Call to Advance Human Rights

As Australia’s first Special Envoy for Human Rights, I congratulate the African Union (AU) on designating 2016 the Africa Year of Human Rights. Australia shares Africa’s goal of protecting and advancing human rights. This is grounded in our common values and interests: democracy and freedom; the right to live free from the pernicious threat of terrorism and violence; and the primacy of family and community.

Africa is undoubtedly a continent on the rise. It is home to many of the world’s fastest growing economies and has a highly favourable demographic profile. Australian investment in Africa is thriving. Total trade with African countries has been growing steadily, and currently stands at around 8.5 billion dollars per annum. The AU’s efforts to enshrine good governance and respect for fundamental rights, the preconditions for fair and tolerant societies where all can prosper, are facilitating Africa’s economic transformation.

I am proud of Australia’s contribution to Africa’s human rights progress. Australia drove international condemnation of the insidious policy of apartheid. We led the sporting boycott and enforced financial sanctions that squeezed the apartheid regime of capital. I was privileged to be a Commonwealth observer to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Witnessing Nelson Mandela entering the Athlone Stadium in Cape Town to the sheer adulation of the massive crowd is forever etched in my memory.

I am passionate about Australia’s ability to advance human rights on a global scale. That is why I am visiting Africa to advocate Australia’s candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). This is the first time Australia has sought a seat on the Council, though we have a longstanding commitment to promoting and protecting human rights. Australia played an active role in drawing up the United Nations Charter, drafting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and establishing the UN Security Council, the first session of which we chaired.

Australia will bring to the Human Rights Council the same active, outcomes‑focused approach we demonstrated during our recent term on the UN Security Council. On the Security Council, Australia brought about ground-breaking initiatives on the humanitarian crisis in Syria and strengthened international cooperation to counter terrorism. Australia led the debate on curbing the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, a trade that fuels conflict throughout the world. We also supported the principle that all states be treated equally, no matter their size.

On the Human Rights Council, Australia will champion freedom of expression, good governance, the rights of indigenous peoples and strong national human rights institutions. Like the AU, we will focus our efforts on the empowerment of women and girls. We understand the world cannot be transformed unless the place of women within it is transformed. That is why half Australia’s global aid programme is invested in activities that have either a principal or significant objective of promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls.

Australia sees a seat on the Human Rights Council as bringing with it significant responsibility – a responsibility to work with partners to enhance the protection and promotion of human rights, including in Australia. We do not shy away from difficult issues, at home or abroad. We recognise there is an unacceptably large gap between the opportunities afforded to indigenous Australians compared to other Australians. It is a gap we are committed to closing.

We live in a world that faces many simultaneous and protracted security and humanitarian crises. Australia brings a unique perspective to those challenges. Our values are informed by our inclusive, tolerant society built on migration. And as an Asia Pacific nation, we understand not only the challenges faced by small and developing states, but also the contribution they can make to the UN system. Now, more than ever, we need effective, pragmatic cooperation by all states. In that task, the Human Rights Council has a vital role to play.

Forty years ago I became a member of the Australian Parliament’s Amnesty International group – the first such grouping anywhere in the world. Today, my commitment to the global advancement of human rights is undimmed. Together, Australia and Africa can advance the cause of human rights: universal values that are in every nation’s interest and ultimately to the benefit of us all.

Philip Ruddock is a Member of Parliament (MP) and Australia’s Special Envoy for Human Rights. Formerly, he was Immigration Minister and Attorney-General.

Published on Apr 19,2016 [ Vol 16 ,No 833]



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