On 29 January 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) – the international human rights advocacy organisation – released the 25th edition of its World Report (Report). The Report reviews notable human rights issues across 90 states and territories.
The Report’s chapter on Australia covers issues ranging from asylum seekers and refugees to disability rights to freedom of expression. The chapter recognises Australia’s record on human rights, calling up our ‘solid record of protecting civil and political rights, with robust institutions and a vibrant press and civil society that act as a check on government power’.
However, it then goes on to state:
The government’s failure to respect international standards protecting asylum seekers and refugees, however, continues to take a heavy human toll and undermines Australia’s ability to call for stronger human rights protections abroad.
This post canvasses the human rights issues raised in the Report, with a focus on those issues which are not heavily reported by Australian media.
Asylum Seekers and Refugees
Australia’s asylum and refugee policies receive the heaviest criticism. The Report observes that:
- asylum claims are not processed in a fair, transparent, or expedient manner, with significant cost to detainees’ physical and mental harm;
- gay asylum seekers in detention on Manus Island fear persecution, sexual assault and resettlement in Papua New Guinea, where homosexual relationships are criminalised;
- 50 refugees have had adverse security assessments made against them and are consequently subject to indefinite detention; and
- 3,500 asylum seekers have been processed via a screening system which permits no access to legal representation or right to appeal.
Indigenous People’s Rights
The Report notes the controversial establishment of an indigenous advisory council, whilst defunding the pre-existing Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. It also raises the continued disproportionate representation of indigenous Australians in prison and disparate life expectancy and infant mortality rates. Positively, the Report notes the steps that are being taken towards a referendum on indigenous recognition in the Constitution and the improvements in some health and socioeconomic indicators.
The Report welcomes the continued rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme but criticises changes to the Disability Support Pension which will result in people with disabilities receiving appreciably lower welfare payments. As forty-five percent of people with a disability live near or below the poverty line, the cuts will have an adverse impact on the disability sufferers’ quality of life.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The section notes that Australian law restricts marriage to heterosexual relationships, despite increasing public support for same-sex marriage.
Freedom of Expression
According to HRW, threats to rights of freedom of expression in Australia include:
- the revision of funding agreements with community legal centres to prohibit centres from using Commonwealth funds for law reform or advocacy;
- counterterrorism laws targeting home-grown terrorism – including new offences for ‘advocating terrorism’; and
- new offences for journalists who disclose information relating to Australian ‘special intelligence operations’.
HRW condemns Australia’s foreign aid cuts of more than $600 million and appears to imply that foreign aid priorities are self-serving.
It also raises the government’s muted criticism of countries with histories of rights-abuses – including Sri Lanka and Cambodia – to win support for its refugee policies from those countries. For example, in 2014 it elected not to co-sponsor a UN Human Rights Council (Council) resolution establishing an international inquiry into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka as it had done in previous years. This is despite Australia’s bid for a seat on the Council in 2018.