Australia has come under international pressure to reduce the number of children in detention, with more than 30 countries using a UN human rights session to call on authorities to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
Amid ongoing tensions between China and Australia, Beijing’s representative took the opportunity on Wednesday evening to demand that Canberra “stop using false information to make baseless charges against other countries for political purposes”.
Many countries also raised concerns about Australia’s border policies, including offshore processing and refusing to resettle people who arrived by boat, with some representatives calling on the government to ensure its approach did not breach international law.
Australian officials faced questions from international counterparts as part of the UN’s universal periodic review of human rights, which happens about every five years. While the event was held in Geneva, the pandemic meant that most of the appearances happened via video-link.
Country after country raised concern about why Australia has delayed a push to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years – something that experts say is linked to Australia’s high rates of incarceration of Indigenous children, and which is explored in the new Guardian Australia series Childhood in custody.
The 31 countries that raised the issue of the age of criminal responsibility included Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Sweden, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Mexico.
Andrew Walter, a senior official from the Attorney-General’s Department who led the Australian delegation, said the age of criminal responsibility remained 10 years in all locations in Australia.
“However, between the ages of 10 and 14, a child is presumed to have been incapable of committing a criminal offence unless the prosecution establishes beyond reasonable doubt that at the time of the offence the child knew that what they were doing was seriously wrong in a criminal sense,” Walter said.
On any given day in 2018/19, he said, there were an average of 5,694 people aged 10 to 17 who were under some form of youth supervision, with 84% of those being supervised in the community. The remainder spent at least half of their day in detention.
“While Indigenous Australians comprise only 6% of young people aged between 10 and 17, they made up approximately 57% of those in youth detention,” Walter said.
“This proportion rises to 78% for young people between the ages of 10 and 13.”
The nation’s attorneys general launched a working group on the issue in 2018 but Walter said they had deferred a decision in 2020 because they wanted more details on the adequacy of services for children exhibiting offending behaviour.
A key concern was to ensure appropriate supports for individuals and their families and to keep the community safe, he said. Since then the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory had announced their intention to raise the age, “however this has not yet occurred”.
Civil society groups cited the strength of feeling expressed at the UN session as evidence it was time for Australian governments to raise the age to at least 14 years.
“You cannot get a clearer message from the international community that children as young as 10 should not be locked up,” Simon Henderson, the head of policy at Save the Children Australia, said.
Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous Rights Lead, Nolan Hunter, said: “The fact that kids as young as 10 – and let’s face it the majority of these are Indigenous kids – are still being sent to jail is not only in opposition to the UN’s own recommendations, but it is just morally wrong.”
Hugh de Kretser, the executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, said: “The fact that children as young as 10 are being locked up in jails across the country is clearly an issue of significant international concern, as is the ongoing mandatory indefinite detention and offshore processing of people seeking asylum.”
Countries asking questions and making recommendations for Australia were limited to 55-second speeches during the UN session, but many mentioned the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, along with broader concern over the gap in heath outcomes and other key measures.
China’s representative submitted five recommendations for Australia, including taking actions “to combat racial discrimination, hate speech and violence and protect the rights of ethnic minorities” and eliminating systematic discrimination against Indigenous Australians.
China, which has faced severe criticism from Australia and other countries over its own human rights record including Xinjiang, called on Canberra to close offshore detention centres for migrants.
It reaffirmed calls for a thorough investigation into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan – the issue that was at the centre of the December tweet by a Chinese foreign ministry official for which Scott Morrison demanded an apology.
Finally, China’s representative said Australia should “stop using false information to make baseless charges against other countries for political purposes”, without elaborating.
Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, used a speech to the UN human rights council in October to criticise the Chinese government for enforcing “repressive measures” against minorities in Xinjiang region and for eroding rights and freedoms in Hong Kong – comments that sparked swift condemnation from Beijing.
Mexico was one of a number of countries to call on Australia to ensure refugee processing was compatible with international standards including non-refoulement, and ensure family reunification.
Andrew Rose, from the Department of Home Affairs, responded that Australia was committed to strong border protection policies to “send a clear message that people smugglers cannot sell a path to Australia”.
He said those policies had “saved countless lives at sea”.
The United States representative called on Australia to protect freedom of expression for those speaking out against government policies, including amending national security laws that inhibit speech of journalists, whistleblowers and lawyers.
The comments come as the US pursues charges against Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange.
Several countries raised the issue of climate change. The Marshall Islands said it remained concerned about Australia’s “insufficient progress” in lowering greenhouse gas emissions and called for a phase-out of the use of coal.