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China’s bid for UN Human Rights Council seat comes with ‘stop the boats’ baggage

Concetta Fierravanti. Photo: Andrew Meares Asylum seekers on Nauru. Photo: Fairfax Media
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Protesters march against indefinite detention of asylum seekers in Melbourne in 2016. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells speaking in Geneva, as lobbies for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council. Photo: PM VIROT

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells speaking in Geneva, as lobbies for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council. Photo: PM VIROT

Geneva: ‘s violation of refugee human rights and its weak opposition to horrific abuses in Sri Lanka and Myanmar could hurt its chances of winning a coveted seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council, an expert on the council’s politics says.

The warning came as launched a charm offensive in the United Nations corridors in Geneva, seeking to win support for the October vote on the position.

‘s “core values” include respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, minister for international development Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told the year-opening meeting of the HRC on Monday.

The minister said had a “very generous immigration and humanitarian program”, and sought election to the Council for the first time to “reflect our commitment to advance human rights”.

If successful, would use the position to push for gender equality, freedom of expression and the rights of indigenous people around the world.

It would have a “pragmatic, principled and passionate” approach to promoting human rights, Senator Fierravanti-Wells said.

But Phil Lynch, director of the International Service for Human Rights, a lobby group in Geneva, said ‘s human rights record did not entirely count in its favour.

It was sometimes seen to put its political and economic interests above human rights concerns when dealing with particular countries, he said.

For example, split from most other Western countries in not backing a call for investigation of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka.

And also stood alone among allies in its approach to Myanmar, taking a technical, co-operative approach rather than insisting on robust human rights monitoring after gross human rights violations.

“Civil society will be very much looking to in this session for how it positions itself on Myanmar, in light of the High Commissioner’s most recent report,” Mr Lynch said.

That report found there had been brutal mass murder, rape, slitting of throats of children and other horrors.

There has been an international push for a commission of inquiry and “it’s really important support that call”, he said.

‘s treatment of refugees would also play against it, Mr Lynch said.

” is the only nation in the world to have a policy of mandatory indefinite unreviewable offshore detention,” he said. “It’s a policy which is manifestly incompatible with international human rights law, has been strongly associated with serious human rights abuses and … it’s an issue of which the world takes note.”

still stood a good chance of winning the HRC seat – not least because there were only three countries (, France and Spain) competing for two positions.

Mr Lynch said was strong on a range of issues including the protection of journalists, combating violence against women and gay rights.

Council members include Egypt, China and Saudi Arabia, showing that countries who vote on new members don’t always require a spotless human rights record.

But he warned there were no guarantees – and votes had gone against predictions previously.

‘s treatment of refugees has previously come in for strong criticism at the HRC. During an official review in November 2015 many countries singled out our mandatory, offshore detention and the “stop the boats” policy as failing to recognise the rights of asylum seekers.

And a year earlier the UN Committee Against Torture issued a report finding ‘s detention of refugees amounted to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” forbidden by international law.

had human rights “challenges” but welcomed scrutiny from UN rapporteurs, Senator Fierravanti-Wells told Fairfax after her speech.

She said the attitude of other countries to ‘s asylum seeker policy was changing after the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe.

“I think there’s a respect for ‘s position,” she said. “There’s an understanding of why we’ve done what we’ve done (and) there’s also support for the fact that we’ve stopped the drownings at sea.”

There was no suggestion would loosen its refugee policy to win the HRC seat.

“The changing political paradigm in … requires a (public) confidence in the migration progress,” Senator Fierravanti-Wells said.

In a recent speech widely interpreted as a bid for a return to the prime ministership, Mr Abbott suggested scrapping the Human Rights Commission and cutting immigration.

Asked if Mr Abbott’s comments might undermine confidence in the migration program, Senator Fierravanti-Wells said was a “country of migration” and “people do understand a good migration process”.

“If Tony Abbott chooses now to change his position, whereas previously he advocated a particular line, that’s Tony’s role, that’s up to Tony to change his mind and he can do that.

“My interest is the public and the confidence the n public continue to have in the migration progress.”

She defended ‘s slow progress on its November 2015 promise under Mr Abbott to take 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq, who have been waiting in refugee camps in the Middle East.

Almost a year and a half later more than 2000 are still yet to arrive in , and hundreds of visas have not yet been granted.

“We are progressing,” the minister said. “There are issues of security. We are going through the appropriate checks and balances, we owe that to the n public.”

Senator Fierravanti-Wells said was the “gold standard” in the resettlement of refugees and in other human rights areas, for example in tolerance and respect of other cultures.

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