Using International legal processes to influence government policy

Strategic participation in international legal processes can be extremely valuable for NGOs undertaking policy and law reform work. The Universal Periodic Review, a process of the United Nations Human Rights Council, is one method by which Australia’s human rights record is assessed on the international stage. Internationally and in Australia, the UPR is proving to be a useful mechanism for NGOs to engage with governments on issues of human rights and related law and policy. Anna Lyons, Senior Lawyer at Justice Connect Homeless Law  explains.

While international law and human rights treaties can seem abstract or academic, their relevance to improving the human rights of Australians is very real.

Take as an example Justice Connect Homeless Law, a legal service for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Most of our clients don’t enjoy the right to adequate housing. A host of other rights can also go unrealised when the right to housing is threatened, including the rights to health, security, privacy, nutrition and education for their children. While housing is an important domestic policy issue, it’s undoubtedly a serious human rights issue.

Homeless Law’s experience is that policy work using international legal processes can require long and continued effort. A decade ago, Homeless Law (then known as the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic) joined the call for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, to visit Australia. The Special Rapporteur’s fifteen day tour of Australian cities and regional towns in 2006 revealed what he described as a “serious hidden national housing crisis in Australia”, and a “humanitarian tragedy”.

While the Special Rapporteur found that Australia had failed to implement the right to adequate housing, nine years later this right remains unfulfilled for more than 105,000 Australians experiencing homelessness and for those living in conditions that don’t meet international standards of affordability and liveability. It’s an ongoing process, and Homeless Law continues to encourage the adoption of the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations.

A relatively new international human rights process, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), is proving to be a useful tool in holding governments to account on their human rights records. The UPR is a mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council that started in 2006. At that time UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described it as having “great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world”.

The UPR involves review of a country’s human rights record by all 193 UN Member States. In the lead up to their UPR, the country under review and the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights submit reports. During the UPR, held in Geneva, all UN Member States have the opportunity to ask the country under review’s delegation questions about their human rights record and make recommendations. Importantly, there are a number of ways in which NGOs can participate, including by submitting reports, lobbying their government to make voluntary commitments and lobbying other UN Member States to ask questions and make recommendations.

Australia’s first UPR was held in 2011 and its second is scheduled for November 2015. Australia’s 2011 UPR resulted in 145 recommendations on a broad range of human rights issues. For example, Brazil, Ghana, Guatemala and Pakistan made recommendations on Australia’s domestic refugee and asylum seeker policies. Columbia, France, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and others made recommendations on Australia’s protection of rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Overall, Australia adopted more than 90% of the recommendations made and some have been actioned. New Zealand and Poland’s recommendation to appoint a National Children’s Commissioner was realised in 2013. The launch of Australia’s National Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery 2015-2019 in late 2014 goes some way to addressing recommendations of Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Azerbaijan and the United States.

However, the Australian Human Rights Commission reported in 2014 that only 11 per cent of recommendations accepted in whole or in part by Australia had been fully implemented.[1] Given the lack of progress on some actions committed to through the UPR progress, Australia’s second UPR in November will be an important forum for revaluation of Australia’s human rights record on the international stage.

As with all human rights reporting processes, mobilising resources for the follow-up is essential and is where real change can come aboutNGOs can use UPR recommendations as advocacy tools, calling on governments to make progress towards meeting their human rights obligations. NGOs can help to maintain pressure on governments to meet their commitments. Importantly, NGOs on the ground are often collecting stories, evidence and an understanding of those “darkest corners” where human rights are not met.

More information about the UPR can be found on the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights website. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s website contains their reports on Australia’s progress towards its UPR commitments.

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission, Australia’s Universal Periodic Review, 2014 Progress Report, December 2014, p 3.

Posted by Sarah Toohey