New year, new me? Australia takes up UNHCR seat



The recent election of Australia to the influential United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sees the state in unlikely company, joining Saudi Arabia, China and Indonesia. The government’s statement that these countries should be subject to scrutiny, accountability and transparency is interesting considering the ongoing concerns raised over Australia’s immigration policies, the secrecy that Amnesty International reports has been ‘a key plank in Australia’s punitive “border protection”’ policies and recent fresh revelations of government duplicity. Only time will tell whether Australia intends to use this platform to reframe its domestic immigration debate into the appropriate global context and reprise Australia’s role as a human rights pioneer on the world stage.

Australia’s current immigration policy is something of a Frankenstein’s monster, evolving as it has from the instability of recent administrations. The capriciousness of recent federal politics has driven continuous legislative change, resulting in an extremely expensive and complex system, has been widely criticised for its consistent disregard of international law. The harsh implementation of policy has attracted the attention of multiple UN Special Rapporteurs and sparked a push for an investigation by the International Criminal Court.

With a potential precedent for future class actions set by the government-funded settlement of the Manus Island suit, damning reports by international organisations and direct pleas from the global community, Australia’s continued refusal to address or acknowledge these statements is concerning.

This disdain of international obligations and criticism seems especially odd, considering the excellent international record Australia has historically enjoyed. A founding member of the UN, Australia earned an exemplary reputation early on through the leadership of Dr Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt. ‘Doc’ was pivotal in the formation of the UN Charter in 1945, which led him to later preside over the General Assembly in 1948, overseeing the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby’s assessment that ‘there were few Australians of the 20th century who stacked up more achievements of lasting benefit to the nation and to the world’, gives an indication of the extraordinary esteem in which ‘Doc’ and therefore, Australia were held. Such was the strength of Australia’s reputation, it was used as a central argument in the campaign for Australia’s UNHCR seat. The current stalemate, itself an imbroglio, is largely due to the deeply political nature of immigration in Australian politics. While its discourse remains overshadowed by domestic political agendas, immigration policy will continue to overlook the global trends driving the increase in asylum seekers and the urgent need for Australia to adopt a proactive, humane and sustainable strategy.

According to 2017’s Global Peace Index (GPI) report, the last decade has seen global peace levels consistently deteriorate. This has contributed to the near-doubling of forcibly displaced persons observed over the last decade while growing inequality in peace between the most and least peaceful countries sheds light on current immigration issues. Small Pacific nations, Australia’s neighbours, continue to suffer immensely and data predicts that the Asia-Pacific region will continue to be disproportionately affected. This further threatens to increase the already record numbers of displaced people. These findings highlight the increasingly pressing need for global leadership on refugee issues, especially in Australia’s region.

The UNHCR’s latest report identified that an unprecedented 65.5 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2016. Internally displaced persons comprised 40.3 million, 22.5 million were recognised as refugees and the remaining 2.8 million were asylum-seekers. Australia only accepted 22,000 refugees in 2016, with our net intake scheduled to decline to 16,250 in 2017-2018. These numbers are staggering, especially considering over half of the 65.6 million people displaced in 2016 are younger than 18. Yet most states, including Australia, that have the resources to aid the human suffering continue to pursue insular strategies like closing their borders, often violating international law in the process.

As UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said, ‘the willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today, and it’s this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail… closing borders does not solve the problem.’ Unfortunately, despite continued conferences on displacement, this failure by most of the developed world to resettle even the 21 million (0.3% of the global population) UNHCR-recognised refugees, is currently exacerbating the issue.

Although Australia’s formerly sterling international reputation has been tarnished, the factors driving immigration issues (like climate change, global conflict and Australia’s attractive standard of living) seem here to stay. If Australia hopes to draw on the legacy of pioneers like Doc Evatt and show global leadership once again, if only to mitigate future challenges in our own region, now is the time. As the Chinese proverb goes – ‘the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.’

Jordan is currently completing his final year of a Bachelor of Commerce with the degree of Bachelor of Laws at Macquarie University.

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