The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has just released its annual World Report for 2015. You could have predicted the abuses listed in its summary of Australia, with one notable exception – they are the same category of abuses listed in the 2014 report. This predictability raises questions as to whether or not Australia is unique in not addressing human rights criticisms, and whether or not there is a cultural, social, or political reason for the failure.
The 656-page document, the 25th of its kind, summarises on-the-ground research of human rights practices in more than 90 countries. And to some extent it is not surprising that a country has similar problems from year to year; even from country to country there are comparable grievances. "We report on issues where we do research," the Australian director of HRW, Elaine Pearson, explained to VICE, "So there tends to be common themes – asylum seekers, freedom of expression, disability rights – these are really the fundamental human rights abuses."
In its 2014 report HRW detailed, amongst other things, Australia's record in regards to asylum seekers and refugees during 2013. This included the United Nations Human Rights Commission finding that Australia had committed 143 human rights violations by indefinitely detaining 46 refugees, Australia's continuing practise of mandatory detention, and the agreement Australia reached with PNG over a detention centre being placed on Manus Island.
The 2015 report lists Australia's asylum seeker record from last year. Chief among concerns and criticisms raised by the report are those regarding the offshore detention centre on Manus Island, and the questionable treatment of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, including those who were sent back after "cursory interviews" and the 157 Tamil asylum seekers who were detained at sea for almost a month before being sent to Nauru for processing.
This is more or less how the report functions; it catalogues the questionable human rights practices, emerging trends, as well as violations committed within a year by each country investigated. It does not provide a running list of violations, nor does it necessarily say whether or not a previous year's abuses have been remedied.
For instance, in its research on Disability Rights in Australia in 2014 HRW reported on the inquiry of the Australian Law Commission into barriers to equal recognition before the law and legal capacity for individuals with disabilities. It highlighted how, under certain conditions, Australian law still allowed "women and girls with disabilities to be involuntarily sterilized", and how "shackles and restraints are often still used on people with mental disabilities, sometimes because of lack of beds in psychiatric wards".
The 2015 report, amongst other Disability Rights issues, outlines the findings of the Australian Human Rights Commission made in April last year. "Forty-five percent of people with disabilities live near or below the poverty line. People with disabilities are also disproportionately at risk of violence in the community and in institutional settings, and are more likely to be jailed." But it makes no reference to the findings of the 2014 HRW report.
VICE asked Graeme Innes, who was Australia's Disability Discrimination Minister from 2005 to July 2014, if any of these problems from 2014, the sterilization laws or the frequent use of shackles and restraints, had been satisfactorily rectified. "Oh no, I don't think any of [those] problems have been addressed," he said.
Graeme is now the chair of the Attitude Foundation, whose charter it is to change the cultural mindset Australia has for people with disabilities. "That's the raison d'être for the Attitude Foundation. If we can change attitudes towards people with disabilities a lot of these other issues will start to be addressed."
This isn't to say that the HRW report is lacking, simply that its focus from year to year is on current findings.
There does appear to be some cultural trait in Australian culture that allows us to maintain a certain disregard for other human rights issues.
As to why Australia has a pattern of human rights abuses that is repeated, or at least goes unaddressed, Graeme Innes said that change in disability rights comes slowly. "I think most people make assumptions about people with disabilities, and most of those assumptions are about what we can't do, and most of those assumptions are wrong." He clarified, "It's not an intentional meanness. It's just a lack of awareness or understanding."
He doesn't think that the problem is a uniquely Australian one. "It's a human issue. It's not a problem only experienced in Australia by any means."
While that might be true for Disability Rights, according to Elaine Pearson there does appear to be some cultural trait in Australian culture that allows us to maintain a certain disregard for other human rights issues.
"I would say that in Australia there tends to be a level of tolerance for certain policies because there is a certain sense here that bad things happen to bad people." She referred to Australia's suspicion and demonization of asylum seekers and potential terrorists and explained, "People are more willing to go along with polices they don't think will affect them."
And while Europe may have similar attitudes toward asylum seekers, the main difference in Australia might be at the government level. "I think the thing with the Australian government is that they don't deny these policies are cruel. They know that they're cruel. But they think that they're justified because they're effective. I think that's quite a key difference."
All the aspects of Australia's questionable human rights behaviour in the 2014 report can be found in the 2015 report; Refugee and Asylum Seeker rights, Disability rights, Indigenous People's rights and the health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, a lack of marriage equality, and a foreign policy that avoids advocating against the human rights abuses of other nations whenever it conflicts with Australia's self-interest.
The notable addition is that this year there is a section on how Australia's new counterterrorism laws threaten rights to freedom of expression and privacy. From the press release accompanying the report: "Australia's new counterterrorism laws mean journalists, whistleblowers, and activists will risk prison for certain disclosures – even if it's in the public interest," Pearson said, "The government rammed these measures through parliament despite their having lasting consequences on Australians' civil liberties."
But even though the laws are new, they have a precedent in the early 2000s, in the legislation passed in the wake of 9/11 and subsequent acts of terror like the London bombings. Or in other words, the one new human rights issue in Australia is in some ways a continuation of an older issue. Elaine explained that governments, in their reaction to horrible threats and destructive acts of terrorism, "Unfortunately are often only too eager to find ways to suppress rights. But they need to think about the broader consequences of these actions."
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