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Holding the Australian government to account on children’s rights


20 January 2021 at 1:38 pm
Simon Henderson
Wth many of the child rights issues that Australia was facing in 2015 still the same in 2021, we should all be paying close attention to the federal government’s reaction to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s hearing, writes Save the Children Australia’s Simon Henderson.


Simon Henderson | 20 January 2021 at 1:38 pm


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Holding the Australian government to account on children’s rights
20 January 2021 at 1:38 pm

Wth many of the child rights issues that Australia was facing in 2015 still the same in 2021, we should all be paying close attention to the federal government’s reaction to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s hearing, writes Save the Children Australia’s Simon Henderson.

On Wednesday, Australia’s human rights performance over the last five years will come under scrutiny by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) through the universal periodic review process. The process occurs every five years and allows nations around the world to ask the Australian government questions and review its human rights record. 

Shortly after Christmas, Australia’s own self-assessment submitted to the HRC was released. The report outlines developments on everything from the rights of children, rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, asylum seekers and refugees, women’s rights and much more. 

However, the report is just as telling for its omissions, which are extensive. When foreign governments are thinking about what to say when Australia appears before the HRC, they will look to the report to see where Australia’s priorities stand.

One of the starkest omissions is climate change. Much has been said about Australia’s low ambition in combatting climate change. Australia’s self-assessment makes no mention of climate change or the environment. This is disturbing because we know from speaking directly with young people and children, it is a critical child rights issue. 

Additionally, when it comes to youth justice and the detention of children, the national report is noticeably lacking in detail. Some may not be aware that Australia holds a reservation under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to allow children to be detained with adults in prison.

The national report fails to explain why this continues to be the case or even provide data about the cases where children are detained together with adults. There is also no attempt to describe the significant breaches of children’s rights in Australia’s juvenile justice systems and youth detention facilities.

In recent days, several countries have released what are known as questions in advance ahead of Australia’s hearing. Questions from a variety of countries have been received, including Slovenia, Uruguay, Sweden, the United Kingdom and more. 

Germany asked “What are the key factors that have prevented Australia from raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years?” It is a good question and one that requires a direct answer given that Australia’s position contrasts with UN recommendations, medical evidence about children’s development and public pressure from the community. 

One of the common threads when reading the questions in advance is that many of the child rights issues that Australia was facing in 2015 remain the same in 2021. 

The federal government has failed to put in place laws to ensure immigration detention for children is a last resort. 

They have failed to implement comprehensive measures to protect the rights of children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They have also failed to combat the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in Australian prisons.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic Foreign Minister Payne has re-emphasised the importance of the multilateral system which implements rules and processes that are vital to our country’s security, interests, values and prosperity.  

Our review by the UN is a test for Australia on our commitment to the standards that underpin universal human rights and the rule of law.

Australia should use the universal periodic review as an opportunity to finally make progress on many long outstanding child rights issues, working in close collaboration with civil society organisations. 

We should not end up in the same position again in 2025, writing the same words, expressing the same concerns and with children still not being fully protected under the human rights treaties to which Australia is bound to comply. 

We should all be watching the federal government’s reaction to Wednesday’s hearing closely.


Simon Henderson  |  @ProBonoNews

Simon Henderson is head of policy at Save the Children Australia, where he covers domestic and international child rights issues. He is an international human rights lawyer and policy analyst, with extensive experience in Australia and in the Indo-Pacific.

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