Australia’s human rights record comes under UN scrutiny

17th Oct 2017

Australia’s approach to implementing and protecting human rights will be scrutinised by a United Nations (UN) committee this week, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

This human rights review, scheduled for 18/19 October in Geneva, coincides with the announcement that Australia has been elected as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

ALA National President Laura Neil said the UN Human Rights Committee will question representatives of the Australian government about its implementation of obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), one of the key documents in what is often referred to as the International Bill of Rights. The ALA was a key contributor to the NGO Coalition submission to the Committee, which was endorsed by 56 NGOs around Australia.

Mrs Neil said Australia’s commitment to protecting freedom of speech, freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, freedom from arbitrary detention, and freedom from discrimination will go under the microscope.

“Protecting these fundamental rights is essential to maintaining the kind of country we all want to live in,” Mrs Neil said.

“Strong and robust human rights protections mean we can say what is on our mind without fear, and where we can be confident that we can go about our lives without being unjustly detained,” Mrs Neil said.

“We need to be confident that our government won’t condone torture or ill-treatment, and that we won’t be discriminated against on the basis of our skin colour, gender, sexuality, background or any other personal characteristic.”

Mrs Neil said that these rights were increasingly coming under threat in Australia.

“Expecting freedoms such as these in Australia should not be much to ask. Australia has traditionally been a global leader in human rights. Unfortunately, we are increasingly seeing laws passed that compromise these fundamental rights,” Mrs Neil said.

“Right now, in Australia, people can be jailed for talking about abuses in offshore detention (under s42 of the Australian Border Force Act), or activities of ASIO that might embarrass the agency, but pose no risk to national security (under s35P of the ASIO Act). People can be detained or subjected to control orders without any allegation that they have done anything wrong (under divisions 104 or 105 of the Criminal Code Act).”

“Most concerning, the encroachment on our human rights looks set to continue. Just last week the federal government announced expanded counter-terrorism laws that have the potential to allow preventative detention for to up to 14 days without charge or trial of children as young as 10. These changes would appear to contravene a number of these rights.”

“The Human Rights Committee review is an opportunity to examine these limitations on our rights and see them for what they are: unnecessary, unfair, and ultimately illegal under international law,” Mrs Neil said.

“In view of Australia’s election to the Human Rights Council, it is essential that the government engages constructively with this review and implements the Committee’s recommendations.”

Mrs Neil said that as a member of the Human Rights Council, it was especially important that Australia’s commitment to upholding human rights, both in Australia and offshore, be above reproach. Ultimately, implementing the pledge that Australia made in its bid for election to the Council means that an enforceable human rights act should be passed into federal law.

“Australia is soon to ratify the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which will implement a rigorous system of monitoring of places of detention to guard against the risk of torture and ill-treatment,” Mrs Neil said.

“It is vital that when this Protocol is ratified, it is set up so as to cover offshore detention, such as the camps established by Australia on Manus Island and Nauru. This was a key recommendation of the NGO Coalition submission to the Human Rights Committee.”

Tags: Human rights Criminal justice terrorism Discrimination Australia International