2017 DFAT-NGO Forum on Human Rights

  • Speech, check against delivery

Good morning everybody. I'm delighted to be here this morning, particularly in the company of my very good friend and colleague the Attorney-General Senator George Brandis.

The quest for freedoms, and the protection of human rights is as old as humankind. This day – 9 February – marks the 280th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Paine, a political activist who prominently, and in a very pivotal role, promoted American independence from Great Britain. But of course, he famously wrote the Rights of Man in which he noted and observed that the rights are inherently within humans, within "all inhabitants" were his words, and that these inherent rights must be protected by governments.

The idea that humans have inherent rights because and by virtue of their humanity, in fact defines Australia's approach to the promotion an protection of human rights, both at home and abroad.

The Australian Government remains committed to the United Nations, to its principles and its Charter. We have a very busy year in 2017. Australia is appearing before a number of UN Human Rights treaty bodies, we are hosting several special rapporteurs and this year we are a candidate for election to the UN Human Rights Council, and this is the first occasion that Australia has sought election to the Human Rights Council.

The historical anachronism finds Australia in the 'Western Europe and Others' group. There are two positions, there are three candidates – France, Spain, Australia. I have unapologetically said to all nations whose votes we're seeking, well France and Spain are neighbours, they're in the EU, choose one of those, don't mind which one, but Australia has a different perspective from the Asia Pacific region and that we will be running on a platform, indeed on our track record, on promoting gender equality, a particular passion of mine that has become a significant part of our aid and overseas development budget and policies; on the rights of Indigenous people; on freedom of expression; on good governance and on the commitment to the rule of law.

I'll just mention our focus on freedom of expression. It is deeply troubling that around the world we see some egregious examples of the crushing of dissent and the crushing of opposing political voices, and this is often manifest in the disappearance or indeed the killing of political opponents, journalists, bloggers and activists. And we believe that this should be a focus of our work on the Human Rights Council, should we be elected.

We take a stand against human trafficking and slavery.

We take a stand against the death penalty; in fact advocate the abolition of the death penalty around the world.

We focus on human rights abuses whether it be in Syria, in North Korea or Sudan.

We also take a very active and constructive role in engaging with other countries on human rights issues. We have bilateral human rights dialogues with Vietnam, with Laos, with China. I recently hosted China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi here in Canberra and we spoke openly and frankly about our bilateral Human Rights Dialogue and the focus and the work that we undertake together.

We make recommendations to other countries and we receive recommendations, and we take them seriously. Indeed in Australia's Universal Periodic Review in 2015, we received 27 recommendations on the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and I'm delighted that my friend and colleague the Attorney-General Senator Brandis will respond to that Review and make an announcement today on the Government's position.

So we continue to actively promote and protect human rights at home and abroad.

We're prepared to be subjected to the scrutiny that comes with UN membership but we're also prepared to stand for election to the Human Rights Council so that we can remain deeply engaged in protection and promotion of inherent, inalienable, universal rights.

May I hand over to my colleague, Senator Brandis.

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