Every 4 and a half years, United Nations member states’ human rights records are reviewed in the Universal Periodic Review (the ‘UPR’) under the auspices of the Human Rights Council. The UPR is a ‘state-driven’ process that fosters dialogue and collaboration. Australia is being reviewed for the third time in the 2020/21 cycle.
The UPR process relies on a high degree of participation from civil society to explain to the world the conditions on the ground in each nation. In Australia, the primary means of civil society engagement is via a coalition of Non-Government Organisations (the ‘Australian NGO Coalition’). The Australian NGO Coalition engaging in the 2020/21 review is very broad, ranging from national peak bodies to grassroots service providers. It is led by an expert Advisory Group, and a small Steering Committee, and has been active since late 2019.
The first task of the Australian NGO Coalition was to prepare and submit a joint report – with 88 robust recommendations for positive change – was co-authored by around 50 organisations and human rights experts in early 2020 and was endorsed by over 200 organisations. It was updated later in the year to include developments, particularly those arising from Government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Australian NGO Coalition also produced a package of factsheets, with additional details and context, to support the report. This suite of materials offers a comprehensive snapshot of the state of human rights in Australia in 2020.
The Australian NGO Coalition also engages directly with missions, embassies and states to provide factual and current information about the reality of human rights in Australia and to talk about states’ priorities. This direct engagement occurs in a series of meetings, conversations, forums, events, letters and emails culminating in an appearance in Geneva (this year occurring remotely) for a panel discussion known as the Pre-sessions.
There are six civil society speakers from Australia appearing at the Pre-sessions in December 2020; five of those from the Australian NGO Coalition. The speakers’ statements at the Pre-sessions cover a shortlist of the topmost priorities out of the 88 recommendations in the report.
As an independent human rights mechanism, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is not a member of the Australian NGO Coalition but is a key partner working collaboratively on advocacy to promote the realisation of human rights. The AHRC also prepares a report and factsheets, appears at the Pre-sessions and monitors implementation of recommendations from one UPR cycle to the next.
An important aspect of the UPR process is the opportunity it offers for states to reflect internally, and to voluntarily commit to measures that will improve their human rights outlook. Governments typically engage in a process of identifying and consulting on gaps in human rights protections and, by convention, make a number of specific commitments in the lead up to the review. A country under review also prepares and submits a report.
In the early hours of our 26 January 2021 Australia will appear before the UPR working group in Geneva to answer questions and receive recommendations from UN member states and permanent observers.
The Australian NGO Coalition hopes that its hard work in the lead-up to that appearance will result in better questions, clearer recommendations and a people-centred roadmap towards better protection of human rights in Australia over the coming years.