Australia has an opportunity and obligation to regain its reputation as a ‘AAA’ country when it comes to human rights, a high level government delegation from Australia has been told by the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The delegation appeared before the UN Committee in New York on 23 and 24 March The Committee, which comprises 18 independent human rights experts from across the world, commended Australia on a range of human rights advances, including the historic apology to the Stolen Generations, the abolition of the Pacific Solution and the current national human rights consultation.
The Committee expressed concern, however, that despite these advances the state of human rights for many disadvantaged groups in Australia remains precarious. Promises and policy changes need to be translated into concrete legislative action to prevent further erosions of fundamental rights and freedoms. In this regard, the Committee highlighted that Australia is alone among developed Commonwealth countries in its failure to legislatively or constitutionally protect human rights, and urged Australia to adopt comprehensive legal protection of human rights for all. A national Human Rights Act is necessary to protect fundamental rights and freedoms and ensure that all Australians can live with dignity and equality.
The Committee also raised a number of specific human rights concerns with the delegation including:
· the profound disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians in key areas including health, housing and education; · the continued suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in relation to the Northern Territory Intervention; · the lack of adequate reparations to the Stolen Generations; · the re-opening of the Christmas Island immigration detention facility, which it noted looks and feels like a high-security prison; · the lack of access to adequate mental health care in many Australian prisons; · the excessive use of force by police without adequate oversight, including the use of Taser guns and lethal force; and · the co-operation of Australian law enforcement officials with overseas agencies, which may expose Australians to the real risk of the death penalty.
Taking note of these concerns, the Australian government appeared to take a positive and constructive approach to the review. This is critical as this review, the first of Australia by the Human Rights Committee since 2000, is an historic opportunity to take stock of human rights in Australia. It is an opportunity for the Australian government and civil society to work together with leading international human rights experts to improve the protection of fundamental values such as freedom, respect and a fair go.
The Australian delegation’s closing remarks to the Committee were particularly encouraging. Mr Bill Campbell QC observed that ‘Australia welcomes and needs this form of international scrutiny to ensure adherence with its Covenant obligations’.
Having acknowledged issues of disadvantage and human rights breaches in Australia, it is now incumbent on the Australian government to commit to take all steps necessary to adequately protect and promote human rights. It is time for the stated commitment to human rights leadership to be translated into concrete legislative and budgetary action.
The Committee will deliver its report card on Australia on or around 3 April. The report will include observations on positive aspects of Australia’s human rights performance, together with constructive recommendations as to how it could more fully comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Philip Lynch is Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre