UN warns of diminishing democratic freedoms in Australia

Australia is failing to provide a safe and free environment for civil society and to ensure that people are free to speak out and peacefully protest on issues that they care about, said a UN Human Rights expert today. Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, has been in Australia for a two-week official visit, meeting with government, MPs and civil society organisations.

Emily Howie, Director of Advocacy and Research at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that the Special Rapporteur’s statement highlights what many Australians already know – that there is a real and worrying trend in Australia of governments chipping away at our basic democratic rights.

“This a wake-up call to Australia: despite our strong track record as a vibrant and diverse democracy, the reality is that more and more people here feel silenced by government and fearful of speaking out. This trend has widespread impact, including on environmental organisations, journalists, trade unions, landholders, community lawyers, doctors working with refugees, philanthropists and more,” said Ms Howie.

The Special Rapporteur was “astonished” by reports during his visit of the cumulative government measures that are damaging to civil society, and cited gag clauses in government funding agreements, secrecy laws, the stifling effect of the Border Force Act, attacks on the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission and the vilification of people, such as environmental activists. He also cited the criminalisation of peaceful protest in Tasmania’s anti-protest laws.

In February 2016, the Human Rights Law Centre published Safeguarding Democracy, a report that addressed many of the concerns now raised by the UN, including the disconnection between Australia’s strong action and reputation internationally as a defender of civil society.

“When you look at it globally, Australia is simply incoherent. At the international level Australia defends the rights of people in China, Burma and elsewhere to political freedom and free speech. Yet at home, the Government can be seen as silencing its own people through measures such as the aggressive pursuit of whistleblowers, a suffocating culture of secrecy in government and the public vilification of people who speak out, such as Professor Gillian Triggs,” said Ms Howie.

“It is vital that Australia use the Special Rapporteur’s statement and recommendations as a blueprint for reversing the damaging trend and ensures a safe and free environment for free speech, peaceful protest and political engagement,’ added Ms Howie.

For further comments or queries please contact:

Emily Howie, Director of Advocacy and Research, Human Rights Law Centre, 0421 370 997

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519