10 June 2015
Revealed: How the UN told Abbott government to back off on Gillian Triggs
President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs.
The United Nations formally urged the Abbott government to stop attacking Gillian Triggs before Immigration Minister Peter Dutton branded her a "disgrace" and urged her to consider stepping down as president of the Human Rights Commission.
The UN's special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, issued the government with a "please explain" after Professor Triggs was subject to sustained criticism and a request to step down this year.
In a letter sent to Australia's mission in Geneva in February, he also urged the government to "halt the alleged violations and prevent their recurrence", saying the government's response would form part of a report to the UN's Human Rights Council.
The letter expressed "grave concern" over the verbal attacks on Professor Triggs and asked whether budget cuts to the commission were in retaliation over a report led by Professor Triggs on children in detention.
In its written response, dated April 24, the government insisted it had not "sought to remove any member of the commission" and maintained it respected the independence of the commission and "recognises that it will sometimes be critical of the government".
"Though the government will not always agree with the Commission's recommendations, it welcomes a vigorous and diverse human rights debate in Australia, and the Commission plays a constructive role in that debate," the response, signed by Australia's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, John Quinn.
This statement is in stark contrast to Mr Dutton's attacks on Professor Triggs in recent days.
Mr Quinn insisted the commission had not been singled out in the budget or treated differently from other statutory agencies and said the special rapporteur's letter had been forwarded to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
The UN's intervention followed an appeal from Philip Lynch, the director of the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights.
Last Friday, Mr Dutton accused Professor Triggs of "an outrageous slur" in linking the execution of Bail drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran to the Abbott government's policy of turning back the boats.
Professor Triggs maintains her remarks in response to questions at an event in Adelaide were misreported and taken out of context by The Australian.
"At no time did I refer to the recent executions of the two young Australians," she said. "Rather I spoke of the future need to work diplomatically to reach agreement on ending the death penalty in the region. This reflected my early public commentary on the need for a moratorium on the death penalty."
Her response is supported by a recording of the event, hosted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.
Professor Triggs further enraged Mr Dutton by delivering the keynote address at a human rights dinner in Melbourne only hours after his attack, warning that over reach by the executive represented "a growing threat to democracy".
She was given a standing ovation by many in the room, with the president of the Court of Appeal of Victoria, Justice Chris Maxwell, declaring: "Tonight we have been privileged to have amongst us one of our foremost warriors. As we have been pleased to see, Gillian, you might be bloodied but you are certainly unbowed."
Justice Maxwell was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours this week for his "eminent service to the law and to the judiciary" and for being "a leading supporter of human rights and civil liberties".
Mr Dutton renewed his attack on Professor Triggs on Sunday, accusing her of reducing the position to president of the commission to "basically that of a political advocate", and saying: "I think it is very difficult to continue on."
The nation's first federal human rights commissioner, Brian Burdekin, responded on Tuesday, telling ABC radio the Abbott government appeared to be running an orchestrated campaign to "destabilise or even destroy" the commission.
"I'm not sure whether the Prime Minister's presiding over it or whether he's orchestrating it but [it appears to be] a campaign to denigrate, debilitate and I think possibly destabilise or even destroy an independent commission," said Mr Burdekin, who served in the role from 1986 to 1994.
Professor Triggs was also defended by Emily Howie, director of advocacy and research at the Human Rights Law Centre, who said: "When human rights are violated, Professor Triggs and other members of the Commission will say things that governments may not like to hear. It's their job. And it's an important that they do it without fear of retaliation."