News. In Human Rights Watch’s annual World Report, which documents human rights practice in 90 countries around the world, human rights records in Australia in 2015 illustrate the work that the country still needs to achieve in this area. Moreover the fact that Australia announced its candidacy for a seat at the Human Rights Council in Geneva for the 2018-2020 term, gives the country an opportunity to address its domestic human rights issues.
On February 8th, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that Philip Ruddock, former immigration minister, will take the position of Australia’s first special envoy for human rights. The surprising decision is a part of the campaign started by Australia for a seat at the Human Rights Council. Unfortunately, Australia doesn’t have a clean slate in the field of human rights. Already last year, the then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott mentioned that Australia was “sick of being lectured to” by the United Nations regarding its human rights record. But even the new government is demonstrating a willingness to dismiss inconvenient human rights obligations.
Weak human rights standards
The country has a great record of protecting civil and political rights with robust institutions, but the government is failing to respect international standards. Australia disappoints when it comes to its human rights record and shows a poor state of human rights, especially regarding the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers as well as indigenous Australians.
Mandatory detention for all unauthorized arrivals
Australia has a policy of mandatory detention for all unauthorized arrivals, transferring migrants and asylum seekers to offshore processing sites in countries that are less-equipped, such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG). As of October 2015, 929 asylum seekers and refugees were detained on Manus Island, PNG, while 621 were in a center on Nauru. Furthermore the country has also returned many boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers to Sri Lanka and Vietnam, despite the fact that these countries have poor rights records. Australia also towed boats carrying asylum seekers to Indonesia, endangering their lives. The immigration department established an independent review of detention conditions in the Nauru center and found out that children as well as adults were sexually and physically assaulted inside the center. Thirty-three asylum seekers have confessed being victims of rape or sexual assault at the center.A parliamentary senate inquiry found that the conditions on Nauru were “not adequate, appropriate or safe”. According to Human Rights Watch, instead of taking care of the safety of asylum seekers and refugees in immigration detention facilities, the government limited public discussion of important issues regarding migrants and refugees.
Many UN Special Rapporteur have pointed their fingers at Australia: for example, in March 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, said that Australia was in violation of the Convention against Torture due to the fact that the country was failing to provide adequate detention conditions, end the practice of detaining children as well as put a stop to violence in processing centers. This was followed in September by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants who postponed a visit to Australia due to the “lack of full cooperation from the government regarding protection concerns and access to detention centres”.
According to Human Rights Watch, when it comes to indigenous rights, Australia is also falling behind. In November 2015, the country appeared before the Human Rights Council to defend its rights as part of the Universal Period Review (UPR) process, which led many countries to ask Australia to address the discrimination that indigenous Australians are facing on a day-to-day basis. The country needs to address the underlying causes of gaps in fields such as health, education, housing as well as employment between indigenous and non-indigenous.
Australia is a country that holds strong democratic values in a multi-cultural society and also has a history of protecting and promoting human rights values, especially in the period that followed the World War II. But to regain the moral high ground as well as to respect international law, Australia should urgently address these human rights issues to be able to finally regain its place as an international human rights leader.
HRW (2016). Australia Is No Longer A Human Rights Leader. February 24th 2016. IN: HRW (Online). https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/02/24/australia-no-longer-human-rights-leader Accessed on February 29th 2016.
HRW (2016). Australia: Events of 2015. IN: HRW (Online). https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/australia Accessed on February 29th 2016.
SBS (2016). Australians Sick of UN Lectures: Abbott. March 9th 2015. IN: SBS (Online). http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/03/09/australians-sick-un-lectures-abbott Accessed on February 29th 2016.