Address to launch of Australia's UNHRC Candidacy 2018-20

  • Speech, check against delivery

Attorney-General George Brandis, my parliamentary colleagues - who are here in force today - the members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, the Human Rights sub-committee - and the Honourable Phillip Ruddock is the chair of both. I acknowledge the President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs and Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, of course Secretary Varghese and Secretary Moraitis, the team from the Attorney-General's Department and of course from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps, ladies and gentlemen.

Today I am delighted to officially launch Australia's inaugural candidacy for the United Nations Human Rights Council for the term 2018-2020.

Australia's candidacy is a measure of our longstanding commitment to promoting and protecting human rights, both in Australia and around the world. It reflects national values deeply embedded in Australia's society.

In the aftermath of World War II, when the world was still reeling from history's most destructive conflict, Australia saw the clear and urgent need to establish a rules-based international order. We played an active role in drawing up the UN Charter, drafting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the establishment of the UN Security Council, the first session of which we chaired in 1948.

In the seven decades since, we have remained at the forefront of international human rights with constructive, practical, yet values-based efforts in a wide range of regional and global fields. As the United Nations has expanded from its original 51 members to 193 member states today, we have consistently championed the principle that all states be treated equally, no matter what their size.

Historically, our efforts, our record in the field of human rights is strong. Indeed I have a particular interest in the rights of women and their role in peace, security and conflict and the empowerment of women, which is at the centre in fact, of our aid program. I was thinking perhaps it is something to do with my upbringing, you see, I'm from South Australia and decades before Federation, South Australia was one of the first places in the world to give, in this instance land-owning women, the right to vote in 1861. In 1895 South Australia extended the franchise to all women voters and women could stand for the colonial Parliament, indeed South Australian women voted for the first time at the 1896 South Australian election.

Human rights, freedom, democracy - these have been part of the very fabric of Australia from its beginnings as a modern nation. That legacy underpins our commitment today, for example, to the total eradication of slavery and human trafficking.

We were one of the first countries, if not the first, to implement wholesale secret ballots for free and fair elections – a system that is at the core of the democratic process. Indeed secret ballots were referred to as the "Australian vote" for many years in parts of the world.

Australia is running for the Human Rights Council because we want to continue to contribute to the common good. We see a seat on the council as bearing significant responsibility – a responsibility to work with partners to address international human rights violations, to stand up for universal values, and to advance Australia's own domestic human rights agenda.

We are looking forward to our upcoming appearance at the Universal Periodic Review in November a unique process of self and peer evaluation.

We do not shy away from difficult issues. We recognise there is an unacceptably large gap between the opportunities afforded to Indigenous Australians compared to other Australians. The Government is committed to closing that gap.

We recognise the profound human rights challenges triggered by the conflict in Syria and Iraq, which are having a significant impact across the Mediterranean and further afield. Australia will continue to play its part in protecting the most vulnerable people caught up in this conflict by providing an extra 12,000 places under our humanitarian program for permanent resettlement.

Our refugee and humanitarian intake through the UNHCR is already one of the most expansive in the world.

We live in a world that currently faces a larger number of simultaneous and protracted security and humanitarian crises than at any time since the United Nations was established.

Now, more than ever, we need an effective international level of cooperation, and the Human Rights Council has a vital role to play.

Indeed, as I indicated during my National Statement at the UN General Assembly in September's Leaders' Week, Australia's campaign for a seat on the Council is built around five pillars. Freedoms of expression and of religion; good governance; gender equality and the empowerment of women; the rights of indigenous peoples; and strong national human rights institutions and capacity building.

In focusing on these areas, Australia will bring to the Council the same principled and pragmatic approach that distinguished our term on the UN Security Council in 2013-14.

Freedom of expressions, including online expression, is a fundamental part of a vibrant democracy. Australia is committed to working with other countries to protect human rights defenders and journalists whose work underpins freedom of expression. Religious freedoms are an important part of an inclusive and open society as extremists seek more than ever before to distort religion for their own violent purposes.

Good governance, the rule of law, and strong institutions are the foundations of a functioning and inclusive society. Australia supports partner governments in our region to strengthen accountability measures, improve public sector financial management, and deliver services to its citizens and this helps individuals to access education and health services, get a job, and participate in their communities.

Achieving gender equality is vital to economic development and to realising the full potential of women and girls. Addressing gender based violence within families or households within the wider community or in conflict situations is essential in achieving gender equality around the world and here in Australia.

Last month, the government announced a $100 million package of measures to provide a safety net for Australian women and children at risk of experiencing violence. We are partners and champions at numerous women's peace, security and conflict initiatives and in those working to prevent sexual violence against women in conflict.

The way society treats its most vulnerable is a key measure of its inherent humanity. We know we need to do everything we can to empower indigenous people both in Australia and overseas to overcome social and economic disadvantage.

The strength, wisdom and insight of Australia's First Peoples is an integral part of Australia's national identity. Our Government is committed to progressing recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. We also want to work with partners in the Human Rights Council to advance the interests of indigenous peoples around the world.

Promoting national human rights institutions and building much needed capacities will form the final element of our campaign. Strong national human rights institutions play a crucial role in promoting, preserving and advancing human rights.

We work in close partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission in strengthening national human rights institutions in a region that stretches from Jordan, to Mongolia, to Tonga.

I am pleased to welcome representatives from civil society and the NGO community here today. At times you see things differently – that's inevitable and natural in a democracy, but we always welcome your expertise and dedication, and we value our relationship. We are always ready to sit down, listen and talk through issues.

Australia will be unrelenting in our efforts to secure the global abolition of the death penalty. A society that inflicts the ultimate punishment on its citizens must consider the message that it sends to its populous.

So as a council member, Australia would bring the values of our nation – an inclusive, diverse and tolerant society, built on migration. We are one of the most successful open, free, liberal democracies in the world, committed to the rule of law and to human rights.

We would bring a commitment to work with partners to reach practical solutions. The prosecution of a strong human rights agenda by the United Nations has never been more urgent.

To our Canberra-based diplomats, to Pedro (Villagra Delgado) leading the team, thank you for being at our launch today. Today, I seek the commitment of your countries to support and vote for Australia's election to the Human Rights Council. I thank the many countries present that have already committed to supporting us. Your support is deeply appreciated. I hope that you will all take home one of the showbags that has some of our more pragmatic campaign materials - with our own stylised green and gold kangaroo logo! There is tea, a mug and there are macadamia nuts. I'm sure there will be more to come in the lead up to 2018.

Australia looks forward to the opportunity of serving on the Human Rights Council for the term 2018-20. We are committed to a better world.

Media enquiries