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UN Commissioner Backs Government Call

Australian Associated Press
August 29, 2000

United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson tonight strengthened the federal government's case for an overhaul of UN committees by saying she, too, wanted a better system. The former Irish president supported the government's call but urged Australia not to get carried away in its opposition to the UN system.

"I believe that there is room for further improving the international treaty body system," Mrs Robinson told ABC television. "I'm the first to say that. And I would welcome support for greater resourcing and greater opportunity to improve the quality of the work of the treaty bodies."

The federal government will veto nearly all visits by UN human rights investigators in response to critical findings about Australia's treatment of Aborigines and asylum seekers. The government will also scale down its participation in UN inquiries.

Mrs Robinson said there was clearly healthy debate in Australia on the country's role in UN systems, and the government should not be too defensive. "I think it would be tragic if a country like Australia, because it has been criticised by a treaty body, should respond in an over-defensive way," she said. "At the same time, I've heard a very healthy debate as I've listened to your program. "It's obvious that the strengths of a vibrant, civil society are there in Australia. "And that's the best corrective to an over-defensive response of a government."

Attorney-General Daryl Williams complained the committees paid too much attention to non-government organisations at the expense of democratically elected governments. But Mrs Robinson said reforms should instead be directed to better research by the committees.

"Well, certainly it is right to recognise the primary role and primary responsibility of governments but I think it's been a strength of the committees, of the treaty body system, that they do afford an opportunity for NGOs, for non-governmental organisations, to present their views," she said. "Undoubtedly the system can be improved, and I believe should be improved, and we're working on that."

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