UN Human Rights expert condemns Australia’s secrecy laws

21st Oct 2016

The Australian Government should heed concerns voiced by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders about the constitutionality of Australian secrecy laws that stifle freedom of speech and fail to protect whistleblowers, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

ALA spokesperson and barrister Greg Barns said that freedom of expression is essential for any democracy to thrive. He said the ALA shares many of the concerns raised by the Special Rapporteur about the constitutionality of these secrecy laws during his first visit to Australia this week.

“Whether the government likes it or not, we have a constitutional right to freedom of political communication in this country”, Mr Barns said.

“Many of the recently-passed secrecy laws that the Special Rapporteur is concerned about are likely to be unconstitutional”, Mr Barns said.

“Governments in Australia have developed a real enthusiasm for stifling freedom of speech in recent years”, Mr Barns said.

“These laws undermine our democracy and compromise our ability to know what is being done by governments in our name. Whistleblowers put themselves at enormous risk by exposing our government’s inhumanity. The fact that they are targeted and monitored is a poor reflection on our elected representatives around the country.”

The UN expert singled out the Australian Border Force Act as legislation of special concern:

“the Act’s existence and government actions aimed at censoring and intimidating advocates has had a chilling effect on the disclosure of information about violations in off-shore processing. And I have received evidence of significant consequences for [people who] blew the whistle. I met several doctors, teachers, lawyers and journalists, who either spoke out or covered conditions in offshore detention places and who have been under heavy surveillance.”

“While the secrecy provisions of the Australian Border Force Act have not resulted in any successful prosecutions yet, the impact has been to scare decent humane individuals who are gravely concerned about the torture that is occurring on Manus Island and Nauru.

“The government have recently exempted some health care professionals from the more draconian elements of this Act, in clear acknowledgment that this secrecy is damaging to asylum seekers and refugees”, Mr Barns said.

“The threat of legal proceedings is enough to stop the truth from being revealed in many cases. I have advised a number of people who are worried about speaking about their experiences on Manus and Nauru for fear of prosecution.  In a democracy this sort of fear should not occur. The government should remove the secrecy provisions for everyone, not just selected health professionals,” Mr Barns said.

“The real question is, why are governments spending so much energy hiding their actions and monitoring or punishing those who reveal them, when what they should be doing is working to ensure our democracy is strong and vibrant?”

The Special Rapporteur’s End of Mission Statement is available here:

For further details, contact Australian Lawyers Alliance Media Manager Nick Buchan on 0466 004 232, (02) 9258 7700 or at

Tags: Human rights