Australia’s human rights record has come under scrutiny by the international watchdog, just as Kevin Rudd is preparing to use it as a key weapon in his bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
For the first time since 2000, Australia has reported to the Human Rights Committee, who track compliance with international treaties. While K-Rudd was at the White House, experts in New York’s UN building posed hard questions on issues including the Northern Territory intervention, disadvantage faced by Indigenous Australians, mandatory immigration detention, and the excessive use of police force — giving the example of a 15-year-old fatally shot in Melbourne.
Australia does not routinely suppress human rights to the extent of its northern neighbours, but the hearings were an uncomfortable reminder that we’re no Norway.
Other issues involved remanding defendants and convicted criminals in the same facility, children being held in adult prisons and a lack of state compensation to people suffering injustices.
Sections of Australia’s report were described as “extremely scanty” by the 18 independent human rights experts, whose review in April will come amid Australia’s continuing lobbying for a seat on the prestigious UN body that oversees military and peacekeeping operations. The PM hopes to outfox rivals like Finland, with the “theme” of Australia’s bid concerning the promotion of human rights.
Over two days, the delegation was hammered over the concept of mandatory immigration detention, and asked whether it was possible to spend more than two years locked up while a claim for asylum was judged. After epic obfuscation and a monotone of acronyms and mulit-hyphenated words: The short answer is yes.
Assistant secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Robert Illingworth said detention was “not a default setting but a reluctant conclusion,” and that as of January this year, “thirty-eight individuals have been in immigration detention for a period of two years or more”. He hastened to add that 10 were housed in non-prison arrangements.
Committee member Krister Thelin of Sweden commended Australia on its “AAA” human rights ranking and advances such as ending the “Pacific Solution” and the apology to the Stolen Generations.
“So it’s even more incumbent on you to rectify … deficiencies,” he said.
A key issue, raised repeatedly, was that Australia remains the only liberal democracy without human rights enshrined in law.
Bill of Rights proponents see a Rudd Government consultation, begun recently, as an opening to provide protections at a Federal level that states like Victoria have already enacted.
Also revealed to the Committee:
- There will be no “overhaul” of the Native Title Act.
- The Racial Discrimination Act — suspended for the NT intervention — will be reinstated in Parliament’s spring session.
- And, “We seem to have a lot of reviews in Australia” — Bill Campbell QC, first assistant secretary, Attorney-General’s Dept.
Andrew Hudson, senior associate at non-government organisation Human Rights First, said the Rudd Government should act on the Committee’s observations to improve human rights.
“Such constructive engagement with the committee would enhance Australia’s international reputation and demonstrate its capability to use a Security Council seat responsibly,” he said.