security Council when it regularly overrides the sovereignty of countries like Iraq and Libya because it almost always supports the council's decisions.

The UN was formed in 1945 when the horror of the Holocaust was still fresh in the minds of the populations of the founding countries. It was not possible to establish this body without acknowledging the popular desire for an international human rights code that transcended state borders. This popular pressure was conceded to when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948.

The UN is quite different to when it was first formed. With many former colonies having won independence, the number of member states has increased from the original 51 to 188.

In the early years of the UN, the governments of the richest countries, in particular the US, were able to control General Assembly decisions. However, the influx of impoverished countries that had fought bitter struggles for independence changed the composition of the General Assembly. From the early 1970s, the US and the rich countries no longer held sway in the General Assembly.

The US and other imperialist powers have been able to get around this problem because the UN was not set up on a democratic basis. Only the 15-member Security Council has the power to enforce its decisions by imposing economic sanctions, arms embargoes and military action. Five permanent members - the US, Britain, France, Russia and China - each have the right to veto decisions.

The General Assembly, in which all member countries have an equal vote, only has the ability to make recommendations to the Security Council. Because UN human rights committees are elected by and accountable to the General Assembly, they too only have the right to make recommendations.

With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the UN's founding documents, the UN General Assembly has attempted to codify human rights in treaties, and to establish committees to promote the observance of those treaties. CERD, which oversees the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was the first committee created by the UN to monitor compliance of a specific human rights charter. It was established in 1969.

Popular pressure in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to the General Assembly allowing non-government organisations and individuals to lodge complaints directly if their countries had signed the First Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Today, the Australian government faces the same problem as other imperialist governments with these contradictions caused by the UN's historic development. As capitalist governments around the world implement severe economic austerity policies which necessitate the restriction of civil liberties and the erosion of human rights, imperialist governments cannot avoid coming under the UN human rights committees' spotlight.


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