UN Slams Australia For Marriage Postal Survey and Refugee Treatment
10 November 2017 at 4:00 pm
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has slammed the Australian government for the same-sex marriage postal survey and its treatment of asylum seekers – just weeks after Australia was elected to the UN’s Human Rights Council.
The committee undertook a review of Australia’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and a report released overnight on Thursday raised numerous concerns about Australia’s human rights record.
Chief among them was the nation’s treatment of the LGBTI community with the same-sex marriage postal survey.
“The committee is concerned about the explicit ban on same-sex marriage in the Marriage Act 1961 that results in discriminatory treatment of same-sex couples, including in matters related to divorce of couples who married overseas,” the report said.
“While noting that the state party is currently taking a voluntary, non-binding postal survey on the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the committee is of the view that resort 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 and that such an approach risks further marginalizing and stigmatizing members of minority groups.
“The state party should revise its laws, including the Marriage Act, to ensure, irrespective of the results of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, that all its laws and policies afford equal protection to LGBTI persons, couples and families.”
Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island was also raised as a major concern for the committee.
“The committee is concerned about… the conditions in the offshore immigration processing facilities in Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) and Nauru that also hold children, including inadequate mental health services, serious safety concerns and instances of assault, sexual abuse, self-harm and suspicious deaths; and about reports that harsh conditions compelled some asylum seekers to return to their country of origin despite the risks that they face there,” the committee said.
“The closure of the Manus Island regional processing centre on 31 October 2017 without adequate arrangements for long-term viable relocation solutions for all refugees and asylum-seekers transferred there by the state party [is of concern].”
The committee called on the government to better protect the rights of these refugees and added that Australia’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers was unlawful.
“[The government should] take all measures necessary to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers affected by the closure of processing centres, including against non-refoulement, ensure their transfer to Australia or their relocation to other appropriate safe countries, and monitor closely their situation after the closure of the centres,” the committee said.
“The committee is particularly concerned about what appears to be the use of detention powers as a general deterrent against unlawful entry rather than in response to an individual risk, and the continued application of mandatory detention in respect of children and unaccompanied minors.”
This damning report comes just weeks after Australia was elected unopposed to the UN’s Human Rights Council.
At the time, Vision Australia chief advocate Tim Costello said the federal government needed to “walk the walk” on human rights advocacy, by bringing detained people to Australia.
“Offshore detention centres are a blight on Australia’s international reputation – an act of calculated inhumanity that creates a credibility gap in our [appointment to] a seat on the Human Rights Council,” Costello said.
“If we are to play a credible role in promoting human rights internationally, we need to look to our own behaviour.”
When Australia was appointed to the council, foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop said “human rights for Indigenous peoples” would be one of Australia’s key focuses.
But the UN committee was scathing of Australia’s treatment of indigenous people and their overrepresentation in prisons.
“While noting the establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples in 2010, the Committee is concerned about its limited funding. Furthermore, while welcoming the prime minister’s statement in support of the recommendations made by the Referendum Council in its report of 30 June 2017, the committee notes the lack of a timeline for a referendum on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” the report said.
“The committee is [also] concerned about the significant overrepresentation of Indigenous men, women and juveniles in prisons, with Indigenous adult prisoners making up 27 per cent of the overall prison population as at 30 June 2016, and notes with concern that mandatory sentencing and imprisonment for fine defaults might contribute to such disproportionately high rates of their incarceration.
“The state party should take robust measures to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in prisons, inter alia by identifying and revising regulations and policies leading to their high rates of incarceration.”
The Law Council of Australia President, Fiona McLeod SC, said these findings came at a critical time given Australia’s UN Human Rights Council appointment.
“The committee’s report is a clear and definitive statement about steps the government needs to take to address the human rights concerns identified,” McLeod said.
“The government must show leadership in human rights through the development of policies that reflects a commitment to fairness, equality and the rule of law.
“Further, as a member of the Human Rights Council, Australia must demonstrate a willingness to improve its domestic situation, not just in chosen priority areas but across all obligations.”
Oxfam Australia chief executive, Dr Helen Szoke, added that the report contradicted Julie Bishop’s pledge that Australia would work towards protecting and advancing human rights.
“[Bishop’s] lofty commitments ring hollow in light of the human rights and humanitarian crisis unfolding under the watch of the Australian government on Manus Island right now,” Szoke said.
“We implore the Australian government to immediately evacuate the men on Manus Island, to ensure they are supported and assisted to recover, and to offer them the future they deserve.
“Longer term, we call upon the Australian government to once and for all end its damaging offshore processing regime and to ensure that people seeking asylum in Australia are never again subjected to indefinite detention.”