by Richard EganNews Weekly
National Affairs: Time to rethink UN treaties
, June 3, 2000
Australia is moving to re-evaluate its United Nations treaty arrangements. Richard Egan explains.
On March 30, 2000 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that the Federal Government would undertake a “whole-of-government review of the operation of the United Nations treaty committee system as it affects Australia”. The review was expected to take at least two months.
The announcement closely followed the adverse “Concluding Observations” by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Australia’s latest report on its implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The UN Committee criticised Australia for the 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act; the “loss of confidence by the indigenous community in the process of reconciliation”; the “discriminatory approach to law enforcement” and “sentencing schemes in Western Australia and the Northern Territory [that] appeared to target offences that were committed disproportionately by indigenous Australians”.
It appears that this report was the final straw. Mr Downer stated that since 1996 Australia has been advocating changes to the reporting system with some support from Canada, New Zealand and Norway but without any results to date.
There are six “human rights” treaties that have corresponding monitoring bodies or committees. Signatory nations to each treaty must submit comprehensive reports on their implementation of the treaty at regular intervals — five yearly for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child; four yearly for the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; and every two years for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Many countries do not succeed in meeting this schedule. As of May 22, 2000, as many as 1,252 reports were overdue — some by a decade or more. Nor can the committees keep up with those reports which are submitted, most not being reviewed until at least a year later. Australia’s latest report on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was due in November 1996, but was submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee in August 1998. However, the Committee is not scheduled to consider it until its July meeting in 2000. Australia’s report on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, due June 1994, was submitted in June 1998 but won’t be looked at until April 2001.
Membership of the monitoring bodies consists of individuals supposedly appointed for their expertise and elected by the signatory nations to each treaty. They are not supposed to take direction from their home nation. However, this is unlikely to be the case with dictatorships such as Pakistan, China and Cuba.
Members often demonstrate farcical ignorance of the nation they are considering. For example, while being examined on Australia’s implementation of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Australian delegation was told by one “expert” that “he had seen signs on public places in Australia discouraging visitors from wearing a form of sandal called thongs”.
It was suggested that because thongs were most commonly worn by Aboriginals, such signs were an example of hidden discrimination against Aboriginals.” (Summary Record of 15th meeting, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, June 1993).
This Committee also objected to the level of funding for non-government schools in Australia.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has told Australia that it must legislate to “to prohibit corporal punishment, however light, in private schools and at home” and that “special efforts be made to educate parents about the importance of children’s participation, and of dialogue between parents and children”.
The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Elimination Against Women wants the Federal Government to ensure “women’s equal access to individual ownership of native land” under native title law. They don’t seem to have grasped that native title is communal by nature and cannot be converted to individual ownership.
What should be done about this extraordinary charade which costs thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money (e.g., $11,000 given to one non-government organisation, Defence of Children International, to prepare a hostile, alternative report to the official Australian report and present it to the Committee on the Rights of the Child)?
Perhaps the simplest measure would be for Australia to straightforwardly announce that it has lost faith in the competence and usefulness of the treaty monitoring system and that it declines to submit any further reports until the system is radically reformed.
An alternative mechanism would be for occasional (five yearly?) meetings of all signatory nations, where each could give a summary report on implementation and issues of concern to several nations could be discussed.
More radically, Australia should review its commitment to each of these six treaties — all of which were ratified by the Executive Government without any real consultation of the Australian people and without a vote by the elected parliament.
The treaties deal with many matters that are essentially domestic, social issues, properly dealt with in Australia. Ratification of the treaties has led to their partial incorporation into Australian domestic law without specific legislation by Parliament. It has also increased centralisation by giving the Federal Government veto power over State legislation not granted it by the Constitution.
This works through the “external affairs power” so that just by signing an international agreement on some matter the Federal Government expands its jurisdiction over the States.
Denouncing these treaties would do much to restore Australian sovereignty, Federalism and democracy and reverse the creeping trend of internationalism, centralism and social engineering.