Australia has been questioned about the way it is dealing with the rights of Indigenous people and asylum seekers at the first-ever Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.
The Review was set up by United Nations in 2006 to create a regular process of review for all countries to ensure they comply with their international human rights obligations.
This Review is Australia's first since 2009 when the UNHRC released its Concluding Observations following a review of Australia's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Back then, the UNHRC's Committee commented on a number of positive human rights developments in Australia, but also pointed to a number of serious concerns which required reforms.
Amongst the Committee's recommendations for reform were the enactment of comprehensive human rights and equality legislation, such as a Human Rights Act; an end to the continued suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory; the need to establish an adequately resourced national Indigenous representative body; the need to make adequate reparations to the Stolen Generations; the need to take "urgent and adequate measures, including legislative measures, to ensure that nobody is returned to a country where there are substantial grounds to believe that they are at risk of being arbitrarily deprived of their life or being tortured or subjected to other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment"; and the abolition of mandatory immigration detention.
During the three hour dialogue before the UNHRC last week, the delegation - led by Senator Kate Lundy, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister - received questions from a range of other countries about Australia's human rights record.
"Australia's appearance at the United Nations Human Rights Council was a good opportunity to discuss our strong human rights record," Senator Lundy said.
"A large number of countries acknowledged the significant amount of work the Australian delegation had undertaken in preparing for the review, including working with the Australian Human Rights Commission and the non-government sector."
The delegation noted some of Australia's recent achievements, including becoming a party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol to that Convention; acceding the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women; signing the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture; giving its support to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and issuing a standing invitation to Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council to visit Australia.
The delegation also outlined key elements of Australia's Human Rights Framework, launched by the Attorney-General last year and outlined the Closing the Gap agenda, emphasising the recent reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in relation to the Northern Territory Emergency Response, and the recent establishment of an expert panel to recommend a way forward on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
In relation to immigration detention, the delegation emphasised the Key Immigration Detention Values, which the government says significantly changes the approach taken to immigration detention in Australia, including a commitment to ensuring that immigration detention centres are only used as a "last resort" and for the "shortest practicable time".
Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland said that Australia's appearance at the UNHRC last week was an opportunity for Australia to highlight its human rights achievements.
"[The] Review is an important opportunity to reflect on progress we have made and to renew our determination that in the fields of human rights, equality and opportunity, we can always achieve more," said McClelland in a statement.
"The Australian Government will continue to work with the international community and the Australian Human Rights Commission and non-government organisations domestically to promote and protect fundamental human rights at home and the rest of the world."
The government has also recently announced funding for the Australian Human Rights Commission for stand-alone Race and Disability Discrimination Commissioners, in addition to funding recently committed for the first-ever Age Discrimination Commissioner;
The government has also committed to using the recommendations made during the Review, and accepted by Australia, to guide the development of Australia's new National Human Rights Action Plan.
The Australian delegation will attend the UNHRC today (31 January) for the adoption of the outcomes report from the Review.
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