2017 was a “dismal” year for human rights in Australia, according to a report card which found the country significantly lagged behind in areas including disability rights, Indigenous rights and the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum.
The 2017 Human Rights Report Card from Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) graded Australia in a number of areas and also graded each state and territory, with mixed results.
Australia was graded F in refugees and people seeking asylum rights, and in women and girls’ rights, and graded F minus for Indigenous rights, while performing best in the area of business and human rights (with a grade of C).
Looking at individual Australian states and territories, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory performed best with a grade of B, whereas New South Wales with “several knee-jerk anti-terror proposals” and the Northern Territory with the recent findings from the Royal Commission were graded E plus and E respectively.
ALHR president Benedict Coyne told Pro Bono News that the state of human rights in Australia continued to suffer.
“It’s been another quite dismal year for human rights in Australia unfortunately,” Coyne said.
“There’s been a couple of highlights, obviously the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and the elevation of Australia to the UN Human Rights Council.
“However it doesn’t necessarily follow that Australia is being an astute international citizen when it comes to following international human rights standards. It’s quite the contrary unfortunately.”
Coyne noted that Australia’s record with Indigenous rights and refugee and asylum seeker rights was particularly disappointing.
“It’s a continuation of a culture of political recalcitrance against human rights standards. Certainly when it comes to refugee and asylum seeker rights, things have gone from bad to worse since the resumption of offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island in late 2012,” he said.
“And in terms of what we’re seen [regarding] the response from government to the Uluru statement – which was an unprecedented consensus among Australian Indigenous people – it was absolutely gobsmacking.
“We would see that Australia has a huge amount of work to do, in terms of properly protecting the rights of Indigenous people.”
Australia also rated poorly in the area of disability rights with a grade of D, with segregated education, substitute decision-making and continued use of restraint and seclusion noted as particular areas of concern.
The ALHR Disability Rights Subcommittee said they held a view that the government’s current policies violated principles of international law, with “drastic reform” needed to bring Australia into line with its international obligations.
“ALHR is concerned that the Australian government is yet to implement an Australia-wide solution to allow the full integration of children with disabilities into regular classrooms. We call upon the government to abandon segregated education and to find durable solutions for the inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream education,” the report said.
“ALHR is [also] concerned that the Australian government is yet to implement supported decision-making to allow persons with disabilities to express their legal personhood and to make their own decisions.
“[There has been a] high prevalence of restraint and seclusion upon persons with disabilities in institutional settings, including those with psychosocial disabilities, intellectual impairments, and conditions such as dementia. We call on the Australian government to prohibit the use of seclusion and all forms of restraint to ensure the bodily integrity and liberty of persons with disabilities.”
But Coyne said there had been some positive developments for the rights of persons with disability in 2017, given the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
“In somewhat dark times, there has been progress made with the NDIS rollout, which has a lot of potential besides the many hiccups being encountered. There’s hope there, that if the right amount of resources and know-how is put into it, it can be a very effective system,” he said.
“So in terms of going forward in 2018, in September we have our report due to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, so there will be opportunities for organisations and advocates to contribute, probably to a shadow report put together by a coalition of NGOs.”
Coyne said he was optimistic for the future of human rights in Australia as 2018 gets underway, but noted that the creation of a Human Rights Act should be the immediate priority.
“I think there’s a real resurgence and a movement on the recognition of human rights and also how Australian democracy can be invoked, as demonstrated with the same sex marriage debate, to get real positive results in these areas,” he said.
“We’ve certainly noticed a spike in people calling for a charter of human rights, and for another attempt to bring that into fruition, so we’re very hopeful about that.
“For us, we see the easiest way to solve Australia’s backwardness in terms of international human rights and failing to implement our outstanding obligations over the last four decades, is with a Human Rights Act.”