January 22, 2014
New York-based Human Rights Watch has criticised Australia in its annual world report, saying it has damaged its record by persistently undercutting refugee protections.
Human Rights Watch says successive Australian governments continue to engage in scare-mongering politics at the expense of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.
“Successive governments have prioritised domestic politics over Australia’s international legal obligations to protect the rights of asylum seekers,” the report said.
“Too often, the Government has attempted to demonise those trying to reach Australia by boat and has insisted that officials refer to all asylum seekers who do so as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’.”
It says although Australia has a strong record protecting civil and political rights, it has damaged that record and its potential to be a regional human rights leader.
The group’s criticism is directed at both the previous Labor leadership as well as the current Government.
Human Rights Watch also says Australia has become increasingly unwilling to publicly raise human rights abuses in countries with which it shares trade or securities ties.
It specifically points to Sri Lanka, accusing the Federal Government of rationalising torture there “in part, by the goal of enlisting Sri Lanka’s support in preventing asylum seekers from leaving Sri Lanka”.
The report comes amid turmoil with the judicial system on Nauru, with the president of Australia’s Human Rights Commission saying Australia remains liable for asylum seekers there under international law.
Report ‘not surprising’: Human Rights Commission president
Australian Human Rights Commission president Professor Gillian Triggs says she was not surprised by the report.
“I think there’s no doubt at all that Australia’s position in relation to asylum seekers is unique internationally as a matter of practice,” she said.
“It is extremely harsh and egregious and that is raising concerns at the international level. That’s very worrying.”
Professor Triggs says the continued detention of children is the area of greatest concern.
“I think every Australian understands that perhaps this is one area where Australia has simply gone too far,” she said.
“As I said, we’ve got over 1,000 children in closed detention, in isolated conditions, Christmas Island and in other detention centres around Australia.
“On Nauru, we have 850 people of whom about 125 are children and similar numbers, slightly greater, on Manus Island.
“Our concern is, as a matter of law, children should not be detained except as a matter of last resort and we are clearly not at the last resort level.”
The Greens say the commission’s report is an embarrassment for Australia.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says the report should act as a warning.
“We can’t continue to ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world, particularly in our region,” she said.
“We should be calling out human rights abuses when they occur and not shying away from speaking out about what’s right.”
Abuses and failings in more than 90 countries
In its chapter on Indonesia, the report says there has been little improvement when it comes to protecting human rights in the past year.
The report says Indonesian authorities “respond weakly to growing violence and discrimination against religious minorities”.
It alleges mistreatment of refugees and migrants, including unaccompanied migrant children who reach Indonesia.
The report points to the volatile Papua region, saying that security forces have “virtual impunity for abuses”.
It says the armed Free Papua Movement continues to carry out attacks against government forces.
The 700-page report details abuse and failings in more than 90 countries.
It highlights the civil war in Syria, in which more than 100,000 people have died.
“The unchecked slaughter of civilians in Syria elicited global horror and outrage, but not enough to convince world leaders to exert the pressure needed to stop it,” the report said.
The report said there was a threat of “large-scale atrocities” in several African countries, including Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.