In December 2011, the Australian Government released its exposure draft for the development of a new National Human Rights Action Plan (the Action Plan). In releasing the exposure draft, the Government claimed the development of a human rights action plan:
“,,, will demonstrate Australia’s on-going commitment to our international human rights obligations. It will allow us to systematically consider our strengths and address our shortcomings in human rights observance. In doing so, it will improve both the promotion and protection of human rights in Australia.”
The Australian Government is seeking submissions into the content of the exposure draft to ensure the final Action Plan is an effective instrument in identifying and addressing gaps in Australia’s human rights protection. The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), believes it is vital that we take the opportunity to have input into this submission process in the hope that we get a plan that is closer to the Government’s rhetoric.
Unfortunately (but understandably) there is a degree of reluctance from many in the community sector to participate in the consultation process given the history of Australia’s past human rights action plans. Whilst being the first country to develop an action plan (the 1993 National Action Plan)our record in this area has been patchy at best
The 1993 plan failed to include a process for review and evaluation, and did not account for the on-going involvement of non-government agencies. After little government action for more than a decade, the Howard Government released another action plan in 2004.This one was limited in several respects: it failed to provide specific targets and a timeline for implementation; it did not commit new resources to the promotion of human rights; it failed to respond to a number of human rights concerns; and it did not reflect a commitment by the Federal Government to uphold and promote Australia’s international human rights obligations.
We can also remember the 2009 NationalHuman Rights Consultation process (the Brennan Committee) in which more than 35,000 submission were made and more than 6000 people participated in community roundtables. Despite overwhelming community support and strong recommendations from Brennan Committee Report, the Australian Government has failed to implement a federal Human Rights Act.
Given the shortcomings of these past adventures, why should wecommit time and resources to the new action plan?
There are some encouraging signs that rhetoric will be turned into action this time around. For starters, the Government has followed through with its commitment to engage the NGO sector at each stage of the development process (most recently through the National Human Rights Baseline Study). And although far from perfect, this action plan provides a few essential components that the other two lacked.
The United Nations Handbook on National Human Rights Plans of Action lists effective monitoring and review as one of the essential features of an effective action plan. While the review mechanisms discussed in the exposure draft need further work, the fact that there is a commitment to these mechanisms is encouraging.
Problem areas remain, however, especially in areas such as homelessness, access to justice, prisons and detention, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and children and young people.The exposure draft also tends to promote positive human rights initiatives in particular states without referencing the lack of similar programs in other states and territories. Also still absent is a commitment to implement a federal Human Rights Act (despite proposing the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 as a positive mechanism for protecting human rights!).
The apparent commitment of the Government to follow through with its undertakings, and the exposure draft’s current limitations, means it is essential for advocates to be involved in the consultation process. We must work with the Government to ensure that we get a plan that matches the Government’s rhetoric to improve Australia’s human rights protection.
We in the NGO and community sectors have been given a voice into the development of the Action Plan. Let us not remain silent lest the mistakes of past Action Plans be repeated!
Comments on the exposure draft are due by 29 February 2012.
Chris Hartley is a Senior Policy Officer with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and works in the areas of human rights and prisons and detentions.