Serious concerns raised over Australia's human rights record at UN

Serious violations continue to blight Australia's human rights record, according to a joint NGO statement delivered to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva by the Human Rights Law Centre's Director of Advocacy, Anna Brown.

"Two years after Australia made a number of welcome human rights commitments to the international community, serious violations continue to blight Australia's human rights record and we have witnessed regression in key areas," Ms Brown said.

Australia is due to provide its mid-term report to the Human Rights Council on progress in implementing a number of recommendations accepted during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the Human Rights Council, the UN's chief human rights body, in 2011. Two years ago, NGOs welcomed Australia's acceptance of a large number of UPR recommendations and its commitment to translate them into practical action. Two years later, however, NGOs in Australia are disappointed by the lack of progress.

The joint NGO statement highlighted a number of concerns relating to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

"Off-shore processing has been re-introduced with over 850 asylum seekers held in austere conditions in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and not one claim has been processed since August 2012," said Ms Brown.

"1632 children are currently held in immigration detention in flagrant disregard of international human rights standards and the Government's own policies," added Ms Brown. "56 people are indefinitely detained following adverse security assessments, in a legal black hole without judicial oversight, " she said.

"Disturbingly, Australia has introduced a policy of 'screening out' asylum seekers arriving from particular countries. 'Screening out' involves returning asylum seekers to their country of origin even before they have an opportunity to lodge an asylum claim, in clear breach of Australia's obligation of non-refoulement under the Refugee Convention," added Ms Brown.

Australia's continuing failures in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were also raised.

"Indigenous peoples in Australia continue to be among the most incarcerated in the world, with rates continuing to rise," said Ms Brown. "Indigenous young people make up 97% of the juvenile prison population in the Northern Territory."

NGOs did welcome the release of a National Human Rights Action Plan in 2012, actions such as the establishment of a new Children's Commissioner and National Disability Insurance Scheme, and steps to improve recognition of sex and gender diversity in Government documentation. "Despite a number of positive steps, we are disappointed by the lack of sustained implementation and accountability measures in Australia's new Human Rights Action Plan," said Ms Brown.

The indefinite deferral of the Federal Government's longstanding commitment to consolidate and strengthen federal anti-discrimination laws also attracted criticism, given it was a key commitment under Australia's Universal Periodic Review and the Federal Government's Human Rights Framework. However, the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 (Cth) was recognised as a positive recent development. "The introduction of a Bill to prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people represents a long overdue but significant advance for these communities and their families," said Ms Brown.

Australia's lack of statutory protection of human rights continues to attract criticism. "We are a stable, democratic and highly developed state with a government that espouses a commitment to human rights leadership. Yet we are the only modern democracy without a Human Rights Act or Charter," said Ms Brown.

Australia is due to review its Human Rights Framework in 2014 and will be reviewed again by its peers at the Human Rights Council in 2015.

For further information on Australia's UPR and the NGO Coalition, please click here.

For a complete copy of the statement delivered on behalf of the Human Rights Law Centre, the National Association of Community Legal Centres Inc and Kingsford Legal Centre, please click here.