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Goal 3: More people, communities, and organisations take action to respect protect and promote human rights in their own contexts

Outcome 3.1 [PBS criterion]

Our activities increase the capacity of vulnerable groups, communities and their advocates to understand and advocate for their rights.

Progress indicator 3.11 [PBS target]

Instances of participants/community stakeholders reporting:

  • robust processes that facilitate their access and participation
  • experiences of meaningful participation that are beneficial and empowering.

Sharing the stories of Australian Muslims

Commissioner Tan’s Sharing the Stories of Australian Muslims project was established with the core objectives to listen to and share the stories and experience of Australian Muslims and to understand their concerns and needs. The research phase was completed in this period using a mixed method design of face-to-face consultations and online survey.

Access and participation were achieved using a community-informed survey distribution strategy that helped the Commission to both engage widely and connect with hard-to-reach communities. The survey was available in English, Dari, Urdu and Arabic, and Muslim community leaders, organisations and networks helped share and promote the survey. The project’s Advisory Group members and Critical Friends provided insight and advice, while non-Muslim organisations also promoted the survey and encouraged Australian Muslims to take part.

The survey was the first national opportunity for Australian Muslims to record the individual, family and community impact of their experiences as Australian Muslims. The importance of this opportunity for meaningful participation and consultation on this issue was clearly valued. As a result, a significant participation sample was achieved: 1,017 Australian Muslims took part in the survey, and responses were received from every state and territory, including from metropolitan and regional locations.

In addition to quantitative survey questions, many respondents were able to include their personal experiences and stories. As the project was established in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch respondents were also invited to comment on this experience– 87% of those surveyed took the opportunity to share how the Christchurch tragedy had affected them, their friends, or their family. A respondent wrote:

‘I appreciate this survey to hear my community voice. This gives me a feeling that someone cares about us and [is] here to listen to us.’

—research survey data set, item 31

In addition, over 30 consultations with the Australian Muslim community were held between July 2019 and February 2020.1 Results were communicated back through word cloud resources created for each location. These were shared with participants, allowing them and their communities to quickly see the discussions from their area and to know their stories had been heard. These resources were then used by some participants in their own communications.

The report of the research findings will be published in late 2020. It is anticipated this will inform the work of project stakeholders and be supported by Commission education and advocacy.

Outcome 3.2 [PBS criterion]

Our activities increase the capacity of Governments, organisations, other groups and services to understand and address the human rights impact of their actions, particularly when working with vulnerable groups and communities.

Progress indicator 3.21 [PBS target]

Instances of stakeholders in our activities with organisations reporting that our work has contributed to increased understanding of the impact of their systems and operations on human rights.

Commission-Defence Collaboration to support and improve cultural reform across Defence(2014–2024)

The Commission has worked with the Australian Defence Force for the past 6 years to support and improve cultural reform.

In June 2020, the Commission and Defence signed a new four-year agreement to continuethis work. The Collaboration program includes high-level dialogue and policy review and advice combined with shortand long-term projects– some at the individual service level and some across Defence, including Defence Australian Public Service. Outcome reports for two of the projects undertaken in this reporting period are located under other indicators.

The Commission brings a human-rightsbased approach to its cultural reform work with Defence. This means turning human rights from legal instruments into effective policies and practical realities. Defence has worked with this approach to redefine problems, examine root causes, and expand its range of responses to problems. For instance, when Defence addressed structural and systemic inequalities to improve women’s participation in one program, it also increased participation amongmen and provided a model for broader implementation across other services.

Building capacity for child safety: A suite of Child Safe Organisation e-learning modules

In the last reporting period, we reported on Commissioner Mitchell’s work to develop the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. Following this, the Australian Government commissioned the development of practical tools and resources to help organisations implement thePrinciples.

In this period, we completed a suite of 11 e-learning modules, which are available at no cost to any organisation or interested party. The modules are designed to help organisations increase their knowledge and understanding of the Principles and identify the steps they need to take as they work towards implementing them.

Since the e-learning modules were launched in August 2019, 4,194 users have registered– suggesting this work is actively contributing to organisations making changes to policy and practice, to protect and promote children’s human rights in their context.

Immigration detention, refugee, and asylum seeker program

Commissioner Santow leads the Commission’s work on human rights issues facing asylum seekers, refugees and people in immigration detention. This involves inspections of immigration detention facilities, engagement with Parliament and other reform bodies regarding changes to Australia’s migration laws, and the conduct of thematic research projects on refugee and asylum seeker policy.

In addition, the President handles complaints under the AHRC Act relating to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This regularly includes complaints from people in closed immigration detention or community detention arrangements.

In this period, the Commission released a major report, Lives on hold: Refugees and asylum seekers in the Legacy Caseload, which provides the first comprehensive assessment of the human rights implications of laws and policies affecting this group. The report received widespread media coverage and has been used as a resource by civil society organisations to inform their policy and advocacy work.

In the second half of 2019, the Commission completed inspections of all immigration detention facilities on the Australian mainland, identifying human rights issues specific to individual facilities, as well as systemic issues across Australia’s detention network.

The risks posed by COVID-19 to people in immigration detention has been a significant focus of work in 2020. Commissioner Santow maintains regular contact with the Australian Government in relation to these issues, with high-level fortnightly meetings with officials from Australian Border Force. The Commission has commenced a targeted review of how some risks posed by COVID-19 are being managed in Australia’s immigration detention facilities from a human-rights perspective, with particular reference to expert health advice and relevant guidelines.

The Commission will deliver reports on both activities later in 2020.

Progress indicator 3.22 [PBS target]

Instances of stakeholders in our activities with organisations making changes to organisational policy and practice, to protect and promote human rights in their context.

OPCAT implementation in Australia

In December 2017, the Australian Government ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (OPCAT). OPCAT aims to improve how people’s rights are protected and promoted when they are deprived of their liberty, by providing for a rigorous process of independent inspections of all places of detention in a country’s jurisdiction.

When the Government announced its intention to ratify OPCAT in February 2017, Commission Santow was asked by former Attorney-General, the Hon Senator George Brandis QC, to conduct a consultation into how Australia should implement the treaty.

The project aimed to contribute to the effective implementation of OPCAT in Australia and, in doing so, to increase understanding of how the treaty should be complied with. This work was achieved through:

  • an inclusive, collaborative consultation with government, civil society and independent monitors and inspectors of places of detention (completed in the last period), and
  • the completion of a Final paper: Implementing OPCAT in Australia, an evidence-based blueprint for action in this reporting period.

The consultation initiated with background research and the release of a consultation paper in mid-2017, which asked high-level questions about how OPCAT should be implemented. This drew together written submissions from a diverse range of stakeholders, including medical professionals, lawyers, social workers, academics, human rights bodies, religious groups and organisations representing people with lived experience of detention. Stakeholder expertise covered a range of sectors, including criminal justice, aged care, disability, Indigenous justice and immigration.

In addition, the Commission held seven roundtables with key stakeholders across Australia, undertaken with the support of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. An ‘Interim Report’ set out the Commission’s preliminary views on fundamental aspects of OPCAT implementation and was communicated to the Attorney-General in September 2017.

A further stage built on the groundwork from above. A second consultation paper, published in June 2018, sought feedback on proposals made in an Interim Report to the Attorney General, and asked additional questions regarding OPCAT implementation. Four expert roundtables were held across Australia.

Significant, and valued stakeholder participation was achieved by the project from across the consultation strategy:

  • The Commission received 122 written submissions across the two consultation stages (a total of 148 organisations and individuals contributed to these submissions).
  • Evaluation of the initial consultation found that 94% of respondents rated the Commission’s role in informing and consulting with stakeholders and reporting to government as ‘very’ or ‘extremely important’; 86% reported that taking part in the roundtable had been either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ worthwhile.

In this reporting period, the final paper, Implementing OPCAT in Australia was published, finalising the project.

The final paper draws authoritatively on the evidence base of submissions received across both consultation stages and desktop research, including how OPCAT has been implemented in comparable international jurisdictions. Together with the views of experts and key stakeholders, it provides a blueprint for implementation, with recommendations to ensure OPCAT is implemented in a way that will better safeguard the human rights of people in all places of detention. It also sets out a clear and deliberative timeline for action.

The final paper has been welcomed by civil society, government and academia.

The project has contributed to the Commissioner’s term goal of improving human rights protections for vulnerable groups and in difficult contexts. Commissioner Santow has been recognised as having expertise relevant to the implementation of the treaty. For example, receiving numerous invitations to speak in the media, at conferences, expert meetings and civil society fora. In addition, Commissioner Santow was invited to join the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Expert Advisory Group on OPCAT implementation– which followed the appointment of the Ombudsman as co-ordinator of Australia’s network of National Preventative Mechanisms.

Freedom of religion in Australia: a focus on serious harms

The Commission’s work on freedom of religion is led by Commissioner Santow. This year, the Commission’s work was focused on considering and responding to the Australian Government’s proposed religious discrimination bills and increasing understanding of serious harms experienced by people on account of their religious beliefs. To progress this work, the Commissioner met with diverse religious leaders and other people of faith to discuss their experiences and concerns, as well as with government, legal and medical stakeholders.

In October 2019, the Commission supported and participated in an academic roundtable organised by the University of Divinity entitled ‘Religious Perspectives on Human Rights’. Commissioner Santow contributed a paper and an introduction to a publication resulting from the roundtable.

Just outside this reporting period, on 1 July 2020, the Commission partnered with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to launch a joint position paper, Freedom of religion in Australia: A focus on serious harms. This was based on feedback from two roundtables with religious communities held in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as additional research. The paper contains a number of recommendations to the federal and Victorian Governments to reduce the incidence of serious harms on the basis of religion, defined as ‘experiences of violence, abuse, intimidation, severe discrimination and some forms of vilification’. Stakeholders reported that this will be a useful resource in their ongoing work.

The Commission has sought to work collaboratively with religious communities and organisations on human rights issues. An example of this was a meeting in April 2020 with Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders to discuss their concerns during the COVID-19 lockdown and, in particular, the issue of government support for temporary visa holders in Australia.

Progress indicator 3.23

Instances of business stakeholders reporting that our work has contributed to increased understanding and awareness of their role to prevent modern slavery in their supply chains and operations, and how to address it.

Strategy for Business and Human Rights

The Commission’s program of work in this area is led by President Croucher and seeks to leverage the growing momentum internationally and domestically around the 2011 United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and other business and human rights (BHR) standards. The work program includes the projects below, which have contributed to this indicator using awareness raising and capacity building strategies.

Annual Business and Human Rights Dialogue– 2014 to 2019

In this reporting period, the sixth annual Australian Dialogue on Business and Human Rights was convened by the Global Compact Network Australia (GCNA) and the Commission on 17 October 2019 in Melbourne. Over 100 people attended.

The 2019 theme was ‘Doing Business with Respect for Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region’. This focus reflected the pivotal role of the Asia-Pacific region as a key trading partner for Australian companies, and the fact that many companies are considering their relationships with suppliers from the region as they prepare to report under the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth). The event included a range of speakers drawn from the region, including from India, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, who provided first-hand experience of working on business and human rights issues in the region.

‘The speakers with lived experience added real richness and depth to the conversation.’

—survey respondent, 2019

Panel discussions covered a range of topics including: protecting human rights defenders and civic space in the region; creating effective company grievance mechanisms; understanding climate inaction as a human rights risk; the connections between human rights violations and corruption; and empowering women and girls in the region. At the 2019 Dialogue, modern slavery issues were raised in panel discussions throughout the day, including in relation to grievance mechanisms.

‘Great mix of business, civil society, gov in both audience and panelists. All panelists were engaging with different subject matters.’

—survey respondent, 2019

The Dialogue is Australia’s largest and most recognised forum for discussion of business and human rights issues. It brings together the wide range of stakeholders that are known as essential to effectively operationalising the UNGPs and especially, in in helping businesses understand the expectations of their corporate responsibility to respect under Pillar II of the UNGPs.

Over the last six years, the Dialogue has evolved a reputation for relevance and value and, critically, as a forum that regularly brings together all the key stakeholders. The UNGPs rest on a polycentric framework where states, business, civil society and workers are all expected to have a role in creating state and non-state-based solutions to addressing corporate human rights abuses.

The Dialogue has allowed the Commission to facilitate collaborative and robust discussion among these stakeholders and to ensure marginalised or vulnerable groups (such as survivors of modern slavery) are included. Over the six period the Dialogue has:

  • played an important role in nurturing the growth of a vibrant business and human rights community and progressing the BHR agenda in Australia
  • increased awareness and understanding of the business community of business and human rights issues and frameworks
  • helped drive regulatory progress, in particular, through the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth).

From 2015, the Dialogue has been evaluated annually, and each year the findings demonstrate the event is beneficial to the participants. Figure 2 summarises the achievements and outcomes drawn from these data.

 "Really good day discussing critical issues facing business today...there was not a moment where concentration lapsed." (2018)
KPMG partnership on modern slavery

The Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) requires certain large entities and the Government to report annually on their efforts to address risks of modern slavery in their global operations and supply chains. The first reporting under this Act begins in the 2020–2021 financial year.

The Commission is working to support Australian businesses to effectively respond to the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) through a partnership with KPMG, which seeks to promote measures that improve modern slavery risk management and situate efforts to identify and address the risks within a broader human rights framework.

Throughout October and November 2019, the Commission, the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) and KPMG co-hosted a series of Directors Briefings: Modern Slavery Reporting – Is your board ready?

These events were for AICD members (usually company directors) in Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Commission Chief Executive, Padma Raman participated in each panel with a representative from KPMG and a local company director who is a member of the AICD or similar.

Company directors were the target audience because, under the Act, board directors must sign off on their company’s annual modern slavery statement. The panel events sought to assist board directors to better understand their responsibilities under the Act, and to respond effectively to modern slavery risks, using a ‘risks to people’ lens.

The event series reached 412 members of the AICD, in 5 cities. In December 2019, following the panel events, the Commission and KPMG presented an interactive webinar for AICD members.

A survey evaluation of the series indicates the events were beneficial, with many respondents rating the topic relevance and speaker quality as high – and providing positive feedback:

‘It was great to hear from VERY relevant speakers…. the speakers were perfect for the topic’,

‘Key issues well-articulated - not just outlined requirements, but helped provide an overall understanding of why, how and benefits/impact of adoption’,

‘A quality event with high calibre speakers. Good exploration of the topic. Fast moving. Worthwhile’.

—survey respondents

In addition, the Commission is working with KPMG to prepare a suite of sector-based guidance on responding to the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth), by managing modern slavery risks using a rights-based approach. The guidance packs will be released in the next reporting period.

Leading by example

As a small, Commonwealth Corporate Entity, the Commission is not required to report under the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth). However, in this period, the Commission has been taking steps to identify and address key risk areas for modern slavery in our own supply chains, including by introducing:

  • a new Responsible Sourcing Policy,
  • Factsheet for suppliers: The Modern Slavery Act 2018 and your business (for commission suppliers), and
  • developing modern slavery training for Commission staff.

The Commission’s work in this space not only reflects our organisational values, but also aligns with the Commonwealth Government’s efforts to respond to modern slavery risks in government procurement. This work is also part of the Commission’s commitment to implementing the UNGPs, which ask States to promote business respect for human rights through their relationships with suppliers of goods and services.

Progress indicator 3.24

Instances of partners’:

  • increased knowledge and application of human rights frameworks, principles, and practices to advance human rights reform
  • practice/policy reform relating to human rights principles, which are reviewed or developed as a result of technical cooperation activities.

International Programs

With support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Commission continued its human rights capacity-building programs, using its blended learning model approach. This combination of online modules and interactive sessions allows the Commission’s capacity-building work to continue, despite the COVID-19-related travel restrictions and inability to meet face-to-face.

Vietnam Human Rights Fund 2017–2021

Under the Vietnam Human Rights Fund, the Commission has two initiatives– the Human Rights Education Partnership and the Advancing Responsible Business Conduct Partnership. Supported by DFAT, both Partnerships aim to contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights in Vietnam, over the 2017–2021 period.

Human rights education partnership:

Under this partnership with the Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, the Commission developed, and ongoing, will host three online training modules focused on human rights, human rights frameworks, and human rights education on its learning management system (LMS). In 2019–2020, approximately 428 people had enrolled in one of the three online modules.

In conjunction with the online modules, the Commission also facilitated a face-to-face ‘Train the Trainer’ program in Human Rights Education. The primary objective of the workshops was to develop the confidence and skills of a group of university-level human rights lecturers to deliver forthcoming workshops on human rights education for teachers and education officials. There were 15 law lecturers from five academic institutions who participated and four observers from the Ministry of Education and Training.

The immediate outcome of the training is that participants should have an enhanced understanding of the purpose and principles of human rights education, and effective adult learning methodologies. To assess these changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes, participants were asked to complete a feedback survey, including rating their knowledge, skills, and attitudes both before and after the workshop, in relation to a series of statements:

Overall, responses indicated that 33–46% increased:

  • their knowledge and understanding of human rights education and adult learning principles, and
  • their confidence to apply those principles in upcoming human rights education workshops.

Qualitative feedback also demonstrated training benefits experienced by the respondents:

‘The interactive method was interesting which enhanced learning.’

‘The online course (training) was very useful.’

‘I have learned quite a bit about important pedagogical skills from lecturers as well as classmates.’

—survey respondents

Advancing Responsible Business Conduct Partnership:

This Partnership with the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) aims to advance responsible business conduct in Vietnam through increasing the human rights knowledge and capabilities of businesses and future business leaders. Under this partnership, the Commission has facilitated the attendance of VCCI partners at international and interregional forums on business and human rights, raising their awareness and understanding of the need for human rights protection in Vietnam.

The Commission has also been involved in drafting a Responsible Business Conduct sector guide, focusing on human rights concerns in the Footwear and Apparel sector in Vietnam. The Guide will be the first of a number, each providing guidance on how businesses in Vietnam can implement human rights into their operations. The information contained in the guides will also be used as a framework for subsequent business and stakeholder workshops and training for higher education professionals teaching business studies.

The outcomes of this Partnership build the capacity of the VCCI and business in Vietnam to understand and incorporate human rights frameworks, principles and practices into their business operations, with the aim of reducing human rights harms. Uptake and application of the Guide (and successive guides) in Vietnam will be demonstrated more clearly in Year 2 of this partnership.

Human Rights, Technology and Cyber Security in Vietnam

Developed in response to a request from Vietnamese Government representatives, the Human Rights, Technology and Cyber Security program aims to increase the understanding and commitment of Government of Vietnam officials regarding human rights online and the importance of an open, free and secure internet. With the support of DFAT,in partnering with Vietnamese Government departments, the Commission also seeks to strengthen existing and establish new networks between Australia and Vietnam.

The Commission is in the process of developing online training modules that focus on key topics including human rights online, online security for women and children, privacy online, hate speech online and human rights and artificial intelligence. These online modules will form part of a blended learning approach that will promote a more robust and informed approach to human rights online in Vietnam.

Lao PDR-Australia Human Rights Technical Cooperation Program (HRTCP)

The Lao PDR-Australia HRTCP is designed to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights in the Lao PDR, by sharing Australia’s experiences, supporting the Lao Government to enhance its engagement with the United Nations human rights mechanisms and building capacity around the Convention on the Rights of People with Disability (CRPD), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

In this period, the HRTCP delivered five activities, including civil society consultations for the UPR process, a training workshop for Lao Government officials on the CRPD, a study visit to Australia, and attendance at key UN engagements for key Lao Government personnel. The 6th Australia-Lao PDR Human Rights Dialogue also occurred, with participation facilitated in part by the HRTCP and the Commission in attendance.

This is the third year of the HRTCP, and the positive relationship between the Commission and the key implementing partner, the Department of Treaties and Law, continues to grow and strengthen. All activities have been implemented to a high standard, with feedback and evaluation surveys consistently reporting positive outcomes and progress towards the HRTCP objectives. One indication of the success of the HRTCP is its recent expansion to also providing support to the Lao Government on its COVID-19 response to ensure human rights are considered and respected in the response and recovery efforts.

Supporting Human Rights in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

Supported by DFAT, this program aims to foster partnerships, collaboration and cooperation on human rights between the Commission and ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and ASEAN-based NHRIs. In this reporting period, the Commission was a trusted partner in the 3rd annual Human Rights Dialogue between Australia and AICHR, as well as the AICHR Inter-regional Dialogue on Business and Human Rights and the 2019 Bangkok Business Week.

The Commission worked to strengthen knowledge, capacity and cooperation on human rights in the region through facilitating the attendance of six ASEAN-based NHRI representatives at the AICHR Inter-regional Dialogue, the 2019 Bangkok Business Week and NHRI-specific inter-regional meetings.

Commission presentations at a number of AICHR events not only raised human rights knowledge and capacity, it also promoted Australia’s role as a proponent of human rights in the ASEAN region.2

Repeated requests for the Commission’s involvement in and contribution to AICHR and ASEAN NHRI-related programs indicates recognition of the Commission’s relevance and effectiveness in building knowledge, co-operation and capacity of human rights in ASEAN. Participants in Commission-facilitated NHRI-specific meetings have noted that these are invaluable opportunities to learn, share and collaborate on inter-regional human rights issues.


  1. Seven open consultation sessions, five women’s consultation sessions, three student consultations, over a dozen targeted consultation sessions were held in Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Townsville. In February 2020, six consultations were held in Perth and Darwin. Consultations in Tasmania did not take place because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
  2. AICHR Inter-regional Dialogue, the Regional Consultation of Commonalities of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) in ASEAN Member States and Advancing a harmonised and Rights-based Approach to EIA in ASEAN, and the AICHR Regional Dialogue on the Mainstreaming of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the ASEAN Community (Gender Perspectives on Disability Rights).