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What are the biggest human rights issues in Australia?

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Human Rights Watch, an independent international organisation, says Australia's "failings" on human rights have damaged its credibility.
A climate change protester who blocked the Harbour Bridge in April has been sentenced to at least 8 months in prison

Human Rights Watch, an independent international organisation, says Australia’s “failings” on human rights have damaged its credibility.

It names First Nations incarceration, asylum seeker policies, and prison sentences for climate protesters among the key issues in Australia.

This conclusion comes from the latest annual World Report, which assesses the human rights records of over 100 countries in 2022.

First Nations incarceration

The report noted First Nations people are “significantly overrepresented” in Australia’s criminal justice system.

First Nations people make up 3% of Australia’s population but 29% of its adult prisoners. First Nations children are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous children.

The report also noted there had been at least 15 First Nations deaths in custody in 2022. A Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was held from 1987-91 but the latest official statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology list a total of 527 First Nations deaths in custody since then.

Sophie McNeill, the Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told TDA the figures were “really disturbing… This is an issue that should be an urgent national priority”.

Asylum seeker policies

Human Rights Watch also accused the Australian Government of “mistreating” refugees and asylum seekers with its ongoing policies of turning back asylum seeker boats and processing asylum seekers offshore.

While acknowledging both the Coalition and Labor governments took actions to resolve the uncertain status of some refugees and asylum seekers in 2022, the report noted offshore processing and boat turn-backs continue to be supported by both major parties.

Climate protesters

The report argued that moves by state governments to impose “harsh and excessive penalties” on climate protesters violate the right to peaceful protest.

The Victorian, NSW and Tasmanian governments have introduced laws with tougher penalties for nonviolent protests that disrupt workplaces (specifically logging sites in Victoria).

The report also identified insufficient action to combat climate change as a human rights issue, arguing Australia was failing its international obligations “to prevent further foreseeable harm”.

Age of criminal responsibility

The report also called on Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to the “internationally accepted age” of 14. This is the age at which children can be held legally responsible for their acts.

Human Rights Watch said at least 444 children under the age of 14 were imprisoned in Australia in 2022.

The Federal Government has committed to lead a nationally-standardised process to increase the minimum age. Some jurisdictions have already taken their own steps.

The ACT has committed to raise the age to 14, the NT has raised it to 12, and Tasmania has committed to raise the age of detention (not criminal responsibility) to 14.

Australia’s reputation

McNeill told TDA that Australia’s “deficiencies at home” undermined its ability to advocate for human rights globally.

“We are hypocrites if we don’t uphold all of our obligations,” McNeill said. “We’re not the worst abuser in the world, but if we’re not consistent and we don’t respect international standards, then how can we expect other countries to do so? Australia’s a strong democracy, it’s a wealthy, privileged country, it should be a leader.”

Government response

A spokesperson for Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told TDA the Government is “not above scrutiny” and wanted to improve Australia’s human rights record. “This includes stepping up on Indigenous rights and representation,” the spokesperson said. The Government recently appointed an Ambassador for Human Rights.

Shadow Attorney-General Julian Leeser did not respond to a request for comment.

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