Australia’s credibility on human rights blighted by laws targeting climate protesters and jailing children, report says

Human Rights Watch calls on government to address its own ‘alarming deficiencies’, including detention of children under 14 and treatment of asylum seekers

The detention of children under 14 and new laws targeting climate protesters are harming Australia’s credibility to stand up for human rights in the region, a leading rights body has warned.

Human Rights Watch called on Australia to address its own “alarming deficiencies” when the organisation on Thursday published its annual reports on the performance of nearly 100 countries.

It specifically raised alarm about New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania introducing “new laws targeting peaceful climate and environmental protesters with disproportionate punishments and excessive bail conditions”.

The organisation took aim at the Albanese government for maintaining the previous government’s policy to turn back asylum seeker boats, and also renewed concerns about the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

Sophie McNeill, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Australia was a wealthy, privileged country with strong democratic institutions “and that’s why when we have these failings it’s so alarming”.

She said the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, had “made it clear that she is passionate about human rights and that she does want Australia to lead in the region”.

“But our ability to do that is undermined by the alarming deficiencies that we still have regarding the treatment of First Nations people, asylum seekers and peaceful climate protesters,” McNeill said in an interview.

“We must get things in order at home to really ensure we have that credibility to promote human rights and democracy in the region in response to rising authoritarianism from China.”

Australia has faced increasing domestic and international pressure over the past few years to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years, but it is largely in the hands of state and territory governments and progress has been slow.

McNeill said it was “clear that this is an issue that needs that federal leadership to get it over the line”.

Human Rights Watch also raised concerns about curbs on freedom of expression, saying authorities in NSW were “disproportionately punishing climate protesters” through new laws that allow for big fines and up to two years in prison for protesting without permission.

Similarly, the organisation said, new anti-protest laws in Victoria and Tasmania invoked “severe penalties for non-violent protest”.

Human Rights Watch is calling on all countries to “apply a human rights lens to the existential threat of climate change”, given that the most vulnerable pay the highest price for inaction.

It argues the climate crisis poses a threat to the right to life, the right to health, and the right to a safe and healthy environment.

In its World Report 2023, the organisation said the change of government in Australia had led to some improvement in human rights, “including more ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets to address climate change”.

But it said continued support for fossil fuel developments “contributes to the global climate crisis and undermines the right to a healthy environment”.

On refugee and asylum seeker policy, McNeill called on the Labor government to quickly fulfil its election promises to end temporary protection visas and increase the humanitarian intake.

“Not only will it make a positive difference to thousands of people’s lives but it will also improve Australia’s overall human rights standing,” she said.

The government last month appointed senior diplomat Bronte Moules as Australia’s new ambassador for human rights.

Wong said the ambassador’s mission was to “lead Australia’s work to protect and promote human rights globally and be a key advocate on issues of importance to our region”.

In its global review, Human Rights Watch said a “litany of human rights crises that unfolded in 2022 – from Ukraine to China to Afghanistan – has left behind a sea of human suffering”.

The organisation’s 712-page report reviews practices in nearly 100 countries, including China, where it said repression deepened in 2022.

The organisation warned against allowing the Chinese government to evade accountability for human rights abuses, after the UN human rights council “fell two votes short of passing a resolution to discuss the UN high commissioner for human rights report that concluded that abuses in Xinjiang may amount to crimes against humanity”.

It also said the Indian government had “continued its systematic discrimination and stigmatisation of religious and other minorities, particularly Muslims”.

China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, told reporters in Canberra this week there “doesn’t exist such a question of human rights abuses in Xinjiang” and the UN report was “a product of absolute political manipulation”.

The Indian government has previously dismissed “ill-informed” attacks on the country’s human rights record, saying it “values religious freedom and human rights”.


Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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