The former foreign minister Gareth Evans says that Australia’s decision not to sign up to a US-led statement on Israel may signal a “decent, principled” approach under the new government.
This week, 22 countries signed up to a statement calling for an end to the UN human rights council’s “longstanding disproportionate scrutiny” of Israel.
The statement said the 22 countries, including the US, were “deeply concerned” about an “open-ended” commission of inquiry set up by the UN body last year.
The independent inquiry’s mandate is to “investigate, in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law” and provide annual reports.
Its initial report, published last week, said the continued occupation by Israel of Palestinian territory and discrimination against Palestinians were the root causes of the recurrent tensions, instability, and protraction of conflict in the region.
Three countries in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing grouping – the US, the UK, and Canada – signed the statement criticizing the inquiry, but the remaining two, Australia and New Zealand, did not.
Evans, who served as foreign minister from 1988 to 1996 under both the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, welcomed the decision.
“I think it’s an excellent start for the new government to give a very clear message that it’s going to adopt a decent, principled, and balanced approach to Middle East issues, which is long overdue,” Evans told Guardian Australia.
Other countries to join with Israel in signing the statement included Brazil, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Guatemala.
The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, and her department have been contacted for comment.
Australia’s representative in Geneva is expected to address the human rights council on Tuesday evening. Australia plans to use this opportunity to express its position using its voice.
While Australia’s decision is unlikely to reflect a fundamental shift in policy, human rights campaigners have welcomed the signal.
Sophie McNeill, an Australian researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the statement was “the first real test on Israel-Palestine for the Albanese government”.
“We’re pleased that Australia didn’t sign the US statement because it undermines an important process to investigate serious human rights concerns,” she said.
“We welcome the fact that Minister Wong appears to be sending the message that she’s going to be more consistent and measured and that accountability is important no matter which country.”
McNeill said that given that the US, the UK, and Germany had signed the statement, she could imagine Australia under the former Morrison government would have joined it.
But she said it would “send a terrible message to be undermining global accountability mechanisms” when the UN human rights council also faced important decisions on holding Russia and China to account.
“We can’t just pick and choose. Accountability mechanisms matter in Israel-Palestine, they matter on Russia-Ukraine, they matter on Xinjiang, they matter on Myanmar. We have to be consistent.”
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has long called for a two-state solution “with a state of Palestine, with a state of Israel, both having secure borders”.
In May 2018, Albanese asked the Morrison government to explain why Australia voted against a UN human rights council push to hold an independent investigation into the killings of Palestinian protesters in Gaza.
In August 2014, Albanese said the “collective punishment” endured by the people of Gaza was “completely unacceptable”.
The commission of inquiry is chaired by Navanethem Pillay, a South African jurist who is also a former UN high commissioner for human rights.
Its initial report said: “The continuing occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, the 15-year blockade of Gaza and longstanding discrimination within Israel are all intrinsically linked, and cannot be looked at in isolation.”
The commission’s members include the former Australian human rights commissioner Christopher Sidoti, who said last week that Israel “clearly has no intention of ending the occupation”.
“It has established clear policies to ensure complete permanent control over the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” Sidoti said in a statement announcing the findings.
The report did not limit its criticism to Israel. It said the Palestinian Authority frequently used the occupation to justify its own human rights violations and as the core reason for its failure to hold legislative and presidential elections.
The report added that the de facto authorities in Gaza had shown little commitment to upholding human rights and no adherence to international humanitarian law.
The US ambassador to the UN human rights council, Michèle Taylor, said on Monday the commission of inquiry had an “open-ended mandate with no sunset clause, end date, or clear limitations connected to the escalation in May 2021”.
Delivering the joint statement to the human rights council on behalf of 22 countries on Monday, Taylor said “a growing cross-regional group” of countries believed the nature of the inquiry was “further demonstration of longstanding, disproportionate attention given to Israel in the Council and must stop”.
“Regrettably, we are concerned that the Commission of Inquiry will further contribute to the polarisation of a situation about which so many of us are concerned,” Taylor said.
Israel has not cooperated with the inquiry. Its diplomats argued the country would not receive fair, equitable, and non-discriminatory treatment.