Human Rights in the Asia Pacific

The next Australian government should develop a comprehensive policy on human rights in the Asia-Pacific. In the first of two posts on Australia and the region, Phil Lynch maps out the priorities

A recent report of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JCFADT) identified the Asia-Pacific region as ‘diverse and complex’ with a ‘mosaic of human rights challenges’.  The Committee highlighted gender discrimination and violence, human trafficking, capital punishment, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and profound poverty, among others.  The Committee identified a ‘clear need to enhance mechanisms to protect human rights and to redress human rights violations’.

On Australia’s role, JCFADT found that Australia is ‘well placed to foster discussion and progress on a cooperative approach to human rights challenges facing the Asia-Pacific’.  It concluded that Australia has a ‘significant’, albeit ‘sensitive and cooperative’ role to play in the promotion and protection of human rights in the region.

So what concrete commitments would a human rights-focused policy on engagement with the Asia-Pacific include?

Human Rights as a Key Instrument and Aim of Australian Engagement in the Region

JCFADT recommended that the Australian Government should be ‘conscious of its human rights obligations in all of its regional relationships’, including in the area of trade.

  • Australia should develop a comprehensive white paper on human rights and Australia’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific.  The paper should: explain the benefits and imperatives of a human rights-based approach to the Asia-Pacific region; set out Australia’s human rights and foreign policy objectives in the region; and detail the means by which the Government will pursue these strategic objectives.  The paper should identify priorities for action and make concrete, measurable commitments across all areas of Australian engagement with the Asia-Pacific which impact on human rights.
  • Australia should develop and undertake Human Rights Impact Assessments as a key aspect of doing business in the Asia-Pacific, including in the areas of aid, development, trade, investment, business, labour, migration, defence, military cooperation, security and the environment.
  • Australia should ensure that the promotion and protection of human rights are incorporated into the objectives and activities of all regional organisations and processes that impact on human rights and of which Australia is a part.
  • Where appropriate, Australia should negotiate for bilateral and multilateral agreements to include human rights clauses and safeguards.

Adopting a Human Rights-Based Approach to Aid and Development Assistance

JCFADT also recommended that AusAID ‘adopt a human rights-based approach’ to aid and development projects.  This recommendation was underpinned by evidence that development and human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and that a human rights-based approach can enhance program effectiveness and efficiency.  Both the OECD and the Overseas Development Institute have identified that the integration of human rights in all aspects of aid programming can deliver more effective, sustainable and value-for-money development outcomes.

  • Consistent with the Government’s commitment to strengthen the effectiveness of Australia’s aid program, AusAID should ‘adopt a human rights-based approach’ to aid and development projects.
  • Australia should prioritise human rights as a key aim and instrument of Australia’s development cooperation with the Asia-Pacific.

Adopting a Human Rights-Based Approach to Military and Security Cooperation

In many countries in the Asia-Pacific, members of the security forces who are implicated in human rights abuses are neither investigated nor prosecuted.  Australia is playing an increasing role in training foreign security forces through exchange programs and joint training exercises.  Human rights should be central to these trainings both in content and in terms of who is invited to participate.

  • Australia should develop a transparent vetting system to scrutinise all members of security forces who are put forward to participate in activities funded or coordinated by, or otherwise involving, the Australian government.  The vetting system should be codified in a publicly available policy document initially and later through legislation.  Members that have themselves been implicated in human rights abuses, or are stationed with a unit that is implicated in such abuses, should be excluded from the trainings unless they have been charged with criminal offences relating to the abuses and found not guilty.  National human rights institutions and human rights NGOs should be consulted to determine whether members or units are implicated in such abuses.
  • Australia should ensure that all activities involving members of foreign security forces, particularly training activities, funded or coordinated by, or otherwise involving the Australian government, includes practical human rights training.
  • Bilateral military assistance and training programs that involve security forces should be contingent on respect for human rights and accountability for violations.

Check Thinking Points on Wednesday for further human rights policy recommendations.