UN body recommends urgent action to remedy Australia’s human rights

10th Nov 2017

The UN Human Rights Committee has today slammed Australia’s human rights record, recommending the implementation of ‘comprehensive federal legislation’ to guarantee human rights, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

The government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, indigenous people, people in detention and of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) were highlighted as particular areas of concern for the Committee, as were laws relating to counter-terrorism efforts, violence against women and privacy.

Laura Neil, barrister and ALA National President, said that these concluding observations were a definitive statement that Australia’s human rights record needed urgent improvement.

“This Committee has echoed concerns that the ALA and others have been raising for years. Human rights are the marker of a healthy and vibrant democracy. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said so herself in a speech to the Lowy Institute last year, when she said that ‘Respecting fundamental human rights and freedoms, and building them into the fabric of a society, makes us safer and more secure. Human rights, security, peace and prosperity go hand in hand.’ The ALA wholeheartedly supports this statement,” said Mrs Neil.

Mrs Neil referred to the specific concerns that the Committee raised about treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in offshore processing countries.

“It appears that only the Australian government believes that it can escape responsibility for asylum seekers by shipping them to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The Human Rights Committee was alarmed by the conditions for refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention, and particularly by the closure of the Manus Island facility. The Committee is clear that Australia has effective control over offshore processing centres, and is responsible for conditions there, recommending that it protect the rights of those affected by the closing of the Manus centre. It clearly recommended that all offshore processing should end.

“The ALA has been making the same recommendation since offshore processing re-started in 2012. The Committee is clear that using detention as a deterrent against irregular arrivals, rather than in response to individual risk, is unacceptable,” said Mrs Neil.

Mrs Neil referred to the case of at least one refugee who has been indefinitely detained for years on the basis of a security assessment that the government has long admitted was false and based on evidence extracted under torture. She noted the Committee’s recommendation that everyone detained was entitled to a meaningful right to appeal against indefinite detention, including where adverse security assessments exist.

The Committee also referred to Australia’s ever-expanding counter-terrorism laws.

“The Committee recommended that any limitations of human rights for national security purposes should be strictly necessary and proportionate to meet those aims. Numerous government-ordered reviews have recommended winding back some of the more extreme elements of our counter-terrorism law, such as questioning and detention warrants, preventative detention, and control orders. However these laws are still on our books. It’s just not good enough,” said Mrs Neil.

The Committee was also worried by the denigration of the Australian Human Rights Commission by political leaders.

“The ALA was very troubled by the criticism of the AHRC and its former President, Professor Gillian Triggs, following the release of the Commission’s report into children in immigration detention in 2014. Now the Human Rights Committee has reiterated these concerns, recommending that Australia ‘refrain from any actions or measures that could undermine the independence of the Australian Human Rights Commission’. It further recommended that funding for the AHRC should be restored, as promised by government representatives to the Committee. Implementing these recommendations is essential,” said Mrs Neil.

The UN Human Rights Committee oversees Australia’s implementation of the obligations that it has agreed to be bound by under international law. It comprises 18 experts from around the world, who are leaders in their fields and act in a personal capacity, not as representatives of any government.

  • You can review the NGO coalition submission to the Committee here.
  • ALA’s submission on refugees and asylum seekers is available here, and a recent media release can be found here.
  • You can find our submission on the AHRC and freedom of speech here.
  • You can find our submission on questioning and detention warrants here, and on preventative detention and control orders here.

Tags: Human rights Asylum seekers and refugees Access to justice Criminal justice Indigenous rights