Is Australia a good international citizen in terms of upholding human rights?
It is essential for every country to be obliged in safeguarding each of their citizens human rights. Although every nation has their own legally-signed treaties and legislation to follow, Australia grapples own significant duties to uphold. While Australia has consistently obliged to rights and regulations throughout years, people start to question just how consistent Australia is with protecting and maintaining their human rights today. One major example that Australia experiences today is the divisive asylum policies of refugees following inhumane mistreatment. Despite Australia’s strong practice in protecting the human rights of its community, Australia participates in serious unresolved human rights issues.
Australia has a strong relationship and an extensive history with the United Nations and has a key role in upholding all international treaties. Australia voluntarily complied with clear terms of Australia’s international human rights obligations first endorsed in 1965. The seven core international human rights treaties that Australia is bound to comply with alongside provisions under International law include: The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination 1965 (ICERD), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (ICESCR), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women 1979 (CEDAW), Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1984 (CAT), Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (CRC) and International Convention on Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families 1990 (ICMRW) (UNFPA, 2004). Each of these treaties has established a committee to monitor the consistent implementation of the treaty provisions by its elected State parties. Australia must work in accordance to implement these provisions domestically as Australia’s human rights performance is consistently evaluated under The Law Council (UNFPA, 2004). The Law Council specifically holds a special consultative status with the UN’s economic and social council. This status expresses the Law Council’s special ability to participate with and contribute to the work of the UN’s committees and bodies.
Although international human rights treaties were agreed upon by Australia, under the Australian legal system, treaties cannot be ‘self-executing’. This means that the treaties themselves do not become part of the domestic legal system unless implemented by Parliament (Harper, PP 256). However, human rights treaties were elaborated and adopted by the United Nations in which Australia wasted no time in ratifying some of them. The first ratification was in 1949, when Australia ratified the Convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide (PP 256, Harper). Australia then became a party to the Slavery convention in 1953, also the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1954. In 1956, it ratified the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slave, Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices like slavery all adopted in the same year. The four Geneva Conventions on the Protection of Victims in 1958 (West, 1985). However, throughout the 1950’s to 1970’s was the period where few treaties on human rights of any significance were signed and ratified by Australia due to reluctance in assuming international obligations on human rights (Opeskin, 2018).
In 1961, Australia became a Party to the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women and the Convention Against Discrimination in Education in 1966. However, Australia did not ratify major treaties dealing with human rights generally. For example, Australia did not ratify the Convention on the Political Rights on Women in 1952, The ILO Equal Remuneration Convention in 1951 and the Discrimination of Employment and Occupation Convention in 1958 in which over seventy states have ratified to abolish discrimination in political/employment fields (West, 1985). Most importantly, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1966 were not ratified (West, 1985). In addition to this, there have been instances where State laws have prevented Australia from ratifying treaties (Opeskin, 2018). For example, sections 23,24,42,48 and 291 of the Mining Act (1904-1965), section 8 (3) of the Firearms and Guns Act and section 130A of the Licensing Act (1911-1965) which have now been repealed, alongside a number of provisions in the Aborigines’ and Torres Strait Islanders’ Affairs Act in 1971 have for a while prevented Australia from ratifying the ‘All forms of Racial Discrimination Act, 1966. This treaty (1966) was then ratified on the 10th December 1973. However, Australia is recently coming under fire for not obliging to the treaties as proposed.
Undeterred by the repeated calls from the United Nations (UN) to end offshore processing, Australia continues to hold asylum seekers despite abysmal conditions. Australia has an extensive history of accepting and resettling refugees with just over 800,000 refugees and displaced people settled into Australia since 1945 (Phillip, 2015). In 2001, Prime Minister John Howard’s coalition government created the offshore processing of refugee claims called the ‘Pacific Solution’ (AHRC.gov, 2016). This policy included an agreement with Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for asylum-seekers travelling to Australia by boat to then be transported to either islands in which they would wait for their claims to be processed.
Today, Nauru is known for its human rights issues, with people around the globe who are not satisfied with the protection of human rights in Nauru, where it is a home to just under 10,000 people (Wingston, 2017). Although the detention centres are present for merely housing asylum seekers while processing their claims, many human rights laws have been breached during this period. Asylum seekers have the legal right under international law to have their claims assessed in a swift and appropriate way. However, processing claims have known to take at least six months and are also advised that they will be kept there for five years due to security and medical checks (Triggs, 2017).
While former minister Tony Abbott was still in government, Abbott cut legal aid assistance for asylum seekers who arrive in boats (Davis, 2016). Refugee lawyers provide a crucial ‘triage’ service to help prevent the courts from overflooding with unmeritorious claims and is an essential element of a fair and efficient justice system. Legal aid assistance ensures fairness, public confidence and eliminates barriers that impact the access to justice for the disadvantaged. All in all, without legal assistance there is a unanimous risk of the refugees to be sent back to persecution and other forms of harm, such as death and/or torture (McAdams, 2015).
In September 2013, the beginning of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, the government managed to halt boat arrivals, with Former minister Malcom Turnbull expressing that since the conservatives came to power, 28 boats carrying 734 people had been turned back with no successful arrivals in around 700 days (McAdam, 2013). In addition to this, Australia’s exercise of jurisdiction is limited under international refugee law and human rights laws, meaning turning back boats places Australia under risk of breaching its obligations of non-refoulment under the Refugee Convention and Human Rights law, 1951 (.
While some refugees seeking asylum live in the community of Nauru, a number remain in processing centres due to not enough housing or a ‘perceived lack of safety’. On April 26, 2018, there were still 255 people including 22 children at the Nauru RPC. Many reports of cruel and inhumane treatment in Nauru have risen since early 2013 (Mark, 2016-7). Even Davis, a former teacher who educated the children of asylum seekers in Nauru in 2014, until the school was closed mid-2016. Davis expressed his concern for the children due to suffering depression and self-harm/suicidal thoughts from the traumatic experience. Davis states “…we have nothing now, we have no hope, we have no future and we don’t know what’s happening” (Davis, 2016) in regard to the children. Abuse, sexual harassment, suicidal children and filthy conditions is the painful truth of Nauru. These findings result from a joint human rights investigation into the conditions of asylum seekers on the island of Nauru. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International gained access to the island in late 2016, with researchers stating that the situation is “the worst they have ever seen” (Killalea, 2016). Refugees with life-threatening diseases were restricted from medical care, only receiving Panadol at most. This whole unjust system breaches the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which Australia has ratified. This means that Australia violated the international human rights treaty, which can harm Australia’s international standing.
While Australia does resettle a proportion of refugees, the rest of the world’s refugee intake surpasses Australia’s. Estimates show that less than 1% of the worlds refugees are settled through the resettlement program UNHCR, a refugee agency dedicated to saving lives through a resettlement program. Many countries such as Sweden and Germany take refugees through onshore application such as UNHCR also. Recent estimates show that Germany will be providing protection to around 800,000 Syrian refugees in this year alone. Australia however, has committed to around 13,000 total refugee placements, meaning its 0.07 of the overall number of refugees per capita, annually. These statistics show that Australia could increase its refugee intake, much like other less advantaged counties while obliging to human rights and having justice for all. Economically, the poorer, less-equipped countries provide safe havens to the worlds vast majority of refugees. For example, Lebanon hosts around 1.2 million refugees from Syria alone as well as Jordan hosting 650,00 refugees from Syria, equalizing to 10% of the population. Turkey has hosted the most refugees with around 1.9 million refugees accepted and cared for. Those of the Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Australia have been languishing in Australia’s detention centres (Manus Island, Nauru) for around two years now, which is highly distressing. Its due for the Prime Minister to express humanity and accept a fair share of people involuntarily fleeing from conflict.
The topic of refugees has been and continues to be a global crisis that needs the attention of all leaders around the world that should aim to step up and provide protection to more people while showing support to those who need it most. Current proposals of refugee intakes pale in comparison to the proposals made internationally for refugees, for example Turkeys hosting of 1.8 million refugees. The Australian Government has the power to save thousands of families, children and women. To begin, Australia is well within its capacity to increase its refugee intake up to 20,000 while also increasing funds to the UNHCR and commit to work with the UN and other international countries in order to develop a world response and change to what is deemed the worst crisis in 70 years. Anything less would be a moral and human rights failure, alongside current human rights failures today.
Australia remains in and out of spotlight for its treatment of refugees who simply seek safety amidst a world of conflict. While there is little evidence on the refugee crisis in Nauru and Manus Island, former teachers and researchers have advocated their experiences to shine light upon this global crisis. However, there can be improvements made within our country to help evade the unjust treatment of the disadvantaged.