Joint letter calling on PM Abbott to retract torture comments

In response to comments  made by the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott during his visit to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth, the Human Rights Law Centre wrote a joint letter with  Human Rights Watch, the Castan Centre for Human Rights, Amnesty International and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights urging the Prime Minister to make a strong public statement that the Australian government always deplores the use of torture and that torture can never be justified.

A copy of the joint letter can be found here.

A media release about the letter can be found here.



Submission on Queensland G20 Bill

On 17 October 2013, the Human Rights Law Centre lodged a submission with Queensland's Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee on the G20 (Safety and Security) Bill 2013. The Bill gives broad sweeping powers to police, creates new offences and presumptions against bail for the duration of the G20 meeting to be held in Brisbane between 14 and 17 November 2013. The HRLC’s submission, entitled “G20, Security and Human Rights”, addresses a number of human rights concerns raised by the Bill.

The G20 is a global event attracting a number of high profile global leaders and the Bill addresses the legitimate concern regarding the safety and security of attendees and local residents. However, a balance must be struck between this and respecting the public’s freedom of expression, freedom of association, right to peaceful assembly and right to privacy during the G20 meetings. The HRLC believes the Bill goes far too far in infringing on these rights and could have a stifling effect on legitimate peaceful protest.

The G20 event will showcase Queensland and Australia to the world. The Queensland Government should ensure that legislation around the event promotes and protects fundamental human rights, rather than undermining them. With amendment, the Bill can achieve the appropriate balance between security and protest rights.

The HRLC makes various recommendations, including:  requiring police officers to hold a reasonable suspicion before using the search powers, or the powers to request identity and reasons for presence, under the Bill; and removing the presumption against bail in the Bill or at a minimum removing the presumption against bail for “disrupting” offences.  

A copy of the HRLC’s submission can be found here.

A media release on this submission is available here.

Commonwealth governments should not attend Sri Lankan summit

The heads of Commonwealth governments should not attend the 2013 Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka in November because of the government’s unwillingness to address ongoing human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the 54 heads of Commonwealth countries. Those governments deciding to attend should send a low-level delegation as a public message of dissatisfaction.

During a visit to Sri Lanka in August, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, expressed grave concerns about lack of accountability, unresolved enforced disappearances, and decreasing fundamental freedoms, among other issues.

“The Sri Lankan government should be shunned – not rewarded – for failing to hold anyone accountable for war crimes during the country’s recent conflict,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Attending a summit in Sri Lanka so soon after the UN rights chief decried a worsening situation sends the wrong message to the government and to victims seeking justice.”

Since the end of the country’s civil armed conflict in May 2009, the human rights record under the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has remained poor. The government has become increasingly authoritarian, attacking the independence of the judiciary and severely limiting the space for public criticism by the media and human rights groups. Despite credible allegations by both the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts and the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) of numerous wartime abuses by both sides, the government has undertaken no serious investigations or prosecutions.

The Panel of Experts estimated that as many as 40,000 civilians died in the final months of the war.

The Sri Lankan government’s unwillingness to address these concerns resulted in the UN Human Rights Council adoption of a resolution in March 2013 calling on Sri Lanka to implement the many recommendations made by the LLRC. Since the resolution, the Sri Lankan government has made many pronouncements about adopting the recommendations, but has demonstrated little genuine progress in implementation.

“Holding the summit in Sri Lanka casts serious doubts on the Commonwealth’s stated commitment to supporting human rights and democratic reform,” Adams said. “Instead of participating in a propaganda coup for the Sri Lankan government, Commonwealth heads of government should stay home and publicly press Sri Lanka on its repressive policies and lack of accountability.”

Source: Human Rights Watch.

Submission: Decriminalisation of abortion is central to the realisation of women's human rights.

The Human Rights Law Centre has made a submission to a Parliamentary Committee reviewing a proposed new law that will decriminalise abortion in Tasmania.

The HRLC’s Director of Advocacy and Campaigns, Rachel Ball, said abortion is currently the only publicly funded health service that is criminalised.

Download a copy of the submission here.

Submission: Monitoring of Places of Detention in the Northern Territory

Proposed legislation in the Northern Territory which will enable independent experts to visit places of detention will play an important role in preventing ill-treatment, says the HRLC. In a submission to the NT Government, the HRLC has welcomed the draft legislation but recommended a number of changes to ensure full compliance with Australia’s international obligations.

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Senate Committee report into “justice reinvestment” as a means of combating Australia’s growing imprisonment rates

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee has released a report on the value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia. The concept of justice reinvestment involves redirecting government money spent on prisons towards initiatives aimed at addressing the underlying social and economic determinants of crime.

The Committee’s report investigates the drivers behind the growth in Australia’s imprisonment rates, the social and economic costs and consequences of imprisonment, and the benefits of a justice reinvestment approach to address these issues. The report also considers the over-representation of disadvantaged groups in Australian prisons, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people experiencing mental ill-health.

The majority report of the Committee makes a series of recommendations on the role that can be played by the Commonwealth Government in promoting a justice reinvestment approach in Australia. These recommendations include ensuring long term sustainable funding, the identification of relevant data required, a trial using a place-based approach, and the establishment of an independent central body to play a coordinating role among states and territories.

A copy of the Committee’s report is available here.

A copy of the HRLC’s submission to the inquiry, which focuses on how a human rights framework supports the adoption of a justice reinvestment approach, is available here.

Senate Committee recommends greater human rights scrutiny for decisions by Australia’s export credit agency

The Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade has recommended greater transparency, accountability and focus on human rights and environmental consequences when the statutory Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC) makes decisions to finance local and international projects involving Australian companies.

The EFIC (New Mandate and Other Measures) Bill 2013 introduces changes to the EFIC’s operations following review by the Australian Productivity Commission. The Productivity Commission endorsed many of the recommendations it received from community organisations including the HRLC (See the HRLC submission here). It recommended, among other things, removing the freedom of information exemption for the EFIC given the importance of public scrutiny of projects with social impacts and including a statutory obligation on EFIC to comply with Australia’s human rights obligations.

The government did not adopt these recommendations in the Bill. Acknowledging this gap, the Senate Committee recommended reviewing current freedom of information exemptions for EFIC functions and encouraged the Minister to incorporate current accepted human rights and environmental standards (such as the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights) into the Minister’s Statement of Expectations to the EFIC. It also suggested these standards could be incorporated as ‘indicative standards’ in the EFIC Act which sets out how EFIC will exercise its duties.

The HRLC is a member of the EFIC Multi Stakeholder Forum (MSF). HRLC endorsed the submission of Jubilee Australia, another member of the MSF, to the Senate Committee.

The Bill was not passed in the Winter session of Parliament. A copy of the Senate Committee’s report is available here.

Queensland youth justice proposals misguided and raise human rights concerns

The HRLC has made a submission to the Queensland Department of Justice on the ‘Safer Street Crime Action Plan – Youth Justice’ released by the Attorney General in March 2013. The Action Plan canvasses a range of reforms to the youth justice system in Queensland designed to make communities safer.

However, the HRLC is concerned that many of the measures being considered undermine this objective. Proposed reforms such as boot camps, criminalising bail breaches, making it easier to publish the names of young offenders, automatically transferring 18 year olds to adult prisons and allowing courts to access a person’s youth criminal history when sentencing them as an adult are unlikely to reduce crime by young people and may increase the risk of reoffending.

The HRLC submission outlines how a human rights framework supports and informs approaches to youth justice and reducing youth crime and incarceration, as well as contributes to the fulfilment of Australia’s international legal obligations. This submission:

  • explains the relevance and benefits of a human rights approach to youth justice reforms;
  • provides an overview of relevant human rights obligations;
  • outlines relevant recommendations made by various UN human rights bodies that relate to the reform of youth justice approaches in Queensland; and
  • considers, in particular, issues faced by young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their interaction with the criminal justice system.

The HRLC’s submission makes a range of practical recommendations to ensure that the proposals are consistent with human rights principles and will be effective at reducing crime and making communities safer.


Submission: Mandatory Alcohol Treatment in the Northern Territory

In a submission to the Northern Territory Government, the HRLC has expressed concern that draconian new powers to tackle alcohol misuse will not be effective and breach Australia's human rights obligations.

The Alcohol Mandatory Treatment Bill (2013) proposes to introduce short-term involuntary residential or community-based treatment in cases where a person’s alcohol misuse is a risk to the health, safety or welfare of the person or others and the person could benefit from a mandatory treatment order. The operation of the Bill is automatically triggered when an individual is apprehended and taken into custody for public intoxication for the third time in two months.

The HRLC is concerned that the Bill raises significant human rights issues in relation to:

  • freedom from arbitrary detention;
  • the right to a fair trial;
  • the right to health and freedom from forced medical treatment;
  • freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and
  • the right of equality and non-discrimination.

The HRLC is concerned that strong empirical evidence has not been provided by the NT Government to demonstrably justify the potentially severe limitations on the above rights and that the measures contained in the Bill are not reasonable, necessary or proportionate.

In the absence of strong empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of mandatory treatment for alcohol misuse, the HRLC recommends that the Bill be withdrawn and strongly urges the NT Government to focus instead on the provision of comprehensive and coordinated voluntary alcohol treatment programs.

A copy of HRLC submission is available here.