23 February 2009, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Sydney, Australia
A regional human rights mechanism must be an initiative of the people of the Pacific. However, the goodwill and support of development partners and international agencies is critical.
Imrana Jalal, Gender and Human Rights Advisor from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community's Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT/SPC), told the Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which is holding an 'Inquiry into Human Rights Mechanisms and the Asia-Pacific', that the support of partner organisations and of countries such as Australia is essential for advancing human rights in the region. However, Jalal continued, Pacific people, rather than Australia and New Zealand should 'lead the way'.
Jalal made the comments as part of the RRRT/SPC submission at a public hearing held in Sydney last week at the New South Wales Parliament House. The submission discusses the possibility of establishing a regional human rights body to serve Pacific Island countries, or those who wish to join. Of the 25 submissions made to the committee, the RRRT/SPC submission was the only one from an organisation staffed by Pacific Islanders and actually based in the Pacific. RRRT/SPC was invited by the committee to make oral submissions after receiving written ones.
The committee is tasked with looking at possible mechanisms which could be used to help prevent and redress human rights violations in the Asia-Pacific region. Regional human rights mechanisms exist in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and under the auspices of the Arab League in West Asia and North Africa. The Asia-Pacific region is the only region without a regional human rights mechanism.
In response to questions from the seven Members of Parliament as to the scope of the powers of a regional commission, Jalal said 'A simple regional human rights mechanism might in time become a fully fledged commission with powers to issue advisory opinions, promote human rights, receive complaints and hear and adjudicate disputes.
'For example, a regional mechanism could start off with a simple mandate to promote human rights, and to provide technical assistance and policy advice and support for ratification, reporting and implementation of human rights conventions.
'The process should be a continuous one that develops progressively over time,' said Jalal.
Jalal told the parliamentary committee that while Australia and New Zealand might have the option of joining the body later, the initial body should not include them because they already have their own well-established human rights commissions. Fiji Islands is the only other Pacific country with a human rights commission. A regional mechanism would be able to better respond to resource-challenged small island states, and would have more independence.
A separate Pacific regional mechanism is important because it would be owned by Pacific Islanders who increasingly see their destinies as separate from Asia. A Pacific regional mechanism could also serve the needs of Pacific Islanders in ways that an Asia-Pacific mechanism could not, given the factors of distance and location and the costs of establishing a body for the entire Asia-Pacific area.
In other parts of the world, regional human rights bodies have been found to complement universal human rights processes of the United Nations given the greater cultural similarity within regions.
The Committee Chair, Ms Kerry Rea MP said,
'Whether or not the region is currently ready, willing or able to set up such a framework, it is worthwhile to look at what is happening in our region. It is useful to look at what protections are in place to assist people whose human rights are being violated, and what part Australia can play in offering support to our neighbours as they strive to address human rights situations.'
The absence of a regional mechanism in the Asia-Pacific region to prevent and redress human rights violations has made the subject a natural focus for the committee's examination of human rights mechanisms.
Several Pacific Island countries have indicated support for a regional human rights body, reasoning that it would enhance their individual abilities to properly implement the human rights treaties they are party to, and that their small size and the cost of maintaining individual mechanisms are major challenges to the establishment of national human rights mechanisms.
RRRT/SPC stressed to the parliamentary committee the importance of taking into account existing national mechanisms to ensure a regional mechanism complements their roles.
'The lack of protection for human rights at the national level and the incapacity to provide redress justify a Pacific regional commission, which should be appropriately structured, staffed and mandated to deal with these issues.'
Jalal said national mechanisms in small countries run the risk of being compromised, and that this is one of the reasons that a regional mechanism could complement the individual efforts of Pacific Island countries.
She reminded the committee that the Pacific has a thriving and committed civil society human rights community that is indigenous to the Pacific Islands, and that deals with issues which PICs consider pressing and real.
Jalal called on the Australian government to support RRRT/SPC and other national and regional Pacific organisations in its Pacific focused work.
'There is added value in that approach and it will produce better impact in the long term.'
RRRT/SPC is working in partnership with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and other stakeholders to explore the establishment of national and regional human rights mechanisms to help Pacific Island countries meet human rights and governance standards that will help in their development. Recent consultations show that most Pacific Island countries support moves that could enhance their ability to stand up to human rights scrutiny. A regional mechanism could also be tasked with helping countries properly implement the human rights treaties they are party to and to report on their progress under those treaties.
Submissions can be viewed at: http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/jfadt/asia_pacific_hr/subs.htm.
Background: The Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), which is a programme of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, works with partners in nine focus countries (Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu) to offer training and expert advice on the development of human rights advocacy, lobbying, mobilisation strategies and the drafting of national human rights legislation. The team provides human rights training, technical support, and policy and advocacy services tailored specifically for the Pacific region. Its mission is to 'seek a Pacific region that is respected for the quality of its governance, the sustainable management of its resources, the full observance of democratic values and for its defence and promotion of human rights'.