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Australia Joins Saudi Arabia and China on UN Human Rights Council

FILE - Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
FILE - Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Australia has been elected unopposed to the United Nations' Human Rights Council, despite the U.N.'s consistent criticism of Canberra’s policies on asylum seekers and indigenous people.

The United Nations' Human Rights Council was set up in March 2006. It is made up of 47 states which are responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of individuals around the world.

Australia this week was one of 15 new members, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Qatar. They will sit alongside existing members, among them Saudi Arabia, China and the United Kingdom.

The Australian government said it is important for countries that sit on the council to have their human rights records scrutinized and questioned.

Canberra has defended its record, stressing that Australia, one of the world’s most multicultural nations, had resettled more than 865,000 refugees since the Second World War. Officials have also said that Australia is closing down its controversial detention camps for asylum seekers and has taken all children out of immigration centers.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says Australia will be a fearless advocate for global rights.

“We are a principled and pragmatic voice when it comes to human rights," she said. "Our focus will be on a number of issues, including the empowerment of women, indigenous rights, strong domestic human rights institutions and the like.”

But rights groups have questioned Australia’s record. They have consistently condemned the incarceration of asylum seekers in offshore camps in the South Pacific, and have, for years, accused Canberra of neglecting indigenous communities, which suffer disproportionately high rates of poverty, ill-health and imprisonment.

Anna Brown, the director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Center, says while Australia has been a champion of gay rights, other areas must be addressed.

“Australia has been an effective player at the council in promoting protections for LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people) across the globe, but obviously there is other examples where Australia needs to be standing up, it needs to be speaking up and taking principled positions and not picking and choosing where it is going to stand up for human rights,” she said.

Australia will serve a three-year term on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, beginning in January.