Posted by: Castan Centre | May 8, 2017

Hello from Geneva!

By Madelaine King

I feel I should make a full disclosure before reading on: I am not a law student, nor have I formally studied international politics in any shape or form. This blog will chronicle my experience as a non-law/politics student interning with the Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations for the 34th session of the Human Rights Council and the 2017 Bennelong Indigenous intern for the Castan Centre for Human Rights. As such, expect plain language and simplified explanations, free of technical terms and jargon – something I’ll pretend is a skillset I’ve acquired throughout my medical training, and not due to being in over my head.

UN Geneva

As a final year medical student, I applied for this internship with the hope of expanding my knowledge of how political and government systems interact within the United Nations and in a human rights framework. As has been echoed many times throughout the preceding weeks of council, knowledge and education is power and I had hopes that this opportunity would better equip me to become a leader and advocate for human rights at home.

Human Rights Council 101

Four weeks into my internship, I have essentially undergone a crash course in international politics, international and human rights law and diplomacy. I won’t go into detail about how the council operates, but there are essential three main components:

  1. The main plenary in Room XX (the room with the fancy ceiling*), where the formal items of the council take place. This includes addresses from the High Commissioner, general debates, panel discussions, reports from Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts and the Universal Periodic Reviews.
  2. Informal negotiations, which is where resolutions that have been drafted by states are reviewed and critiqued by the other states in an informal and ‘friendly’ round-table kind of way. Consider your thesis being broken down line-by-line and the wording, language, punctuation and references being torn to shreds.
  3. Side events, which are put on by missions, non-government organisations (NGOs) or national human rights institutes (NHRIs) and usually take the form of an expert panel presentation with space for open discussion from the floor. Side event topics range from the protection of human rights defenders and the importance of providing reformed sexuality education to women and girls, to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and using Universal Jurisdiction to end impunity for war crimes committed in Syria.


On a day to day basis, my schedule will consist of a three-hour shift in the main plenary and then a mixture of informal negotiations and side events. There is a lot going on and the council moves very fast. In a single day I may have covered the panel discussion on climate change and the rights of the child, an informal negotiation on the right to privacy in the digital age and a side event on the human rights situation in Myanmar. It often feels like there is little time to fully digest and reflect on the serious, urgent and awful current affairs being discussed. What has truly been a blessing has been connecting with the community of international interns and professionals here in Geneva; a wonderfully diverse group of intelligent, passionate and like-minded individuals, always up for a debrief and discussion over a glass of wine and copious amounts of Swiss cheese. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to engage with such brilliant, forward thinking minds and it gives me hope for the future in the current global climate of rising xenophobia and intolerance.


Candidate for the UN Human Rights Council 2018-2020

It has been an interesting time to commence an internship at the Australian Mission due to Australia’s ongoing 2018-2020 campaign for council membership. Since the announcement by Julie Bishop in 2015 we’ve all read the opinion pieces, heard the criticisms and engaged in debates surrounding Australia’s bid.

My fellow interns and I arrived as the campaign was peaking; the pinnacle being an event entitled Future Dreaming: a celebration of Indigenous Australian culture and Australian food and wine and the showcase was to include a performance by the Bangarra Dance Theatre and an Indigenous art exhibition.

Having just arrived from Australia, at first I found this concept quite jarring; it appeared the Australian government wished to project an image to the international community that is far from the reality of the rights of Indigenous people on the ground, and throughout that first week I struggled to shake the uncomfortable feeling that Indigenous Australian culture was being appropriated to serve a political agenda.

It was unclear if a single Indigenous person, other than the Bangarra Theatre, were consulted or involved in the organising of the event. It was also unclear if these were questions that were okay to be asked. After raising these concerns however, I was reassured that there had in fact been a great deal of input from Indigenous partners in Australia and a significant amount of work had been invested in building a foundation of trust in these relationships. It was also conveyed to me that by putting Indigenous rights at the forefront of their campaign, the Australian government was attempting to take ownership of the past, acknowledge their failings and not shy away from the challenges they still face. As an intern I was pleasantly surprised to have my concerns taken seriously and to be given the opportunity to engage in a constructive conversation.

When the night arrived, I think the event was executed in a culturally sensitive manner and it really was an evening of celebration of Indigenous Australian culture. The Bangarra dancers were breath-taking and received a well-deserved standing ovation. The issues surrounding Indigenous rights are incredibly complex and there are no easy solutions, but I do believe that partnerships and collaborations with Indigenous Australians like this, are of upmost importance if we are to heal and move forwards as a united community.

No state has a perfect human rights record and it’s clear you don’t need one to serve on the council; current members include Egypt, China and Saudi Arabia. As Philippe Magid, the executive director of Bangarra Dance Theatre said in his address, Australia still has a long way to go regarding recognition of the rights of Indigenous Australians but he hoped that Australia’s bid for a seat on the council was a step in the right direction and would make them more accountable of human rights violations of Indigenous people. I can only hope he’s right and that meaningful policy shift that results in positive change on the ground will follow. In the meantime, I will utilise this opportunity to learn as much as I can to better advocate, protect and promote the human rights of all, especially our Indigenous people.


*so it’s actually called Miquel Barcelo’s Dome, there you go.

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