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Australia: Refugee stance mars rights record

2013 Sees Progress on Disabilities, But Weak Regional Voice on Rights

January 22, 2014

(Jakarta) – Australia undermined its leadership role on human rights in the Asia-Pacific region by failing to uphold international refugee protections, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014. Successive Australian governments have engaged in populist politics in 2013 at the expense of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.

“Last year Australia’s two major political parties were hell-bent on using cruel policies to deter asylum seekers, even at the expense of the country’s international reputation,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Nauru feeds into the government’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality.”

In the 667-page World Report 2014, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa. Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

In 2013, the government introduced pernicious policies designed to deter asylum seekers at the expense of their rights, including mandatory offshore processing of asylum seekers arriving by boat, “enhanced screening” or fast-tracked deportations after cursory interviews, and withdrawing government-provided legal assistance to asylum seekers. Defense officials charged with the asylum-seeker response now regularly refuse to answer questions from journalists, citing vague “national security” concerns at the expense of the public’s right to information, Human Rights Watch said.

However, on disability rights, Australia made important advances in 2013, Human Rights Watch said. In July, the government introduced an insurance scheme that empowers people with disabilities by allowing them to receive support based on their needs and choices. However, domestic laws still promote “guardianship,” which strips people with disabilities of their ability to make decisions about their lives, instead of recognizing their legal capacity on an equal basis as others, as required by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Australia ratified in 2008. A strategy to mainstream disability issues in foreign aid has made disability rights a focal point in Australia’s aid programs.

“Australia has been a leader on disability rights both at home and abroad, but more needs to be done to comply fully with the disability rights treaty,” Pearson said.

Australia played a positive role during its presidency of the Security Council in September, promoting a resolution on small arms and a presidential statement on humanitarian access in Syria. However, its Asia-focused foreign policy gave unfortunate priority to maintaining warm relations with Asian leaders over pushing for rights protections and accountability. In November, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth summit, he was clear that he was not going to raise the human rights concerns expressed by the UK and Canadian prime ministers, saying, “I don't propose to lecture the Sri Lankans on human rights.”

“Staying quiet on rights violations may please some ‘friends’ among Asian leaders, but it will not help the people of Asia who face repression and abuse,” Pearson said. “Australia can and should lead on rights in the Asia region.”


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