Is Australia the only government in the world not responsible for violence against women? Apparently.

12 Nov 2014

The Federal government has badly fumbled the way it has treated the epidemic of violence against women in report to a major UN committee.

Australia's fifth report on the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment or Punishment claimed that violence against women was not committed by officials of the state – and therefore was not in the remit of the UN Committee which oversees compliance to the treaty.

But the Committee rejected aspects of the report and overnight, the Federal Government was forced to address criticisms of its submission.
The Committee said last night: "If the Australian government is not responsible for violence against women, it is the only country which is not."

Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said Australia retreated somewhat from its earlier position that it had no responsibility for violence against women in Australia, which is occurring in epidemic proportions.

The government was forced to accept it can be responsible if it 'acquiesces' to violence. But international law requires more than that - Australia is legally required to take reasonable and effective measures to prevent, investigate, punish and redress violence against women. But Webb said: "Australia's concession didn't go as far as it should. But it was at least constructive that they have abandoned the 'it's not our problem' defence."

The Committee Against Torture also chided Australia's direction in areas of human rights including the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees and said Australia should be among the leaders in the region n implementing the torture convention.

This international embarrassment could have been avoided. The Federal Government was warned of its errors two years ago by experts in international human rights law.

A letter to the Attorney-General in 2012 from the Human Rights Law Centre said it was a matter of concern that the Draft Report claimed "domestic violence does not fall within the scope of the Convention under articles 2 and 16, as it is not conduct that is committed by or at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiesce of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity". Instead, the Attorney-General's department chose to ignore the advice.

The letter went on to say international law has clearly established that the state must act with due diligence to prevent or respond to any violations of human rights law – and in the case of violence against women, governments must take reasonable and effective measures to prevent, investigate, punish and redress domestic violence.

Just last month, a coalition of NGOs compiled a lengthy report on which detailed continued and serious concerns about the state of Australia's human rights which was also submitted to Committee Against Torture. The NGOs endorsing the report included Oxfam Australia, Save The Children Australia, Uniting Justice Australia and more than 70 other organisations.

The scene was set earlier this week, when the Australian government was called to appear before the United Nations Committee Against Torture where a team of experts assessed Australia's human rights records.

The Committee had already highlighted key areas where it asked Australia to explain its performance: in particular, treatment of refugees and asylum seekers; treatment of Indigenous Australians; and the rate of violence against women.

The appearance is a standard process, says Fiona McGaughey, a lecturer in international human rights law at the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University. It exists so that countries can update the committee on the progress made towards human rights in individual countries.

"Typically, governments accentuate the positives and don't dwell on the negatives," said McGaughey. But it's unusual for a country to have its own interpretation of what human rights are – and particularly when it comes to the Convention Against Torture.

But, as the Committee made clear on Monday night at a full hearing in Geneva, that interpretation is incorrect. No other country made the argument that violence against women was outside of the parameters of the inquiry.

"Governments also have an obligation to ensure that steps are being taken to prevent violence against women from occurring – prevent, remedy, investigate, prosecute," said Rachel Ball, the director of advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.

Ball, one of the authors of the submission which went to the Attorney-General's office in 2012, did not wish to see the Federal Government's embarrassment on the world stage. "It's not uncommon for there to be differences in interpretation – the surprise was that it was on this issue."

More important than this international embarrassment is the need for a complete overhaul of the way in which violence against women is treated in Australia.

The report from NGOs has called on the Federal government to fund front line services; to address high rates of violence against women with disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women; and to address the institutional barriers to ending violence.

And both that report and the submission from the Australian Human Rights Commission have called on governments in Australia to monitor the implementation of Coronial Inquest findings, to address systemic failures to protect women from domestic violence.

Jenna Price

Jenna Price is a Sydney-based journalist and lecturer.

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