‘Serious human rights issues’ in Australia

Dominic Giannini |

Shameful, concerning and failing are three words that have been used to describe Australia’s human rights approach in key areas by a global watchdog. 

Human Rights Watch says Australia’s strong record of protecting human rights is marred by its treatment of refugees, Indigenous peoples and those with disability.

HRW’s annual human rights report said “serious human rights issues remain” despite Australia having a strong history of protecting civil and political rights.

The federal government’s failure to address the cruel treatment of asylum seekers despite international pressure tarnishes the country’s global standing, HRW’s Australian director Elaine Pearson said.

“Australia is a leader in human rights repression with its offshore processing of asylum seekers,” Ms Pearson told AAP.

Twelve people have died under Australia’s offshore processing regime since 2013, half of them suicides, HRW noted. 

The mandatory detention of asylum seekers also raised concerns with the international human rights advocate.

“Mandatory detention is extremely concerning,” Ms Pearson said. 

“The world’s No.1 tennis player has squarely put the world’s attention on our system. It should be used as a last resort but it is used in the first instance to lock up people with visa issues.”

Ms Pearson also labelled Australia’s climate policy as shameful, saying the country was one of those contributing most to climate change with its support of the fossil fuel industry.

This is in contrast to its Pacific island nations who are most directly bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, she said.

Australian researcher at HRW Sophie McNeill said Australia was failing to take the issue seriously despite it posing a serious risk to the fundamental rights to life, health, food, and an adequate standard of living.

“The global climate crisis is a human rights crisis and Australia, as one of the world’s biggest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases, is failing to meet its global responsibilities,” she said.

“The Australian government should rapidly reduce emissions and stop subsidising fossil fuels to prevent the most catastrophic climate outcomes.”

HRW’s 2022 world report also identifies the incarceration of children under the age of 14, restrictions on citizens entering and leaving Australia, a failure of universities to protect free speech and a failure to repatriate nationals arbitrarily detained in Syria as human rights issues in the country. 

The banning of citizens from entering and leaving the country during the pandemic was also criticised, with more than 43,000 Australians stranded abroad. 

“This punitive approach to travel left tens of thousands of Australian families separated from their loved ones,” the report says. 

“Strict and inflexible domestic travel restrictions inside Australia left families separated and others unable to return home, with individuals refused permission to travel across state borders for compassionate reasons or medical treatment.”

Australian researchers are also being left vulnerable to harassment and intimidation by supporters of the Chinese government due to a failure of universities to protect free speech, the report found. 

“Chinese pro-democracy students in Australia alter their behaviour and self-censor to avoid threats and harassment from fellow classmates and being “reported on” by them to authorities back home,” it reads.

Not imposing targeted sanctions against senior military leaders in Myanmar accused of serious human rights violations after a coup, and the voting down of proposed legislation banning imports from China’s Xinjiang, are listed as further failures to uphold human rights.