During the week of January 18th, Australia's government was questioned in a UN hearing over their “lack of progress” in lessening rates of indigenous incarceration across the country as well as their general progression in human rights.
In this UN led conference, various countries questioned Australia on it’s human rights performance. One of the major focuses was inequality in the justice system between Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples but many other topics were covered such as children's rights in the justice system and war crimes.
This is part of the UN Civil Rights Council's universal periodic review process that happens every 5 years. Examples of this are Sweden and Uruguay, both who submitted questions prior to the conference about the “overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian prisons”. Additionally, Germany inquired on why Australia has delayed the process of raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years old.
Despite doubt from other countries, the Australian government has claimed that they have made significant improvements in their realization of human rights since the last review in 2015. These include major investments in addressing modern slavery, human trafficking, reduction of family and domestic violence and legalization of same sex marriage. However, the government states that Covid-19 has presented “new challenges” in protecting human rights across the nation.
“However, our strong democratic institutions have ensured that our response carefully balances the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health with other rights, such as liberty of movement, which may need to be temporarily curtailed.”
A senior official of the Attorney General's Department, Andrew Walter, led the delegation on Wednesday the 20th of January. Prior to the conference, countries submitted a total of 31 questions in advance. With most of the questions focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights. Sweden in particular wants to know what measures are being taken to reduce incarceration of Indigenous people, particularly those of false accusations and bais prison sentences. Other countries are seeking clarity on Australia's progress on this issue since the previous human rights review, as this is a recurring issue in the nation's civil rights laws.
The UK has cited the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017 and asked how the Australian government planned “to work with, and listen to, Indigenous elders and leaders to provide a national voice to parliament for Indigenous people”.
The head of policy at Save the Children Australia (an NGO dedicated to improving humans rights) said that one of the “common threads” running through the accusations from other countries is that many of the children's rights issues that Australia faced in 2015, have not changed or been sufficiently addressed since.
“The federal government has failed to put in place laws to ensure immigration detention for children is a last resort,” Henderson stated.
“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 overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in Australian prisons.”
The Australian government has recognized that they must “do better” when it comes to disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens, referencing the 2020 Closing The Gap report which showed that Australia was on track to meeting only 2 out of 7 targets set in 2008.
One of the key statistics highlighting this problem is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 28% of the prisoner population in Australia but only 3.3% of the entire population. This shows the extensive disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian citizens.
The Australian government's submission to the UN trial said that state governments were “taking steps to reduce Indigenous incarceration”. However, there has been little change since a similar statement was made in 2015, so the reliability of this statement has been questioned by many countries.
Poland, for example, suggested that recent reports, including parts of the Australian Human Rights Commission “raise concerns about certain practices existing in the juvenile justice system, such as low age of criminal responsibility, excessive periods of isolation, combined detention places for children and adults, or inappropriate conditions of the detention places”.
Poland has requested that the government explain what measures it has taken to improve the functionality of the juvenile justice system, including any preventative measures to “stop children from entering the justice system in the first place”.
A number of countries, including Germany, have asked about Australia's Immigration detention practices. While Panama has asked about metadata laws and the protection of the right to privacy.
Iran, which has faced severe criticism over its own human rights record, asked the Australian government to explain “what lessons are learned on fighting impunity for war crimes after the long-delayed prosecution of Australian military forces for horrifying war crimes in Afghanistan.”
Overall, this UN hearing on Australia's human and civil rights brought up many relevant issues in Australia's legal systems. Although there has not been much progress in these areas since 2015, the UN and its affiliated countries are hopeful for slow and steady progression within the nation in order to maximize equality, equity and overall happiness for all of its citizens.
“Infographics: Indigenous Incarceration in Australia at a Glance.” NITV, www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2016/04/15/infographics-indigenous-incarceration-australia-glance.
Silva, Angelica. “‘We Need to Be Just as Outraged’: George Floyd Protests in Australia Raise the Specter of Indigenous Deaths in Police Custody.” Business Insider Australia, 7 June 2020, www.businessinsider.com.au/australia-blm-protests-spotlight-indigenous-deaths-in-police-custody-2020-6.
“UN Countries Challenge Australia’s Indigenous Incarceration Record in Human Rights Review.” The Guardian, 18 Jan. 2021, www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jan/19/un-countries-challenge-australias-indigenous-incarceration-record-in-human-rights-review. Accessed 13 Feb. 2021.
“When a Parent Is Incarcerated.” Psychology Today, 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201505/when-parent-is-incarcerated.