When Australia presented its candidacy for election to the Human Rights Council in 2015, we acknowledged the crucial role that a strong and robust civil society plays in preserving and advancing human rights. We pledged that, if elected, we would promote civil society participation opportunities at the Council, and advocate for the protection of journalists, human rights defenders and civil society worldwide, including from reprisals.
Now, as an active member, Australia has set about meeting these commitments both at the Council and at home.
Australians in Geneva
The best way to give civil society the opportunity to engage in and influence the Council’s debates and decisions is to make sure they are in the room. Throughout our membership, Australia will fund the participation of Australian civil society representatives at Council sessions. In 2018, we supported the participation of two Australian NGO representatives at the June session. Next year, we will expand this to two representatives at each regular session.
Selected through an open competitive process, our successful candidates will have expertise in human rights and knowledge of the Council. They will also work on one or more of the following areas: gender equality; good governance and stronger democratic institutions; freedom of expression; rights of indigenous peoples; strong national human rights institutions and capacity-building; abolition of the death penalty; freedom of religion or belief; equal human rights for LGBTI persons; rights of people with a disability; and civil society participation in the UN human rights system.
We hope to attract Australian applicants from all genders, gender identities and sexual orientations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and persons with disabilities. Importantly, successful applicants will participate in their own capacity, accredited by an NGO with ECOSOC consultative status. You can find out more about our program here.
Expertise at home
Most other Australian civil society representatives cannot afford the considerable expense of travelling to Geneva. So we are trying to bring the Council to them. In the lead-up to each Council session and each Universal Periodic Review working group, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) consults civil society both in Australia and in Geneva. These discussions give civil society representatives an opportunity to flag their concerns and priorities with us, which in turn helps to inform our thinking and Council engagement strategies. In the case of the UPR, it also helps shape our recommendations.
DFAT also hosts an annual NGO Forum on Human Rights in Canberra at the beginning of each year. This gives Australian civil society an additional opportunity to meet with DFAT experts to discuss human rights issues in our region, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and efforts to counter modern forms of slavery. We hope to expand our 2019 Forum to include discussions with some of the independent HRC Special Procedures mandate-holders from Australia.
Australia also values the critical role of civil society actors beyond our shores, many of whom perform their work at grave personal risk. To support the efforts of these organisations and individuals, the Australian Permanent Mission in Geneva offers annual small grants under our International Development Fund (IDF) program. IDF grants are awarded through a competitive process to organisations working on issues that include human rights, health, humanitarian assistance, security and arms control, migration and the environment. In 2018, some of our IDF funding helped to support the participation of Asian and African human rights defenders at the Council.
Protecting civil society
One of the most pressing challenges facing the Council today is finding ways to better protect civil society actors and human rights defenders from reprisals. At HRC37, Australia led an incoming members’ pledge – with Afghanistan, Angola, Chile, Mexico, Nepal, Peru, Senegal, Slovakia, Spain and Ukraine – in which we committed to ‘strive to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society, and engage robustly to prevent and address acts of intimidation and reprisals, speaking up to address such incidents when they occur.’
Putting this into practice, Australia has repeatedly raised in plenary situations of concern across the world where journalists, activists and human rights defenders face threats, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, violence, torture, and even killing or execution. We will continue to do so. Looking ahead to 2019, we will also use the upcoming inter-sessional seminars on the Council’s contribution to the prevention of human rights violations as an opportunity to advance efforts to protect civil society and to prevent reprisals. Furthermore, Australia is a proud supporter of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) ‘Response to Intimidation and Reprisals for Cooperation with the UN’ initiative.
The Australian Government will not always agree with the views of civil society and vice versa. This is natural to our distinct roles and to the cut and thrust of multilateralism. However, we will continue to defend the contribution opportunities of NGOs at the Council, as we have done by opposing points of order by States seeking to curtail civil society participation in Council debates. And we will continue to value civil society as a crucial partner – one that offers a crucial perspective, often developed from direct on-the-ground experience, and one with the right to participate fully and freely at the Council without fear or threat of reprisal.
Ms Elizabeth Wilde is Australia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva
 Per Human Rights Council resolution 38/18
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