During the same week that Australia is expected to be granted a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, an expert UN Committee will grill the Australian Government over its own human rights record.
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A coalition of Australian NGOs is in Geneva to brief the UN Human Rights Committee – the panel of independent human rights experts tasked with assessing Australia’s adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The delegation will present a report endorsed by 56 Australian NGOs.
During Australia’s last review, in 2009, Committee members raised concerns about the Australian Government’s policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' rights, its cruel treatment of people seeking asylum, its use of national security laws to erode basic civil liberties, and police information sharing practices on cases that involved the death penalty overseas.
The NGO report sets out how Australia has not made sufficient progress towards implementing many of its obligations and has instead gone backwards in a number of areas.
Australia was once considered a world leader when it came to promoting some of the key rights that underpin successful democracy – access to voting, the right to peacefully protest and for workers to stand together in union. Australian governments are now eroding these foundations of our democracy. Civil society groups are being silenced, peaceful protest is being criminalised and workers are being stripped of the right to take industrial action. These backwards steps are being noticed at the UN.
The ICCPR is a core UN human rights treaty that sets out how nations should uphold the civil and political rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When countries sign up to the treaty, they commit to being periodically reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee.
Members of the NGO coalition will brief the Committee in Geneva and the Australian Government’s delegation will appear in a formal session before the Committee on Wednesday and Thursday.
Quotes from coalition partners
Emily Howie, Director of Legal Advocacy, Human Rights Law Centre:
“The worrying decline in Australian democracy will be put under the spotlight by the UN this week. It’s simply not good enough that we have anti-protest laws that are stopping people from standing together and speaking up on issues they care about or that Australian governments are seeking to silence civil society groups who speak out. We will also highlight how press freedom is threatened by metadata retention laws that jeopardise journalists’ ability to keep sources confidential.
After 4 years of fear and violence and deaths, the Australian government is expected to face strong condemnation and calls from the Committee to immediately evacuate the over 2000 men, women and children still held on Manus Island and Nauru to safety in Australia. We also expect that the Committee will make strong recommendations about other worrying practices across the board. For example, we expect the Committee will admonish Australia for harming rather than helping children locked away in youth jails. It's likely the Committee will also make a strong recommendation that Australia should update its laws so that children under 12 years are not caught up in the quicksand of the criminal justice system.”
Dr Jackie Huggins, Co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples:
“The Australian Government’s relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been sorely strained in recent years. Severe budget cuts and administrative restructuring have led to a reduction of services and almost all government Closing the Gap targets in health, education and employment are not being met.
The Australian Government supports the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in international forums, but it needs to show a corresponding commitment in the domestic context. As the representative body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, we have commenced work with the Australian Government to start resetting relations, so that all Australians may take pride in our heritage.”
Rod Little, Co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples:
“There is a crisis in Indigenous Affairs in this country, the details of which are outlined in the recent report on Australia by Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For generations, governments have been doing things to us or for us, rather than with us. Many outcomes of this strategy have been very poor, if not disastrous.”
Paul Power, Chief Executive Officer of the Refugee Council of Australia:
“Australia’s human rights record is on shaky ground when it comes to their ongoing treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum. Their militarised and discriminatory approach to people arriving by boat sees recognised refugees locked up indefinitely in conditions amounting to torture. This has led to multiple deaths and the largest human rights class action settlement in history.
Successive Australian governments have taken a punitive approach to those onshore, with indefinite mandatory detention, temporary protection, and a lack of access to citizenship and family reunion amounting to a system designed to break people who have come to seek our safety. All of this has drawn condemnation from a myriad of international and national human rights bodies, who have rightly called for an end to this cruelty.”
Amy Frew, Lawyer, Human Rights Law Centre:
“The Australian Government will face tough questioning about its ongoing cruelty to the 2000 men, women and it has held for more than four years in danger and limbo on remote islands in the Pacific.
We expect strong condemnation from the Committee for Australia’s cruel deterrence regime which has seen thousands of lives destroyed - families ripped apart forever, sexual assaults, violence and deaths. These are serious violations that have gone on for far too long. We’re expecting the UN to call on Australia to immediately evacuate these 2000 men, women and children from Manus and Nauru to safety in Australia, and allow those already in Australia to remain rebuilding their lives in safety.”
Helen Dalley-Fisher, Program Manager, Equality Rights Alliance:
“This is a critical time for women’s equality and human rights both in Australia and worldwide. We are looking to the Australian Government to make good on their excellent international commitments by taking concrete steps to address human rights violations against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women with disability, women who are seeking asylum and a range of other vulnerable or marginalised women within Australia.”
Ngila Bevan, representing the Disabled People’s Organisations Australia:
“Australia is failing to protect the human rights of people with disability. People with disability continue to experience multiple forms of violence including forced sterilisation, involuntary treatment, indefinite detention, seclusion, and restraint. It happens in schools, group homes, prisons, hospitals and in our communities. Meagre responses are failing to address the underlying issue that people with disability in Australia do not have full equality before the law. All people with disability have a right to make free, informed, and independent decisions about their lives and bodies. We will be strongly urging the UN Committee to join with other UN bodies in condemning Australia’s inaction and making strong recommendations for reform.”
Anna Cody, Director at the Kingsford Legal Centre:
“Australia’s human rights record highlights the need for greater legal protection for minorities. Disturbing reports of discrimination and harassment against groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, refugees, women, ethnic minorities, people with disability and LGBTI people demonstrate the need for a comprehensive Equality Act and a national human rights act to ensure everyone’s fundamental rights are protected in Australia.”
Andrea Maksimovic, Associate Director of International and Civil Society, Australian Council of Trade Unions:
“The Australian Government must roll back many of the changes they have made to our civil and political rights, changes which endanger Australia’s democratic reputation and are perilously leading us down the road to authoritarianism. The unprecedented attacks on the rights of workers to organise and the independence of trade unions will threaten the Government’s moral high ground on the UN Human Rights Council.”
Anna Brown, Director of Legal Advocacy, Human Rights Law Centre
"While there has been some welcome progress in recent years, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people continue to face high levels of discrimination, violence and harassment, including discrimination entrenched in laws such as the Marriage Act.
In many parts of Australia, trans and gender diverse people face enormous barriers, including a requirement for surgery to access a birth certificate reflecting the gender they live as, and, alarmingly, intersex children can still be subjected to medically unnecessary surgeries without their consent."
For interviews or more information, please contact:
Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, HRLC: +61 (0) 419 100 519 (AEST)
Emily Howie, Director of Legal Advocacy, HRLC: +41 76 626 41 64 (CEST)