The Guardian November 22, 2000

Government's human rights digrace

by Andrew Jackson

Australia is again facing world-wide condemnation over its human rights 
record, with several reports this week detailing ongoing abuses against 
children, refugees and indigenous people.

Criticism is mounting on many fronts, in submissions to the UN Committee 
Against Torture; a report by "Save The Children" blasting Australia over 
its treatment of indigenous children; and allegations that Australia's 
privately run refugee detention centres did nothing to protect children 
from sexual assault.

This follows recent condemnations by other UN committees (Rights of the 
Child, Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Human Rights) and non-
government organisations such as Amnesty International on some of these 
very issues.

The main target of the criticism is the Howard Government, which seems to 
believe that human rights are the preserve of the rich and privileged, and 
continues to pursue policies that imprison and impoverish the most 
disadvantaged sections of Australian society.

The UN Committee Against Torture is currently considering Australia's 
compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture, to which Australia 
became a signatory in 1989.

A number of submissions claim that the Federal Government's official report 
to the Committee deliberately misrepresents the situation in Australia, 
ignoring and denying the existence of breaches to the convention in our 

In its submission, ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
Commission) argues that the mandatory sentencing regimes in the Northern 
Territory (NT) and Western Australia and the conditions faced by Indigenous 
detainees in many parts of Australia may constitute cruel, inhuman or 
degrading treatment.

ATSIC has asked the committee to also consider Australia's ongoing high 
levels of incarceration, unsatisfactory observance of the duty of care and 
the lack of access to complaints processes for Indigenous people who may 
have suffered torture or other ill-treatment in the justice system.

Another critic of the Government's rosy self-assessment is Chris Cunneen, 
Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of Criminology at the 
University of Sydney Law School, who condemns the Government's report for 
its "lack of transparency and honesty".

"Nowhere is there reference to mandatory sentencing nor to the Human Rights 
Commission report on racist violence which so extensively identified the 
problems with police treatment of indigenous people."

While the convention does not define "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment 
or punishment", Australia acknowledges that it includes "excessive 
punishments out of proportion to the crime committed, or treatment which 
grossly humiliates and debases a person".

Professor Cuneen says, "We are now painfully aware of unjust punishments, 
particularly of Aboriginal people, that have arisen in the course of 
mandatory sentencing."

Professor Cuneen also cites examples where allegations of police behaviour 
may breach the Convention: an Aboriginal woman in the NT who went to the 
police to report a rape, and instead was detained for 15 hours on an 
outstanding warrant for a minor offence; three children in Queensland who 
claimed that six police officers terrorised them by forcing them to strip 
naked, then threatened to cut off their fingers.

Also taking up the issue of Indigenous children is the Save the Children 

Australia is rated poorly in its annual review of nations, which will be 
given to all federal politicians in Australia and widely distributed 
throughout the UN.

It draws attention to the shameful fact that indigenous children are 3.5 
times more likely to die than their white neighbours.

The report makes its case very clear: "Australia's long history of 
displacement, murder, exploitation, discrimination against indigenous 
peoples, forced separation of indigenous children from their families and 
the removal of traditional lands has placed indigenous children in a most 
disadvantaged position."

It says that behind John Howard's rejection of an apology to indigenous 
people is his refusal to "acknowledge that their position requires special 

The report calls for huge increases in spending on indigenous health and 
education, the repeal of mandatory sentencing laws, and a review of powers 
that allow police to target and harass Aboriginal youth.

Australia's refugee detention centres have also come under the spotlight 
again this week over claims that management covered up evidence of child 
sexual assaults.

An investigation is now under way by the Child Protection Agency after 
allegations that management at the Woomera Detention Centre in South 
Australia refused to allow a 13-year-old boy to be examined in hospital 
after an alleged rape, and refused to call in the police to investigate.

The medical officer, who made the claims in a sworn affidavit, also says 
that nurses were pressured to falsify medical reports, and that files of 
people who were implicated in the assaults "disappeared".

Another woman who claims to have been assaulted said she did not proceed 
with charges because she feared for her safety.

The Woomera facility has been run under contract by an American company, 
Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) since 1997. However, a protocol 
to deal with allegations of child sexual abuse was not put in place until 
August 2000.

The Woomera centre is another example of how an Australian Government is 
willing to trade-in human rights for private profit.

Once again Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock was amongst the first to 
wash his hands of any responsibility for events in the detention centres.

His attitude is on par with that of John Howard, John Herron and the rest 
of the Federal Cabinet, who continue to arrogantly and petulantly dismiss 
any criticism levelled at them over human rights abuses in this country.

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