Mauritania in north-west Africa isn’t really a beacon of human rights. Of the 4.5m population, 500,000 are slaves. Regardless, the UN General Assembly last week installed the military-run Mauritania onto the Human Rights Council (HRC) with 172 votes out of 193 in the secret ballot. Other human-rights exemplars voted in were Sudan, Libya and Venezuela, which beat off democratic candidate Costa Rica 105-96. What fun this quartet of tyrannies will have joining with our local Human Rights Commission to excoriate Scott Morrison’s team for human rights abuses.
Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 but forgot to impose any penalties on slave owners until 2007. Since then it’s locked up more anti-slavery activists than slavers. The Guardian (UK) got a photo-journo into the country a year ago to talk to escaped slaves. Aichetou M’barack, born a slave, had two of eight children taken to be slaves to other families. One of her sister’s babies was killed when the master poured hot coals over the infant. The master of a woman called Jabada tied her hands to a tentpole. One finger fell off; her hands now deformed and useless.
Others on the HRC are China, Cuba, Egypt, Qatar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and African basket-cases like Somalia, Eritrea and Congo. This bloated 47-state body involves a quarter of the General Assembly.
President Trump a year ago pulled the US out of the HRC as a ‘cesspool of bias’ and ‘protector of human rights abusers’. He was also annoyed at anti-Israel resolutions, a standing item at every HRC session. The HRC now mouths off at him like this, from HRC President Coly Seck last May: ‘It appears that democracy is stalling, taken hostage by the demagogic and populist speeches that manipulate the citizens and lock them in fears.’ (Best not to name Trump as the UN is nearly broke and he’s been paying a quarter of its bills).
In contrast to the US, Australia via Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop got us into the HRC two years ago, viewing our election as quite a triumph. We had survived a pre-election grilling by a ‘UN expert committee’ over our human rights record, while Australian Left lobbies concurrently painted us as de-humanisers of boat people and racists. Officially, DFAT says we ‘bring a unique Indo-Pacific perspective’ as we work to ‘understand current challenges’ and ‘listen to civil society and state concerns’ in meetings ‘interspersed with panel discussions’.
We’ve added heaps of little statements to the HRC pile. Some are 251 words, some 234 words. I know this because DFAT appends to each a word count. To cut reading time, there’s an upper limit on HRC reports of 21,200 words. Here’s a sample from only last month’s 249-worder: ‘Australia continues to contribute to the Alliance 8.7 partnership’s collective efforts to accelerate action on SDG 8.7 [Sustainable Development Goal] through the Global Coordinating Group. We would welcome the SR’s [Special Rapporteur’s] views on particular arrangements or strategies to best harness the work of partnerships such as Alliance 8.7 in the fight against modern slavery.’
Maybe we’ll be sitting right next to Mauritania when we draft our next anti-slavery text. But as President Seck laments, the HRC’s ‘countless hours’ of discussion are for naught when naughty countries ignore the HRC’s ‘perfectly positioned’ activities.
Next year Australia has to do more crawling to the HRC to justify our place there. It involves a Universal Periodic Review outlining our progress on human rights, in consultation with scrutineers including our Human Rights Commission and critiques by the UN’s assorted dictatorships and kleptocracies.
The real speciality of the HRC is arcane self-examination. It’s had years of ‘numerous meetings and discussions’ on whether it can take part in UN talks about its own status as a subsidiary of the General Assembly. There’s a target to resolve this procedural quandary by 2026.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights is Dr Michelle Bachelet. She was in Sydney this month discovering that Australia is enduring ‘a difficult time’ for human rights. Elected by no one in Australia that I’m aware of, she joined the ‘clarion call’ for Uluru treaties and a new chamber for the Aboriginal Voice. She wants us all to follow Victoria’s Dan Andrews and Queensland’s Anna Palaszczuk with human-rights legislation, create equal pay for women and push more women into political, business and social leadership. ‘And I have heard for a long time about the exceptionally misogynistic approach to women politicians by many men in Australian political life,’ she said. I assume she’s hinting about PM Julia Gillard’s 2012 defence of her mussel-man Speaker Peter Slipper.
She was herself a Chilean refugee in Australia. Now she snarks: ‘This country gave me refuge as a 23-year-old fleeing Pinochet’s regime. I cannot help wonder whether I would experience the same as a refugee today.’
A Bachelet forte is patronising conservatives: ‘Rather than simply labelling people who favour refugee pushbacks as bigots and racists, we need to listen and recognise the fear, anxiety, insecurity or other factors that may be behind such attitudes. We need to use reason and evidence – and empathy – to help temper visceral emotional responses.’
Last month in Geneva she let rip about the supposed top threat to global human rights: ‘global heating’ and its storms, drowning coasts, hunger, wars, raging fires and melting ice. ‘We are burning up our future, literally,’ she wailed. ‘The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope.’ If this sounds like Ms Thunberg, Dr Bachelet adds that she is ‘disheartened’ by verbal attacks on the compelling Swedish teen.
Dr Bachelet even has her own child adviser, a 12-year old Aboriginal boy from Alice Springs, whom the HRC flew to Geneva to address it in September. ‘We need the clear legitimacy of [young people’s] voices in determining the future path of Australian society, and the planet which all of us share,’ she says.
At least nine times since 2008 such UN accuse-o-crats have come to Australia promoting GetUp-style agendas like ‘rolling back’ boat-people’s detention and tender care for Isis families in exile. Dr Bachelet concedes, ‘Sometimes I hear Australian commentators bemoan all this attention, suggesting the UN human rights machinery should focus its attention elsewhere.’ Good point. But, she says, we signed the UN protocols so we can suck it up ‘to make Australia a better, more inclusive and humane place’. With the help of Mauritania, obviously.