The 2016 World Report, released on Thursday, reviews the human rights practices in more than 90 countries throughout the last 12 months.
The report acknowledged Australia’s solid record of protecting civil and political rights and its vibrant civil society. But it criticised Australia’s practice of mandatory detention, the outsourcing of international refugee responsibilities to neighbouring countries, the policy of boat turn-backs and the emotional trauma of prolonged detention.
This follows a recent Fairfax report on the self-harm ‘epidemic’ in detention centres. There is approximately one self-harm incident every two days at the Nauru detention centre and two incidents a day on onshore detention centres.
Throughout 2015, Australia’s asylum seeker policies were roundly condemned by UN experts, foreign governments and Australian government-funded inquiries. In November last year, more than 100 countries at the UN’s Universal Periodic Review spoke out against Australia’s refugee policies and its treatment of Indigenous Australians. HRW observed that the Australian government often “responded dismissively” to UN recommendations about improving its human rights record.
The HRW report singled out the controversial Border Force Act as an attempt by the government to create a culture of secrecy by jailing detention centre whistle-blowers. The report also highlighted the federal government’s “personal and unsubstantiated attacks” against Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Another area of concern expressed by HRW was the incarceration of Indigenous Australians.
“Indigenous Australians continue to be disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Aboriginal women are the fastest growing prisoner demographic in Australia,” the report stated.
“Across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under age 18 are seriously overrepresented in youth detention facilities, representing more than half of child detainees.
“Indigenous children are often held in detention on remand, despite the international requirement that the detention of children be used as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”
The executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in April saw Australia take a more active role in advocating against the death penalty. But according to HRW, Australia fails to speak out against human rights violations in countries they cooperate with on border protection matters.
One of these countries is Papua New Guinea, which the report describes as “one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and girls”, with an estimated 70 per cent of women experiencing rape or assault in their lifetime.
Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said Australia’s poor domestic human rights policies is undermining its ability to call for stronger human rights protections abroad.
“Despite the international outcry over its refugee policies, Australia did little to redeem its reputation in 2015,” Mr Adams said.
“Australia needs to seriously rethink its abusive refugee policies and take steps to restore its international standing as a rights-respecting country.”