Australia was condemned overnight by the UN Human Rights Committee for its human rights record on a range of issues including refugees, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ rights, youth justice, democratic freedoms and Australia’s failure to respond appropriately to UN guidance.
The UN Committee honed in on Australia’s cruelty to refugees as the crisis on Manus Island continues to escalate. The Committee stated that Australia has effective control over the facility and is responsible for the men’s safety. It urged the Government to evacuate every man currently held on Manus and bring them to safety.
Hugh de Kretser, the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, said it is clear that the UN is deeply concerned by the Australian Government’s deteriorating human rights performance, especially its mistreatment of people seeking asylum.
"Manus is on a knife’s edge and the UN has found that it’s Australia’s responsibility to protect the men held there. Instead, the Australian Government has cut food, power and water. These innocent men are in great danger but they have nowhere safe to go. They're terrified of violence if they stay. They're terrified of violence if they leave. These men deserve a future, but instead of bringing them to safety, our Government is trying to bludgeon them into returning to persecution or moving from one dead end camp to another," said Mr de Kretser.
The criticism comes in the same week that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called the situation on Manus a ‘humanitarian emergency’.
“These men have been shot at, beaten and suffered the mental torment of not knowing if or when their ordeal would ever end. They’ve watched friends die there. Manus is not a safe place for them - never has been, never will be. The UN, the PNG Government, the New Zealand Government, Manus locals, people around Australia - everyone can see it. Enough is enough. These men are our Government’s responsibility. The Australian Government must evacuate them immediately to safety,” said Mr de Kretser.
This report comes just one month after Australia was elected to a coveted seat on the UN Human Rights Council, the world’s premier human rights body.
“Our Government was just appointed to the Human Rights Council a month ago, and already it’s clear that its cruelty to refugees will haunt it wherever it goes. For as long our Government continues to deliberately mistreat innocent people – people just seeking a chance at life in freedom and safety – Australia will lack credibility or moral authority on human rights,” said Mr de Kretser.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ rights
The UN urged Australia to take measures to address the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prisons, highlighting mandatory sentencing laws and laws allowing imprisonment for fine default for review.
Ruth Barson, a Director of Legal Advocacy with the HRLC said, “Governments around Australia are tearing families and communities apart by locking up more and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than ever before. The Australian Government should implement justice targets and partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and organisations to urgently develop workable solutions.”
The UN expressed concern that the age of criminal responsibility in states and territories is as low as 10, urging Australia to bring the age in accordance with international standards.
“Abuse in youth jails is systemic across Australia. From hooding children in the NT, to hog ties in QLD, extended solitary confinement in NSW and children being left in their own urine in WA - every jurisdiction in Australia must fix their broken youth justice systems. Next week's NT Royal Commission's findings will be agenda setting. The Federal Government should lead the charge and ensure all states and territories raise the age of criminal responsibility to be consistent with human rights standards; and champion a significant reduction in the number of children being locked away behind bars,” said Ms Barson.
The UN criticised Australia’s metadata laws that allow law enforcement authorities to access everyone’s telecommunications data without a warrant or any prior review. It recommended judges provide proper oversight of the process.
Emily Howie, a Director of Legal Advocacy with the HRLC said, “The UN has confirmed that Australia’s metadata laws go too far. Metadata laws not only allow an unreasonable invasion of people’s private lives but they have been used to target journalists jeopardising the confidentiality of sources and undermining press freedom. That is an attack on the free and independent press that is a fundamental foundation of our democracy.”
The UN also criticised laws across Australia that discriminate against people with intellectual and psychosocial disability by preventing people of “unsound mind” from voting at elections, and Queensland laws that deny all prisoners the right to vote.
“Australia has a way to go to ensure that we have allow full participation on Election Day. As a community we shouldn’t be preventing people living with a disability from participating in our democracy. We should be providing the necessary support to ensure everyone has an opportunity to have their say by casting their vote. There is also no good justification for a blanket ban on prisoners casting a vote,” said Ms Howie
Australia’s relationship to the UN
The UN also criticised Australia’s chronic non-compliance with its findings and urged Australia to fix its repeated failure to implement UN views.
“The fact is Australia has snubbed its nose at the UN for years and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. The difference now is that Australia has a powerful new seat on the Human Rights Council and is expected to maintain the highest standards of human rights. It’s essential that Australia use this opportunity to build global support for human rights, and it should begin by getting its house in order,” said Ms Howie.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a core UN human rights treaty that sets out how nations should uphold the civil and political rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When countries sign up to the treaty, they commit to being periodically reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee.
A coalition of Australian NGOs coordinated by the HRLC and the Kingsford Legal Centre traveled to Geneva to brief the UN Human Rights Committee – the panel of 18 independent human rights experts tasked with assessing Australia’s adherence to the ICCPR.
Download report here: Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Australia
For interviews or further information please call:
Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519