The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) released the 2018 Democracy Index about a week ago, and Australia ranked 9/167 – an impressive feat. This week also saw the release of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) 2019 World Report, covering all the events of 2018. While praising our human rights record, as the EIU ranking would suggest, there is much left to be desired that would greatly boost our image on the global stage.
Australia is one of only twenty countries that are considered “Full Democracies”, a fact that we should be proud of and strive to not only maintain but progress further up the Index ranking. But while this ranking is brilliant when looking in as an observer, when you are a part of the country it is a lot clearer just what can be improved. A number of policies and decisions taken by our government in the last decade have left us open to international criticism, and these need to be addressed. HRW’s full report is available online, but I’ll only be referring to the chapter about Australia.
One major area of interest in the HRW report is that of prisons across a variety of areas. The refugees and asylum seekers at Nauru and Manus Island were highlighted, with 570 people still being held there (as of the writing of the report). Other stats include:
- 12 dead since 2013, with 2 suicides and 1 confirmed preventable death (should read as all deaths were preventable),
- 450 sent to the US under a resettlement deal with the Trump administration (initially beginning under Obama),
- 150 transferred to Australia only after legal action was threatened against the government, with court orders for 90 to be transferred.
The report also mentioned children as young as 10 suffering mental health issues, leading to some cases of self harm and attempted suicide.
Within Australia itself, the imprisonment of Indigenous peoples, children, and disabled people were all noted. While only 2% of the total population, Indigenous people make up 28% of adult prisoners and over 50% of child prisoners, a massive overrepresentation that has been blamed on laws that unfairly target Indigenous people. It also references the Guardian article that revealed 407 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died whilst in custody since 1991.
Alongside the above statistic for Aboriginal children in the prison system, children in general have had difficult experiences in prison, with the age of imprisonment at 10. Pushes to raise this age to 12 have thus far only been recommendations without any solid action in response. There were also some cases in Western Australia of boys left in solitary confinement that were “probably” (their quotations) breaching the UN Convention against Torture.
Disabled people (both Indigenous and not) make up over 50% of the prison population. Investigations carried out by HRW uncovered numerous abuses towards disabled prisoners, stemming from a lack of training and/or care from staff and other prisoners. A lack of support services also contributes to the dismal wellbeing of these people.
The other main heading the report can be put under is general rights of the population. Laws that have been put in place by the Coalition government have been blatant attacks against our rights as human beings, and these have ben justly called out by HRW. This includes the secret trial of Witness K and his lawyer, who released damning evidence that we ran espionage and spying operations on Timor-Leste officials when negotiating our maritime border and resource allocation with the fledgling nation. Not only should Witness K instead be celebrated for his revelations, but the Timor-Leste situation is one Australia has been on the wrong side of since the 1960’s.
The report also mentions the encryption bill that would supposedly enforce companies like Google and Facebook to essentially create a backdoor into their systems to allow our government to access our information. Such Orwellian ideas have already destroyed out privacy in the form of advertising potential and the US and UK’s spy agencies (the NSA and GCHQ respectively), and now our government plans to enact similar legislation here. In fact, they have done so (after the HRW report was written, it seems), as Labor helped push the bill through the Senate at literally the last moment of the year. The practicality and enforceability of these laws is questionable, but the fact they were passed is an alarming strike at our rights to privacy.
The treatment of elderly people received brief mention too, simply stating there were abuses and relaying that a Royal Commission into aged care would be taking place. On a positive note, their tiny paragraph of the rights of women had only to report on the decriminalisation of abortion is Queensland and safe zones around abortion clinics in NSW – a victory for women’s rights in the country.
The report is hundreds of pages long, but is a great recap if anyone wishes to read up on the human rights of each country; the full report is available for download on the HRW website.
The EIU places Australia in a wonderful position, and overall a well-deserved one when compared with most other countries on the list. As praiseworthy as this result is, the HRW report still manages to contrast that global ranking with just how depraved and lacking we can be towards the most vulnerable in our society and the world. We can do better, and we should do better – not just for ourselves, but to the benefit of the world and human rights throughout it.
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