International rights group Amnesty International claimed that Australia continued to flout international conventions with its policy of mandatory detention for illegal immigrants, even as ambassador Michael Smith took control of the UN body.

"This is obviously going to lead to increased scrutiny of Australia's record, particularly its treatment of asylum seekers," Amnesty's Australian spokeswoman Suzy Clark said.

"We hope the Australian government will re-examine its policy to ensure it complies with its international obligations."

"This is obviously going to lead to increased scrutiny of Australia's record, particularly its treatment of asylum seekers. We hope the Australian government will re-examine its policy to ensure it complies with its international obligations"

Suzy Clark,
Amnesty spokeswoman

Smith, who took the leadership of the rights body from Libya, said critics had to be realistic when questioning Australia's human rights record.

"Australia's a country which has elections regularly," he told ABC radio. "It has very active oppositions in state and federal government, that make governments accountable and force transparency.

"We have a very free and open press - now, all of that you wouldn't find in very many countries anywhere around the world."

Rights record

The Australian government and the UN rights body had clashed in 2002 after a report from the Geneva-based commission criticised the length of time illegal immigrants were held in detention camps and conditions for child detainees.

Illegal immigrants are held in
detention camps like these

Senior ministers had dismissed the report at the time as biased, emotive and inaccurate.

Australia has described immigration detention as essential for maintaining its border protection and rejected claims it is inconsistent with its international obligations.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia would use its 12 months in charge of the commission to examine practical reforms that would ensure the body remained relevant and responsive.

"Australia has a long-standing commitment to protecting and promoting human rights around the world," he said.

New-York-based group Human Rights Watch said Australia had a chance to reinvigorate the commission and prevent it being "an abusers' club" dominated by countries with poor human rights records.

"Abusive governments - such as China, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Cuba and Iran - have used their membership of the panel to undermine its work," it said in a statement.

"This is a chance for Australia to restore its battered reputation, as well as that of the commission."