UN delivers strong rebuke to Australian government on women’s rights



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The UN committee issued over 90 recommendations for improvement, demonstrating that negative aspects far outweigh progress on women’s rights.
Shutterstock

Maria Nawaz, UNSW and Tess Deegan, UNSW

This week, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women handed down its recommendations from its review of Australia’s compliance with the women’s rights treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The UN delivered a scathing critique of Australia’s failures to protect and promote the rights of women and girls.




Read more:
UN set to review Australia’s record on women’s rights – and may find it wanting


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is a UN treaty body, made up of 23 independent experts from around the world, and its key functions include:

  • examining state parties’ implementation of rights under the convention

  • making recommendations detailing how state parties can improve compliance with the convention

  • accepting individual complaints about violations of rights under the convention

What did the committee say about Australia’s record on women’s rights?

The committee noted areas of improvement, including marriage equality, the introduction of the paid parental leave scheme and the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status and family responsibilities.

However, it also issued over 90 recommendations for improvement, demonstrating that negative aspects far outweigh progress on women’s rights.

Human rights framework

The committee reiterated its 2010 recommendations that Australia should introduce a charter of rights. The Committee also recommended that Australia harmonise state, federal and territory discrimination laws to enhance their effectiveness in prohibiting discrimination against women.

The committee denounced funding cuts to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and emphasised the importance of the government respecting the independence of the commission.

Violence against women and sexual harassment

The committee noted the endemic nature of violence against women, with one in three women experiencing physical violence, and almost one in five women experiencing sexual violence. The committee recommended that the government reinforce efforts to change behaviours that lead to violence against women. This includes encouraging reporting violence, and adequately funding services under the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.

The committee raised the prevalence of sexual harassment, and recommended that the government take into account the outcomes of the national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment, encourage reporting and impose appropriate sanctions on perpetrators.

Women’s economic disadvantage

The committee condemned the government’s lack of gender budget analysis. It said:

The Committee considers that some of the State party’s recent cuts to social, health, education and justice budgets, reduction of taxes for high income groups and increase of the defence budget represent a setback…

It recommended the government take immediate measures to mitigate the effect of recent budget cuts on women, implement gender-responsive budgeting in the allocation of public resources, and reinstate the funding of services catering to women’s rights.

Access to justice

The committee criticised funding cuts to legal assistance services, and urged the government to implement the recommendations of the 2014 Productivity Commission Inquiry into Access to Justice. This includes ensuring adequate funding for community legal centres and legal aid.

The committee raised concern at provisions in funding agreements that restrict the ability of community legal centres and civil society organisations to advocate for women’s rights, and recommended the government remove provisions from funding agreements that restrict freedom of expression.

Treatment of diverse groups of women

The committee recognised that diverse groups of women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, LGBTI women, women with disability, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, refugee women and older women experience greater barriers to accessing and enforcing their rights.

These include discrimination, lack of access to appropriate services, higher risk of violence, higher unemployment and homelessness rates, and lower representation in public life. The committee recommended numerous measures to improve gender equality for diverse groups of women.

Where to from here?

The release of these recommendations comes at a time of great uncertainty in international human rights. We’re seeing a disturbing retreat from fundamental human rights principles and institutions across the world.

While Australia has been using its seat on the Human Rights Council to advocate at the international level for the rights of women and girls, the gap between our global leadership on gender equality and the reality faced by women and girls in the Australian community is stark.




Read more:
Australia’s record on racial equality under the microscope


Australia has an extremely poor record of implementing treaty body recommendations. During the committee’s review of Australia last month, the Australian government, while stating that it takes its international obligations “incredibly seriously”, admitted that on most fronts it had no plans to amend laws or policies to improve protection of the rights of women and girls in the Australian community.

As part of the committee’s follow-up procedure, Australia must explain to the committee what steps it has taken to implement priority recommendations within two years.

The committee’s four priority recommendations focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, funding for women’s services, reproductive rights, and ending offshore processing of refugees.

The ConversationThe challenge for Australia is to engage positively with the committee’s recommendations and implement changes to improve human rights for women and girls at home

Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre UNSW; Lecturer, UNSW Human Rights Clinic, UNSW and Tess Deegan, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor at Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Yes, the US border policy is harsh – but Australia’s treatment of refugee children has also been deplorable


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Villawood Detention Centre, NSW. There are currently 200 asylum seeker children in detention, in Australia and offshore.
Australian Human Rights Commission

Deborah Zion, Victoria University

US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their families at the Mexican border has sparked outrage in recent months, both in the US and abroad. It became so heated that he eventually ended the separation of families, though their fate remains unclear.

However, Trump is not the only leader to incarcerate children and use their suffering as a form of deterrence. The detention of asylum-seeker children has a long and brutal history in Australia. Trump’s policy invites us to reflect on our own policies regarding the detention of asylum seekers and the situation of children and families fleeing persecution.

Currently, over 200 children are in asylum-seeker detention, including on Nauru, in mainland detention centres and in community-based detention. Many have endured prison-like conditions, with no clear date for their release for months, if not years.

While most children remain with one of their parents, my research has found that separation of families is common. This includes the removal of young men on their 18th birthdays from their families with no warning or follow-up as to their whereabouts.

The mandatory incarceration of asylum-seeker children is an uncommon practice globally. It contravenes important human rights instruments to which Australia is a signatory, most notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This states:

No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily … (This) shall be used only as measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

The degree of despair felt by children and their families is well-documented and goes back many years.

In 2004, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) published A Last Resort? National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. This document outlined the privations of the lives of those held in detention centres in Australia, including the famous case of Shayan Badraie. He was detained for nearly two years, witnessing attempted suicide, self-harming and violence that resulted in several hospital admissions before the family was released.

The report also documents physical assault by guards, mental illness and lack of appropriate food, shelter and education.




Read more:
Accusations of deliberate, cruel abuse of refugee children must prompt a more humane approach


A Last Resort not only documents terrible human rights abuses, but the ongoing effects on those who experienced them. But, far from ending the incarceration of children and their parents, the policy of detention as deterrence has continued. In this regard, Australia is unusual, being the only developed country that imposes mandatory detention on people arriving by boat.

In 2014, the HREOC conducted another investigation, The Forgotten Children. This report documents in detail ongoing breaches of human rights, unsafe living conditions, medical neglect and physical and sexual assault.

Dehumanisation occurs on every level. One 16-year-old boy stated:

People were called by boat ID. People had no value. No guards called me by name. They knew our name, but only called by boat ID.

Children are also constantly exposed to the trauma of other detainees. One father said:

The word of “suicide” is not an unknown word to our children anymore. They are growing up with these bitter words. Last week a lot of women took action to suicide in Construction Camp. All the kids were scared and crying. How do we remove these bad scenes from our kids’ memories?

The report documents other cases of despair. A 13 year-old-boy detained on Nauru expressed to the treating doctor “a complete loss of hope; despair”. The doctor described how “[h]e had no appetite and no will to eat. He lost over 10 kilograms, which would be about a quarter of his body weight.”




Read more:
Sending children back to Nauru risks creating a generation of damaged people


The Australian government has tried to hide the conditions experienced by those held in places like Nauru and Manus Island. In particular, the Border Force Act (2015-17) imposed criminal sanctions on workers who speak publicly about what they see.

However, there is overwhelming and easily accessible evidence that Australia’s policies cause both immediate and ongoing trauma to children, and indeed all those incarcerated in detention. We must recall that Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and that seeking asylum is enshrined in this instrument.

So while we can express moral outrage about things that occur far from home, our own policies ensure human rights breaches that cause unnecessary suffering and trauma for long periods of time.

There is now substantial evidence of the poor treatment of asylum-seeker children. This has come from a plethora of reports from human rights organisations, healthcare providers and detainees like Behrouz Boochani, who document and publish the conditions of incarceration.

The ConversationThey remind us of what the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer said: “Do not be a victim; do not be a perpetrator; and above all, do not be a bystander.”

Deborah Zion, Associate Professor and Chair, Victoria University Human Research Ethics Committee, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New data tool scores Australia and other countries on their human rights performance



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Despite the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it remains difficult to monitor governments’ performance because there are no comprehensive human rights measures.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

K. Chad Clay, University of Georgia

This year, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will mark its 70th anniversary, but despite progress in some areas, it remains difficult to measure or compare governments’ performance. We have yet to develop comprehensive human rights measures that are accepted by researchers, policymakers and advocates alike.

With this in mind, my colleagues and I have started the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI), the first global project to develop a comprehensive suite of metrics covering international human rights.

We have now released our beta dataset and data visualisation tools, publishing 12 metrics that cover five economic and social rights and seven civil and political rights.

Lack of human rights data

People often assume the UN already produces comprehensive data on nations’ human rights performance, but it does not, and likely never will. The members of the UN are governments, and governments are the very actors that are obligated by international human rights law. It would be naïve to hope for governments to effectively monitor and measure their own performance without political bias. There has to be a role for non-state measurement.




Read more:
Australia’s Human Rights Council election comes with a challenge to improve its domestic record


We hope that the data and visualisations provided by HRMI will empower practitioners, advocates, researchers, journalists and others to speak clearly about human rights outcomes worldwide and hold governments accountable when they fail to meet their obligations under international law.

These are the 12 human rights measured by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) project during its pilot stage. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines 30 human rights.
Human Rights Measurement Initiative, CC BY

The HRMI pilot

At HRMI, alongside our existing methodology for economic and social rights, we are developing a new way of measuring civil and political human rights. In our pilot, we sent an expert survey directly to human rights practitioners who are actively monitoring each country’s human rights situation.

That survey asked respondents about their country’s performance on the rights to assembly and association, opinion and expression, political participation, freedom from torture, freedom from disappearance, freedom from execution, and freedom from arbitrary or political arrest and imprisonment.

Based on those survey responses, we develop data on the overall level of respect for each of the rights. These data are calculated using a statistical method that ensures responses are comparable across experts and countries, and with an uncertainty band to provide transparency about how confident we are in each country’s placement. We also provide information on who our respondents believed were especially at risk for each type of human rights violation.

Human rights in Australia

One way to visualise data on our website is to look at a country’s performance across all 12 human rights for which we have released data at this time. For example, the graph below shows Australia’s performance across all HRMI metrics.

Human rights performance in Australia. Data necessary to calculate a metric for the right to housing at a high-income OECD assessment standard is currently unavailable for Australia.
CC BY

As shown here, Australia performs quite well on some indicators, but quite poorly on others. Looking at civil and political rights (in blue), Australia demonstrates high respect for the right to be free from execution, but does much worse on the rights to be free from torture and arbitrary arrest.

Our respondents often attributed this poor performance on torture and imprisonment to the treatment of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers, as well as Indigenous peoples, by the Australian government.

Looking across the economic and social rights (in green), Australia shows a range of performance, doing quite well on the right to food, but performing far worse on the right to work.




Read more:
Ten things Australia can do to be a human rights hero


Freedom from torture across countries

Another way to visualise our data is to look at respect for a single right across several countries. The graph below shows, for example, overall government respect for the right to be free from torture and ill treatment in all 13 of HRMI’s pilot countries.

Government respect for the right to be free from torture, January to June 2017.
Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI)

Here, the middle of each blue bar (marked by the small white lines) represents the average estimated level of respect for freedom from torture, while the length of the blue bars demonstrate our certainty in our estimates. For instance, we are much more certain regarding Mexico’s (MEX) low score than Brazil’s (BRA) higher score. Due to this uncertainty and the resulting overlap between the bars, there is only about a 92% chance that Brazil’s score is better than Mexico’s.

In addition to being able to say that torture is probably more prevalent in Mexico than in Brazil, and how certain we are in that comparison, we can also compare the groups of people that our respondents said were at greatest risk of torture. This information is summarised in the two word clouds below; larger words indicate that that group was selected by more survey respondents as being at risk.

These word clouds show, on the left, the attributes that place a person at risk of torture in Brazil, and on the right, attributes that place one at risk for torture in Mexico, January to June 2017, respectively.
Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI), CC BY

There are both similarities and differences between the groups that were at highest risk in Brazil and Mexico. Based on the survey responses our human rights experts in Brazil gave us, we know that black people, those who live in favelas or quilombolas, those who live in rural or remote areas, landless rural workers, and prison inmates are largely the groups referred to by the terms “race,” “low social or economic status,” or “detainees or suspected criminals”.

On the other hand, in Mexico, imprisoned women and those suspected of involvement with organised crime are the detainees or suspected criminals that our respondents stated were at high risk of torture. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers travelling through Mexico on the way to the United States are also at risk.

The ConversationThere is much more to be learned from the visualisations and data on our website. After you have had the opportunity to explore, we would love to hear your feedback here about any aspect of our work so far. We are just getting started, and we thrive on collaboration with the wider human rights community.

K. Chad Clay, Assistant Professor of International Affairs, University of Georgia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why the business model of social media giants like Facebook is incompatible with human rights



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Facebook’s actions – or inactions – facilitated breaches of privacy and human rights associated with democratic governance.
EPA/Peter DaSilva

Sarah Joseph, Monash University

Facebook has had a bad few weeks. The social media giant had to apologise for failing to protect the personal data of millions of users from being accessed by data mining company Cambridge Analytica. Outrage is brewing over its admission to spying on people via their Android phones. Its stock price plummeted, while millions deleted their accounts in disgust.

Facebook has also faced scrutiny over its failure to prevent the spread of “fake news” on its platforms, including via an apparent orchestrated Russian propaganda effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

Facebook’s actions – or inactions – facilitated breaches of privacy and human rights associated with democratic governance. But it might be that its business model – and those of its social media peers generally – is simply incompatible with human rights.

The good

In some ways, social media has been a boon for human rights – most obviously for freedom of speech.

Previously, the so-called “marketplace of ideas” was technically available to all (in “free” countries), but was in reality dominated by the elites. While all could equally exercise the right to free speech, we lacked equal voice. Gatekeepers, especially in the form of the mainstream media, largely controlled the conversation.

But today, anybody with internet access can broadcast information and opinions to the whole world. While not all will be listened to, social media is expanding the boundaries of what is said and received in public. The marketplace of ideas must effectively be bigger and broader, and more diverse.

Social media enhances the effectiveness of non-mainstream political movements, public assemblies and demonstrations, especially in countries that exercise tight controls over civil and political rights, or have very poor news sources.

Social media played a major role in co-ordinating the massive protests that brought down dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as large revolts in Spain, Greece, Israel, South Korea, and the Occupy movement. More recently, it has facilitated the rapid growth of the #MeToo and #neveragain movements, among others.




Read more:
#MeToo is not enough: it has yet to shift the power imbalances that would bring about gender equality


The bad and the ugly

But the social media “free speech” machines can create human rights difficulties. Those newly empowered voices are not necessarily desirable voices.

The UN recently found that Facebook had been a major platform for spreading hatred against the Rohingya in Myanmar, which in turn led to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Video sharing site YouTube seems to automatically guide viewers to the fringiest versions of what they might be searching for. A search on vegetarianism might lead to veganism; jogging to ultra-marathons; Donald Trump’s popularity to white supremacist rants; and Hillary Clinton to 9/11 trutherism.

YouTube, via its algorithm’s natural and probably unintended impacts, “may be one of the most powerful radicalising instruments of the 21st century”, with all the attendant human rights abuses that might follow.

The business model and human rights

Human rights abuses might be embedded in the business model that has evolved for social media companies in their second decade.

Essentially, those models are based on the collection and use for marketing purposes of their users’ data. And the data they have is extraordinary in its profiling capacities, and in the consequent unprecedented knowledge base and potential power it grants to these private actors.

Indirect political influence is commonly exercised, even in the most credible democracies, by private bodies such as major corporations. This power can be partially constrained by “anti-trust laws” that promote competition and prevent undue market dominance.

Anti-trust measures could, for example, be used to hive off Instagram from Facebook, or YouTube from Google. But these companies’ power essentially arises from the sheer number of their users: in late 2017, Facebook was reported as having more than 2.2 billion active users. Anti-trust measures do not seek to cap the number of a company’s customers, as opposed to its acquisitions.

In late 2017, Facebook was reported as having more than 2.2 billion active users.
EPA/Ritchie B. Tongo

Power through knowledge

In 2010, Facebook conducted an experiment by randomly deploying a non-partisan “I voted” button into 61 million feeds during the US mid-term elections. That simple action led to 340,000 more votes, or about 0.14% of the US voting population. This number can swing an election. A bigger sample would lead to even more votes.

So Facebook knows how to deploy the button to sway an election, which would clearly be lamentable. However, the mere possession of that knowledge makes Facebook a political player. It now knows that button’s the political impact, the types of people it is likely to motivate, and the party that’s favoured by its deployment and non-deployment, and at what times of day.

It might seem inherently incompatible with democracy for that knowledge to be vested in a private body. Yet the retention of such data is the essence of Facebook’s ability to make money and run a viable business.




Read more:
Can Facebook influence an election result?


Microtargeting

A study has shown that a computer knows more about a person’s personality than their friends or flatmates from an analysis of 70 “likes”, and more than their family from 150 likes. From 300 likes it can outperform one’s spouse.

This enables the micro-targeting of people for marketing messages – whether those messages market a product, a political party or a cause. This is Facebook’s product, from which it generates billions of dollars. It enables extremely effective advertising and the manipulation of its users. This is so even without Cambridge Analytica’s underhanded methods.

Advertising is manipulative: that is its point. Yet it is a long bow to label all advertising as a breach of human rights.

Advertising is available to all with the means to pay. Social media micro-targeting has become another battleground where money is used to attract customers and, in the political arena, influence and mobilise voters.

While the influence of money in politics is pervasive – and probably inherently undemocratic – it seems unlikely that spending money to deploy social media to boost an electoral message is any more a breach of human rights than other overt political uses of money.

Yet the extraordinary scale and precision of its manipulative reach might justify differential treatment of social media compared to other advertising, as its manipulative political effects arguably undermine democratic choices.

As with mass data collection, perhaps it may eventually be concluded that that reach is simply incompatible with democratic and human rights.

‘Fake news’

Finally, there is the issue of the spread of misinformation.

While paid advertising may not breach human rights, “fake news” distorts and poisons democratic debate. It is one thing for millions of voters to be influenced by precisely targeted social media messages, but another for maliciously false messages to influence and manipulate millions – whether paid for or not.

In a Declaration on Fake News, several UN and regional human rights experts said fake news interfered with the right to know and receive information – part of the general right to freedom of expression.

Its mass dissemination may also distort rights to participate in public affairs. Russia and Cambridge Analytica (assuming allegations in both cases to be true) have demonstrated how social media can be “weaponised” in unanticipated ways.

Yet it is difficult to know how social media companies should deal with fake news. The suppression of fake news is the suppression of speech – a human right in itself.

The preferred solution outlined in the Declaration on Fake News is to develop technology and digital literacy to enable readers to more easily identify fake news. The human rights community seems to be trusting that the proliferation of fake news in the marketplace of ideas can be corrected with better ideas rather than censorship.

However, one cannot be complacent in assuming that “better speech” triumphs over fake news. A recent study concluded fake news on social media:

… diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.

Also, internet “bots” apparently spread true and false news at the same rate, which indicates that:

… false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

The depressing truth may be that human nature is attracted to fake stories over the more mundane true ones, often because they satisfy predetermined biases, prejudices and desires. And social media now facilitates their wildfire spread to an unprecedented degree.

Perhaps social media’s purpose – the posting and sharing of speech – cannot help but generate a distorted and tainted marketplace of fake ideas that undermine political debate and choices, and perhaps human rights.

Fake news disseminated by social media is argued to have played a role in electing Donald Trump to the presidency.
EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

What next?

It is premature to assert the very collection of massive amounts of data is irreconcilable with the right to privacy (and even rights relating to democratic governance).

Similarly, it is premature to decide that micro-targeting manipulates the political sphere beyond the bounds of democratic human rights.

Finally, it may be that better speech and corrective technology will help to undo fake news’ negative impacts: it is premature to assume that such solutions won’t work.

However, by the time such conclusions may be reached, it may be too late to do much about it. It may be an example where government regulation and international human rights law – and even business acumen and expertise – lags too far behind technological developments to appreciate their human rights dangers.

The ConversationAt the very least, we must now seriously question the business models that have emerged from the dominant social media platforms. Maybe the internet should be rewired from the grassroots, rather than be led by digital oligarchs’ business needs.

Sarah Joseph, Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ten things Australia can do to be a human rights hero



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Effective leadership requires leading by example, but Australia’s human rights record has drawn increasing criticism at home and abroad.
Andrew Hill/flickr, CC BY-ND

Carolien van Ham, UNSW; Lisa Hill, University of Adelaide, and Louise Chappell, UNSW

This article is part of the Democracy Futures project, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Sunday is Human Rights Day. December 10 marks 69 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. With the 70th anniversary coming up in 2018, the UN has launched Stand Up 4 Human Rights, a year-long campaign to bring the ideals of the declaration closer to reality.

As a leader in the framing of the UN declaration and one of the world’s oldest democracies, Australia prides itself on its commitment to democracy and human rights. The Australian government has an excellent opportunity to show leadership in promoting these values at home and abroad when it takes up a seat on the UN Human Rights Council from 2018.

In this role, Australia has pledged to be “an international human rights leader” and to advance human rights with “active, practical advocacy, sensitivity and fairness, and a willingness to speak out against human rights violations and abuses”.

However, effective leadership requires leading by example, and Australia’s human rights record has drawn increasing criticism in recent years.

What can we do to strengthen our human rights framework?

We recently brought together Australian human rights scholars to answer this question. Our collection of articles in the Australian Journal of Human Rights, entitled Vanguard or laggard? Democracy and human rights in Australia, details the relationship between democracy and human rights, and provides a roadmap for improving Australia’s democratic and human rights record.

Democracy should generate protection for human rights through accountability mechanisms that work across three axes:

  • horizontal accountability refers to the role of the judiciary and integrity institutions such as the ombudsman and human rights commission

  • vertical accountability refers to elections and the participatory role of citizens

  • diagonal accountability denotes the role of free speech, media and civil society organisations in holding governments to account.

There is no clear-cut nexus between Australian democracy and human rights across these areas of accountability. And the conditions necessary for each form of accountability to operate successfully are not as strong as is generally assumed.

Accountability mechanisms are often overshadowed by parliamentary supremacy in our version of Westminster democracy. This leaves many citizens vulnerable to rights infringements.

A core weakness in Australia’s vertical accountability is the lack of an entrenched or statutory bill of rights. This leaves the executive and legislature with primary control over human rights determinations.

Voters decide who these legislators are and can change them at elections if they are unhappy with their decisions on rights issues. History suggests voters have indeed punished governments that fail to act on majority rights concerns.

However, protection for minority rights, and the rights of Indigenous Australians and refugees in particular, do not attract sufficient support at the ballot box. Not surprisingly, government policies reflect this electoral reality.

Without a bill of rights, minorities and others whose rights are threatened also have limited capacity to trigger horizontal accountability mechanisms for protection. Aside from some exceptional rulings, such as the High Court’s implied rights determinations, Australian judges have generally been reluctant to read the law broadly to incorporate rights.

Further, the Australian Human Rights Commission has a limited mandate. It is also vulnerable to funding cuts and political attacks when government perceives the commission to have overstepped its mark. These deficiencies have become more obvious in recent years with the rise of the “security state”.

Diagonal accountability mechanisms, including a free press and civil society, have been able to flourish in Australia. Even so, there are major limitations to their ability to pursue rights concerns. We have seen increasing media concentration, funding cuts to public broadcasters and the extension of legislative restrictions on civil society.

Such developments reduce the potential for these democratic actors to bring problems to light and inform governments and voters about rights issues.

Unless or until Australians decide to support greater rights protections, whether through constitutional or legislative action, these problems are likely to remain.

Fixing these problems is important. This is not only because human rights are important in themselves, but also because democracy requires a basic level of respect for human rights to function properly.

Ten things Australia can do to protect rights

With Australia becoming a member of the UN Human Rights Council, it is more important than ever that we get our own house in order, if we want to be a model for good democratic practice underpinned by a strong human rights framework.

Having secured a seat at the UN Human Rights Council, Australia needs to get its own house in order.
UN Geneva/flickr

Here’s a start: these ten broad steps are eminently doable. While not covering all the gaps, these will get us a long way toward more robust human rights protection in Australia.

1. Adopt a bill of rights

  • A bill of rights will increase the capacity of minorities and others whose rights are threatened to seek protection from the courts, if and when parliament fails to do so.

2. Protect freedom of speech

  • Reverse funding cuts to public media outlets.

  • Achieve a better balance between security laws and freedom of speech by adding public interest disclosure protections to national security laws.

3. Protect the rule of law and integrity institutions

  • Strengthen the independence of integrity institutions such as statutory officeholders (information commissioners, human rights commissioners). This includes mandating transparent, arm’s length and merit-based selection criteria for appointments to these offices. Stronger statutory guarantees of adequate funding are also needed.

4. Protect the right to vote

  • Strengthen our compulsory voting laws because of their beneficial (yet generally unrecognised) effects on human rights protection, particularly their demonstrated capacity to protect rights such as equality before the law, freedom from discrimination and equal voting power.

  • Continue to support electoral commissions in their efforts to achieve universal or near-universal electoral participation.

5. Protect freedom of association

  • Support the flourishing of civil society organisations by removing restrictive protest laws.

  • Ensure a fair and nonpartisan regulatory framework for funding civil society organisations.

6. Strengthen rights protections for Indigenous Australians

  • Dismantle the intellectual and legal framework that creates barriers to recognising and respecting Indigenous Australians.

  • Be open to Indigenous perspectives and realities and make a genuine effort to right historical wrongs.

  • Strengthen racial discrimination laws to prevent the abuse of the special measures provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act to the detriment of Indigenous Australians.

Australia must not forget that seeking asylum is a human right.
Takver/flick

7. Strengthen rights protections for asylum seekers

  • Uphold human right obligations that are owed to asylum seekers on the presumption that they may well be genuine refugees (as the 1951 Convention on Refugees that Australia has signed requires). This includes closing all offshore processing and detention centres.

  • Promote the human rights of all migrants and their families as Australia’s representatives have promised at UN meetings such as the Global Compact for Refugees and Migrants.

8. Strengthen rights protections for women

  • Improve women’s social and economic rights to enable them to participate fully and equally in Australian society. This includes closing the gender pay gap, increasing access to affordable child care and tackling the poverty facing disadvantaged women including single mothers, Indigenous women, older women, women and girls with disabilities, and women facing domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and community.

9. Strengthen rights protections for poor Australians

  • Implement a policy framework to better uphold our international commitments to protect the economic and social rights of vulnerable Australians. This includes acting on housing affordability and homelessness, protecting vulnerable workers, reducing unemployment and underemployment, and increasing support for the poorest households.

10. Implement marriage equality

  • Honour the outcome of the Marriage Law Postal Survey by legalising marriage equality.

The ConversationHappy Human Rights Day everyone.

Carolien van Ham, Lecturer in Comparative Politics, UNSW; Lisa Hill, Professor of Politics, University of Adelaide, and Louise Chappell, Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute, Professor Law, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

UN slams Australia’s human rights record



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The UN committee urged Australia to end offshore processing and bring the men on Manus to Australia or another safe country.
AAP

Anna Cody, UNSW and Maria Nawaz, UNSW

Last night, the United Nations Human Rights Committee released its recommendations from its review of Australia’s compliance with a key human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The committee harshly criticised Australia for failures in key areas. These included the treatment of refugees, Indigenous rights and inadequate protection of human rights, including the lack of a national human rights act.

What is the UN Human Rights Committee?

This is the treaty body for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee is made up of 18 independent human rights experts. Its key functions are to:

  • monitor and review state parties’ compliance with the treaty; and

  • decide complaints made by individuals against state parties.

What did the committee say about Australia’s human rights record?

The committee noted areas in which Australia’s record had improved. These included the establishment of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and the introduction of protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.


Read more: With a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Australia must fix its record on Indigenous rights


The committee also commended Australia for its commitment to ratifying the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture.

However, concerns far outweighed improvements in human rights.

The rights of refugees

The committee widely criticised Australia’s refugee policy for breaching Australia’s human rights obligations under the convention.

It raised concerns about refoulement (the forcible return of refugees to their home countries), mandatory detention, Operation Sovereign Borders and offshore detention. This includes the recent closure of the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre.

The committee urged Australia to end offshore processing and bring the men on Manus to Australia or another safe country. It emphasised the need for detention to be used to assess individual risk, not as a general deterrent. It also found that Australia has “effective control” over the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

The rights of Indigenous people

The committee expressed concern about disproportionately high (27%) Indigenous incarceration rates. It recommended that measures such as mandatory sentencing and imprisonment for not paying fines be repealed.

The committee further recommended that Australia provide adequate funding to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and consider constitutional change to reflect the special status and fully protect the equal rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As it has done before, the committee urged Australia to establish a national reparations scheme for members of the Stolen Generation.

The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

The committee roundly criticised unnecessary medical interventions on intersex people, particularly intersex infants and children. It recommended that the requirement for Family Court authorisation for second-stage hormone treatment for young people diagnosed with gender dysphoria be removed.

Barriers to gender and sex recognition on documents were also criticised.

The committee took a strong stance on the same-sex marriage postal survey. It stated that:

resort[ing] to public opinion polls to facilitate upholding rights under the Covenant in general, and equality and non-discrimination of minority groups in particular, is not an acceptable decision-making method.

The committee recommended that the Marriage Act be amended, regardless of the outcome of the postal survey.

The rights of women

The committee noted the endemic nature of violence against women, and the disproportionate impact this has on Indigenous women and women with a disability. It recommended that Australia increase its efforts to prevent all forms of violence against women.


Read more: New Home Affairs department should prompt review of Australia’s human rights performance


The committee again raised concerns about the involuntary sterilisation of women and girls with intellectual and cognitive disability, and recommended that Australia abolish this practice.

The human rights framework

As in previous reviews, the committee recommended that Australia introduce a comprehensive national human rights act to give effect to the human rights protections in the covenant.

It also recommended that federal anti-discrimination laws be strengthened to ensure effective protection against all forms of discrimination. It specifically noted the lack of federal protection against discrimination on the basis of religion.

The committee criticised previous attacks by politicians on the Australian Human Rights Commission and recommended that Australia respect the independence of that body.

Where to from here?

The release of these recommendations comes at a crucial time for Australia, which last month won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

The council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights, and for addressing human rights violations around the world.

Council members must demonstrate their willingness to improve their domestic human rights situation. To claim legitimacy in human rights on the world stage, Australia needs to demonstrate a genuine commitment to human rights at home.

Under the committee’s follow-up procedure, Australia must explain how it will implement selected recommendations within 12 months. The committee’s selected recommendations focus on Australia’s treatment of refugees.

Australia was criticised at the review for a history of “chronic non-compliance” with committee recommendations. The challenge for Australia will be to engage positively with the recommendations and urgently implement substantive change to promote and protect human rights.

The ConversationA good starting point would be a national human rights act, to fully incorporate Australia’s international human rights obligations into law. Furthermore, Australia should reconsider its response to the Referendum Council’s recommendation of an Indigenous voice to parliament.

Anna Cody, Associate Professor and Director, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW and Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

With a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Australia must fix its record on Indigenous rights



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The UN Human Rights Committee challenged the Australian government to produce policy that truly includes Indigenous people.
AAP/Dean Lewins

Anna Cody, UNSW and Maria Nawaz, UNSW

It was a big week for Australia at the United Nations last week. It won a seat on the leading international human rights body, the UN Human Rights Council, for a three-year term. The UN Human Rights Committee also reviewed Australia’s compliance with a key human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

One would assume the Human Rights Council seat means Australia will lead on issues of human rights domestically, including in the area of Indigenous rights (one of the five pillars of Australia’s bid) and self-determination.

However, as the UN Human Rights Committee review showed, Australia is failing to meet basic human rights standards for Indigenous peoples.

Violence against women in Indigenous communities

To its credit, the Australian government delegation was open and frank in its dialogue with the committee. The delegation acknowledged key areas in which the country needs to improve.

One of the pressing issues affecting Indigenous communities is family violence. Indigenous women are 45 times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women. The severity of the violence is also greater, with higher rates of hospitalisation.

The government delegation acknowledged that the rate of violence against Indigenous women was “appalling”. It referred to “A$25 million for Indigenous-specific measures” and a “trauma-informed approach for children affected by violence”. This is just one measure the government is adopting to deal with violence against Indigenous women.

The NGO coalition, led by Kingsford Legal Centre and the Human Rights Law Centre, agreed with the government delegation that an area for hope was the recent appointment of June Oscar as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. Oscar has been at the forefront of effective, Aboriginal-led initiatives to deal with family violence in Fitzroy Crossing.

Indeed, the NGO coalition called for the government to include Indigenous women in the monitoring and evaluation of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children. It also called on it to fund Indigenous community-controlled services with expertise in working with victims/survivors of family violence.

Indigenous incarceration rates

An area in which Australia continues to breach international human rights standards is Indigenous incarceration rates. The national imprisonment rate for Indigenous adults is 13 times higher than that for non-Indigenous adults. While Indigenous people are only 2% of the population, they account for 27% of the prison population.

Mandatory sentencing and imprisonment for fine default, as canvassed by the current Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry, are key contributors to these statistics.

The UN Human Rights Committee repeatedly noted its concern about Indigenous incarceration rates and focused on policing of Indigenous communities. A committee member raised the case of Ms Dhu, who died in custody in Western Australia after being arrested for defaulting on fines. He asked why the laws providing for imprisonment for fine default had not yet been “scrapped”.

The committee also raised the recent case of an Aboriginal woman who called WA police for help in a domestic violence situation. She was taken into custody for a fine default, leaving her five children without support.

The Australian government was asked how this represented a “trauma-informed” approach to dealing with family violence.

Self-determination and constitutional reform

One of the key areas of interest for the NGO delegation and the committee was the response to entrenched disadvantage through effective policy. This connected closely with the identification of constitutional reform as advocated by Indigenous delegates at the regional dialogue process that produced the Uluru Statement.

The NGO delegation highlighted the need for Aboriginal-led policy design as articulated in the Redfern Statement and by numerous movements agitating for Indigenous rights since colonisation. The government delegation was keen to focus on constitutional recognition, while the NGO delegation advocated strongly for constitutional reform in accordance with the Uluru Statement.

In fairness to the Australian delegation, it certainly recognised the need for Indigenous-designed policy and implementation. This flies in the face of the government’s actions in cutting funding to Indigenous-controlled organisations, including the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

In 2014, funding for Aboriginal services was substantially cut from $2.4 billion to $860 million under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. And 55% of grants were allocated to non-Indigenous bodies, effectively mainstreaming services.

Where to from here?

The UN Human Rights Committee challenged the Australian government to produce policy that truly includes Indigenous people.

One of the challenges of human rights treaty reviews is to ensure that the government implements the recommendations that the committee makes. Australia has a terrible record in this area, being called out for “chronic non-compliance” by the committee.

The ConversationHopefully, the seat on the Human Rights Council will encourage the government to heed the words of the UN Human Rights Committee and ensure real progress on Indigenous rights.

Anna Cody, Associate Professor and Director, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW and Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s Human Rights Council election comes with a challenge to improve its domestic record



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Australia’s campaign for a seat on the Human Rights Council opened it to further scrutiny of its record on such issues.
Reuters/Denis Balibouse

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, University of Newcastle

Australia has been elected to a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. It will serve on the council from 2018 to 2020.

The announcement overnight formalised an assumed result: Australia and Spain were the only two countries seeking election to the two available seats for the Western Europe and Others group. Most of the other newly- elected council members similarly ran uncontested.

However, all campaigning countries required the support of a majority of voting countries to ensure their election. Australia received 176 votes and Spain 180 – both survived grilling by an expert committee.

How did Australia present itself as a candidate?

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop led Australia’s campaign, which had a particular focus on freedoms, free speech, and equality. The “five pillars” of Australia’s bid were:

  • gender equality

  • good governance

  • freedom of expression

  • the rights of Indigenous peoples

  • strong national human rights institutions and capacity building.

Australia presented itself as a “pragmatic and principled” candidate for the council position. Bishop cited Australia’s “strong track record for human rights” as well as its active and practical involvement in international affairs.

Such active and practical involvement can be seen in Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty, as in the case of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. Furthering global advocacy for death penalty abolition is one of Australia’s primary pledges as a new council member.

Australia’s involvement in multiple UN treaties and its anticipated adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture were also cited as evidence of its worthiness for election.

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Australia’s bid and opportunities for human rights advocacy

However, Australia’s campaign opened it to further scrutiny of its human rights record. Human rights organisations in Australia and overseas have been lobbying to ensure that Australia’s practices are well publicised and subject to oversight and critique.

In December 2016, Bishop sought to pre-empt such criticism, claiming “no country is perfect”. Bishop pledged to be “honest and open” about Australia’s human rights record during the campaign.

Yet the campaign’s pledges failed to acknowledge Australia’s human rights abuses. As such, Australia remains open to accusations of hypocrisy on human rights.

Australia’s human rights track record is more chequered than it would claim. The UN has condemned Australia for its asylum-seeker policies and treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Bishop frequently praised Australia for its success in building a multicultural society and valuing the diverse background of migrant settlers. Yet asylum seekers arriving by boat continue to be dehumanised.


Further reading: ‘Fake refugees’: Dutton adopts an alternative fact to justify our latest human rights violation


Another key area of human rights controversy is the current postal plebiscite to survey public opinion on marriage equality. Australia’s council bid promised the protection of LGBTQI rights. But as was forewarned, the plebiscite campaign has exposed LGBTQI people to harmful fear campaigning and social exclusion.

It is incongruous for a claimed champion of human rights to put the rights of a minority group to a popular vote, potentially in an effort to prevent that group from gaining marriage equality.

Australia strikes a similarly dissonant note in relation to its treatment of Indigenous people. A key pledge of the council bid was the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. However, a constitutional convention rejected the form of “recognition” the government-sponsored Recognise campaign had promoted.

The Recognise campaign has since been abandoned, and the future of the proposed referendum is unclear. The Australian government is yet to embrace the Referendum Council’s proposals for treaty, truth-telling and a First Nations Voice.


Further reading: Listening to the heart: what now for Indigenous recognition after the Uluru summit?


France’s withdrawal was a loss to the election campaign

Given Australia’s record, France’s withdrawal as a third candidate for the two available seats was unfortunate. The lack of competition reduced pressure on Australia to extend its human rights commitments.

The weight of international disapproval of Australia’s practice in relation to refugees, in particular, could well have weakened the bid had France stayed in the race.

No doubt this was also true for Spain. The recent Catalan independence referendum exposed Spain’s problematic record in relation to self-determination and political rights for minority groups.


Further reading: As Spain represses Catalonia’s show of independence, the rest of Europe watches on nervously


In interesting company

The UN’s orientation is to promote inclusion rather than marginalisation of member countries on international bodies. The UN is committed to universal values and obligations, and seeks to enforce these through universal involvement in its processes.

It is undoubtedly difficult to countenance egregious human rights violators participating in human rights processes. But it is at least arguable that their involvement promotes the progressive realisation of human rights more effectively than their marginalisation would.

However, in some cases, it may be that a country’s membership should be postponed until it can show improvement in a deplorable record. Leading up to the election, Human Rights Watch campaigned against promoting the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the council due to its grave human rights violations.

Meanwhile, the US warned it may withdraw if the council continued to elect countries responsible for gross abuses.

Australia is not in this category. It aspires to be an exemplary member of the council. And its election should act as impetus for progressive gains in its human rights performance.

The value of Australia’s election for human rights

Human rights advocates will take the opportunity to draw attention to any gaps between Australia’s international legal obligations and its domestic practices.

Bishop was right to highlight the value of Australia becoming the first Pacific country to join the council. Strong diplomatic and trade relationships will hopefully enable Australia to influence human rights development in its region. It is the only place without a regional human rights treaty or institution.

An important focus in this context will be Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of capital punishment. Allied to that concern for the right to life, perhaps Australia might also consider lobbying other countries – notably the US – for gun laws that prioritise human life and wellbeing.

Australia could substantially increase the legitimacy of such efforts, though, by working to build adequate domestic human rights architecture. Without federal human rights legislation, Australia cannot demonstrate the social and legal value of building human rights protections into law.

Australia’s election also calls for a renewal of political commitment to the value of international human rights review processes. Recent years have seen expressions of frustration, dismissal and poor faith that undermine Australia’s strong record of commitment to international human rights treaties.

Nowhere was this troubling attitude toward human rights protection more clear than in efforts to tarnish the reputation and work of former Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs.

Such mixed messages sit poorly with Australia’s continued efforts to review the practices of other countries – particularly now that it has an official role on the Human Rights Council.


Further reading: Why does international condemnation on human rights mean so little to Australia?


Australia has claimed leadership in the areas of gender equality, good governance, freedom of expression, the rights of Indigenous people, and strong national human rights institutions.

Imperfect performance in these areas indicates key targets for immediate focus – for example through human-rights-informed approaches to gendered violence, and concern for limitations on the freedom to express views about politically sensitive matters.

Considerable progress will be required on the rights of Indigenous people for Australia to claim success on that key pillar of its council campaign. The federal government could look to progress on a treaty in Victoria as evidence that such a conversation can be inclusive and productive.

The ConversationImportantly, Australia must also be held accountable in the key area its bid sought to avoid: the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Its election provides an ideal opportunity for Australia to show leadership and commitment to durable regional and global responses to refugee flows.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, Research Assistant, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Clearing homeless camps compounds the violation of human rights and entrenches the problem


Cristy Clark, Southern Cross University

On Wednesday evening, the New South Wales state government passed legislation empowering police to dismantle the Martin Place homeless camp in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. This follows similar actions in Victoria, where police cleared a homeless camp outside Flinders Street Station. Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle proposed a bylaw to ban rough sleeping in the city.

In March, the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, censured the City of Melbourne’s actions, stating that:

… the criminalisation of homelessness is deeply concerning and violates international human rights law.

As the special rapporteur highlighted, homelessness is already “a gross violation of the right to adequate housing”. To further discriminate against people rendered homeless by systemic injustice is prohibited under international human rights law.


Further reading: Ban on sleeping rough does nothing to fix the problems of homelessness


Real problem is lack of affordable housing

In contrast to her Melbourne counterpart, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore had been adopting a more human-rights-based approach to resolving the challenges presented by the Martin Place camp.

After negotiating with camp organisers, Moore made it clear her council would not disperse the camp until permanent housing was found for all of the residents. As she pointed out:

You can’t solve homelessness without housing — what we urgently need is more affordable housing and we urgently need the New South Wales government to step up and do their bit.

It’s no secret that housing affordability in both Sydney and Melbourne has reached crisis point. And homelessness is an inevitable consequence of this. But we have seen little real action from government to resolve these issues.

The NSW government has been offering people temporary crisis accommodation or accommodation on the outskirts of the city. This leaves them isolated from community and without access to services.

In contrast, these inner-city camps don’t just provide shelter, food, safety and community; they also send a powerful political message to government that it must act to resolve the housing affordability crisis.

Having established well-defined rules of conduct, a pool of shared resources and access to free shelter and food, the Martin Place camp can be seen as part of the commons movement.

This movement seeks to create alternative models of social organisation to challenge the prevailing market-centric approaches imposed by neoliberalism and to reclaim the Right to the City.


Further reading: Suburbanising the centre: the government’s anti-urban agenda for Sydney


We should be uncomfortable

It is not surprising that right-wing pundits have described these camps as “eyesores” or that they make NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian “completely uncomfortable”. The breach of human rights these camps represent, and the challenge they pose to the current system, should make people uncomfortable.

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Unlike most comparable nations, Australia has very limited legal protections for human rights. In this context, actions like the Martin Place and Flinders Street camps are one of the few options available to victims of systemic injustice to exercise their democratic right to hold government to account.

In seeking to sweep this issue under the carpet, both the City of Melbourne and the NSW government are not only further breaching the right to adequate housing, they are also trying to silence political protest.

It is clear from Moore’s demands, and the NSW government’s own actions, that the Martin Place camp is working to create pressure for action. What will motivate the government to resolve this crisis once the camps have been dispersed?

As Nelson Mandela argued in 1991 at the ANC’s Bill of Rights Conference:

A simple vote, without food, shelter and health care, is to use first-generation rights as a smokescreen to obscure the deep underlying forces which dehumanise people. It is to create an appearance of equality and justice, while by implication socioeconomic inequality is entrenched.

We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom. We must provide for all the fundamental rights and freedoms associated with a democratic society.

Mandela’s words were hugely relevant to apartheid South Africa, where a ruling elite had established a deeply racist and unjust system that linked political disenfranchisement and material deprivation. But they also resonate today in Australia where inequality is on the rise – driven in large part by disparities in property ownership.

The ConversationHomelessness is a deeply dehumanising force that strips people of access to fundamental rights. The policies that are creating this crisis must be seen as unacceptable breaches of human rights. We need to start asking whether our current economic system is compatible with a truly democratic society.

Cristy Clark, Lecturer in Law, Southern Cross University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New Home Affairs department should prompt review of Australia’s human rights performance



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AAP/Lukas Coch

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has just announced the creation of a new “super-ministry”, modelled on the UK Home Office. By the end of 2018, Australia will have a new Department of Home Affairs.

This change consolidates responsibility for all security agencies within a single portfolio. Peter Dutton, currently immigration minister, will head the proposed department.

Dutton gains responsibility for the Australian Federal Police from Justice Minister Michael Keenan. He also adds responsibility for ASIO, previously under the portfolio of Attorney-General George Brandis. As home affairs minister, Dutton will retain responsibility for immigration and border protection.

Announcing the change, Turnbull and Brandis went to considerable effort to note the attorney-general’s continued significance, despite his loss of responsibility for intelligence. Both emphasised that the attorney-general would gain responsibility for some oversight bodies previously within the prime minister’s portfolio.

According to Turnbull, the new arrangements will ensure stronger oversight of security matters to balance protection for civil liberties and freedoms.

What does this reform mean for people subject to Australia’s immigration system?

The comments of the four ministers at today’s press conference were revealing in many ways.

One group of people – refugees and asylum seekers – were completely absent from the ministers’ remarks. This raises questions regarding the meaning of the changes for these particularly vulnerable people, who remain subject to the powers of the home affairs minister.

Brandis said the reforms are significant because, for the first time, a senior cabinet minister will have as his exclusive focus the national security of Australia. That is, the home affairs minister’s sole focus will be national security and border security.

Dutton, preparing to assume wide-ranging new powers, reflected on his ministry’s success in stopping and turning back boats. According to Dutton, without integrity in the immigration and border protection system, “we can’t keep our country safe”.

And Keenan celebrated the government’s novel use of the immigration system to further its national security priorities.

The sum of these propositions is a continued linking of people seeking asylum with the notion of a threat to Australia’s integrity and security. Today’s announcement failed to show care or responsibility for the dehumanising impact of this strategy.

Instead, Dutton takes on a considerably expanded portfolio, despite extensive critique regarding his efforts to expand already very broad powers.

Australia’s bid for the UN Human Rights Council

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was absent from today’s announcement. She is currently visiting India and Sri Lanka.

Her opposition to the creation of the new super-ministry has been widely reported.

Until today’s press conference, Brandis was also on record as opposing the creation of a super-ministry. This may explain the emphasis Turnbull placed on the oversight role of the attorney-general for “ensuring governments act lawfully and justly”.

Others will consider whether this change is called for in the sense of enhancing Australia’s security capacity or performance. But today’s announcement must also be assessed in the context of Australia’s human rights standing.

Bishop and Brandis have taken primary responsibility for promoting Australia’s current bid for election to the UN Human Rights Council. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia is the ideal candidate for a two-year term on the council, as it has been – and continues to be – an “international human rights leader”.

The government has taken steps to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to human rights, in support of its campaign.

For example, in February, Brandis announced that Australia would adopt the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). OPCAT aims to improve oversight of international standards at the domestic level. Its adoption in Australia will enable access for independent inspection agencies to Australian prisons and detention centres.

And, fortunately for Australia, France recently withdrew as a candidate. Although an election will still be held in October this year, Bishop is now confident that Australia and Spain will be elected unopposed to the two available seats for their regional grouping.

Regardless of the likelihood of its election, however, does today’s shift in the national security context support the legitimacy of Australia’s bid for election to the Human Rights Council?

In launching Australia’s bid, Bishop described human rights as “national values deeply embedded in Australian society”. Brandis described Australia’s candidacy as:

… the most natural thing in the world for a country which – at its core – is a nation built on a belief in, and a commitment to, the human rights of all – the human rights of all Australians and the human rights of all the peoples of the world.

Such characterisations are widely disputed by domestic and international commentary, which tests Australia’s performance against its international legal obligations.

Notably, the people ignored in today’s announcement – those seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries – have suffered human rights abuses in Australia’s immigration system.

It is difficult to see how the consolidation of far-reaching security powers in a single ministry will promote human rights. Outgoing Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has already identified expanding executive power as a threat to democracy and human rights.

While the protection of the Australian community from terror threats is an undeniable and legitimate priority for any government, lawyers must oversee the coming reforms to determine whether they further threaten the delicate balance between safety and security on one hand, and freedom and rights on the other.

Australia’s model for these reforms, the UK Home Office, hardly has a stellar human rights record. It has been recently criticised for “making border guards of doctors”. Its officials have been given incentives for reaching asylum seeker rejection targets.

And in June this year, UK Prime Minister Theresa May demanded expanded anti-terror powers for government. She said:

… if human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it.

The ConversationThe human rights implications of today’s announcement must be carefully monitored, particularly considering the lack of comprehensive human rights protection in Australian law.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.