Australia urged to steer clear from overly punitive lockdown measures
18 January 2021 at 5:37 pm
Human Rights Watch has criticised some of the ‘discriminatory’ aspects of Australia’s COVID-19 response
Australian governments should assess all future COVID-19 lockdown measures to ensure they are proportionate and not overly punitive, human rights experts say.
Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2021 raised concerns about several measures taken by authorities during the pandemic, especially during Victoria’s second wave lockdown last year.
The forced 14-day lockdown of more than 3,000 public housing tower residents was labelled “discriminatory”, while Victoria Police was slammed for using “harsh measures during [the] lockdown that [threatened] basic rights”.
This follows earlier criticism from Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass, who said last month that the decision to lock down the towers with no warning represented a human rights breach.
Elaine Pearson, the Australia director at Human Rights Watch, told Pro Bono News that she understood it was difficult to get the balance right between protecting the community and upholding human rights.
“I think overall, the Victorian government should be commended for its efforts to combat the virus and really bring the pandemic under control,” Pearson said.
“That said, we certainly had concerns around some of the policing practices that threaten basic rights – and particularly the lockdown of a public housing block that had quite a severe effect on people.”
Acknowledging the possibility of future lockdowns down the track, Pearson said Australian authorities needed to re-think aspects of their approach.
She also called for greater compassion around the nation’s harsh interstate and international border restrictions.
“There absolutely needs to be an assessment to see whether these measures are totally necessary and proportionate,” she said.
“With the very harsh restrictions on movement, I think there needs to be some discretion and compassion there, particularly when people are willing to undertake 14 days mandatory quarantine and take the steps necessary to keep people safe.”
Concerns over treatment of Indigenous issues
The Human Rights Watch report also looked at the inequality faced by Indigenous people in Australia.
The report discussed the Victorian coroner’s report last year that found the death of Aboriginal woman Tanya Day was “clearly preventable” and that police demonstrated “unconscious bias” with her arrest.
It noted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprised 29 per cent of the nation’s adult prison population, despite making up just 3 per cent of the population.
Pearson said the Australian government needs to “take a long, hard look at why so many Aboriginal people are going to prison”.
“In 2020 we did see some positive moves by state governments, such as the effort to get rid of laws sending people to jail for unpaid fines in Western Australia, and the move in Victoria to abolish public drunkenness as a crime,” she said.
“But I think we also need to take a longer, harder look at some of those laws, particularly mandatory sentencing provisions and look at alternatives to custodial arrangements.
“Detention and prison really should be a last resort and reserved for the most serious of crimes.”
She said raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 was an important step needed to improve human rights for First Nations people.
“We’ve seen quite a strong campaign from Australian civil society on that issue. And yet it’s been quite disappointing that we haven’t yet seen a federal or state level response to that,” she said.