Monday, October 16, 2017

Australia and Human Rights

As Australia prepares to join the UN’s powerful human rights councilofficials from Canberra will appear in Geveva before the UN human rights committee to be critically assessed by a panel of experts, with its controversial asylum policies and persistent indigenous issues highlighted as areas of significant concern. Areport prepared for the Geneva committee argues while Australia has made some positive steps towards improving human rights protection, such as sex discrimination laws and parliamentary scrutiny of rights in legislation, it says “in some areas Australia has clearly gone backwards”.

A coalition of non-government organisations will brief the committee on rights issues across Australia, and the country’s compliance with global rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Australia’s policies of boat turnbacks and indefinite offshore detention (re-introduced since Australia’s last assessment) are in violation of international law, and expose refugees, to whom Australia legally owes protection, to danger, and imposes cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The federal government recently agreed to pay $70 million in compensation to men illegally detained in dangerous and damaging conditions on PNG’s Manus Island.

Other issues cited as examples of Australia’s regression include: reports of systematic violence and abuse against children held in youth detention; the Australian federal police’s information-sharing with foreign security agencies that lead to the imposition of the death penalty; increased police powers to lock up indigenous Australians without charge; and extreme metadata retention laws. Australia signed the optional protocol to the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Opcat) in 2009.
Eight years on, it has still not ratified the Opcat, but has promised to by December this year. The protocol would require Australia to establish a monitoring mechanism to monitor all places of detention, including immigration and juvenile detention, prisons and police watch-houses.

The director of legal advocacy with the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, Emily Howie, told Guardian Australia: “A close look at Australia’s human rights record shows that Australia is going backwards almost across the board – on treatment of refugees, indigenous incarceration, violence against women, protecting children in youth justice and the physical safety of people with disability. Even our basic democratic rights, once supported across the parliament, are being diminished by excessive secrecy in government and laws that stop people from speaking out even where they witness human rights abuses or government misconduct,” Howie said. “Unfortunately, the asylum policies and treatment of indigenous people cast a pall over Australia’s international reputation ... If Australia wants to be taken seriously as a champion of human rights on the human rights council, it urgently needs to lift its game.”

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