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Australia to be elected to powerful UN human rights council

October 16, 2017 ·  By Ben Doherty for www.theguardian.com

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Council wrestling with abuses among current and prospective members such as Philippines and Democratic Republic of Congo

Foreign minister Julie Bishop launched Australia’s bid for position on United Nations human rights council. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign minister Julie Bishop launched Australia’s bid for position on United Nations human rights council. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Australia will be elected uncontested to the powerful United Nations human rights council on Monday in New York, as the council wrestles with rights abuses among current and prospective members.

Current council member the Philippines is waging a deadly extrajudicial ‘war on drugs’ that has killed at least 6,000 people, while prospective member the Democratic Republic of the Congo is riven by conflict, arbitrary arrest, torture and killings by security forces, and the persistent recruitment of child soldiers.

Elections to the 47-member council will be almost entirely uncompetitive. Only among Asia-Pacific states, where six states are competing for four seats, will places be contested.

In all other geographic groupings, the number of candidates matches the number of seats.

However, election is not a formality: a majority of votes cast is needed for election, and a country could be denied a spot if half of the member countries voting refuse to cast a vote for it.

Australia was competing for one of two ‘Western Europe and others’ group seats against Spain and France, but France’s withdrawal made Australia’s elevation almost certain.

Australia has campaigned globally for its position on the human rights council, arguing it will promote gender equality; good governance; freedom of expression; indigenous rights; and strong national human rights institutions.

It has also said it will advocate for the global abolition of the death penalty. “Australia will bring a principled and pragmatic approach to our term on the human rights council,” foreign minister Julie Bishop said, launching Australia’s bid.

But Australia’s asylum policies – particularly boat turnbacks and offshore detention – as well as its failure to address Indigenous health, education and incarceration issues have attracted consistent criticism by UN bodies.

Director of legal advocacy with the Human Rights Law Centre, Emily Howie, said Australia, compared with some other new members, would be well positioned to push for positive reforms on the human rights council.

“But its cruel treatment of refugees will continue to haunt and stymie Australia’s efforts during its term. It can’t truly lead on human rights while it is blatantly breaching international law.”

Howie said the lack of competitive slates in the voting process was a genuine concern for the quality of membership.

“In a number of regions, countries with troubling records are standing unopposed. Vote trading and sliding standards will undermine the credibility of the human rights council.

“Australia needs to do all it can to make sure it’s part of the solution. There’s no place for double standards or craven failures to speak out against the type human rights atrocities currently unfolding in Myanmar.”

Membership of the human rights council is controversial. Saudi Arabia, which has executed more than 100 people this year, is a council member, and the Philippines, whose government is currently waging a brutal extrajudicial ‘war’ on drug crime, has been warned by rights groups it risks being suspended from the council if it continues to violate human rights. A two-thirds vote by the UN general assembly is required for suspension.

The countries who will be promoted for three-year terms on Monday have a mixed human rights record at best.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, riven by war for decades, security forces employ torture, rape, arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial killings, and children are forcibly recruited to fight as soldiers.

Mexico’s security forces have been consistently accused of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture as part of efforts to combat violent organised crime.

And in Senegal, issues of child trafficking and exploitation, unlawful killing by security forces and deaths in custody, remain prevalent.

All will almost certainly earn spots on the council Monday.

Human Rights Watch said the DRC Congo’s bid, in particular, should be rejected.

“Accepting Congo’s election bid would undermine the founding principles and credibility of the UN’s top rights body and its ability to promote respect for human rights,” Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch, said. “It would also be a serious affront to the countless victims of government abuses and to the work of courageous Congolese activists.”

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Qatar are also candidates for the Asia-Pacific’s allocation of seats.

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