Introduction by Croakey: As Australia warned other countries to not trample on human rights during the pandemic, a new report has raised concerns about Australia’s own human rights record.
The report’s findings also come after Tasmania’s custodial inspector raised concerns about regular 24-hour lockdowns across the state’s prisons. The ABC reported that in December last year, there were 600 lockdowns across the various prisons, with about 30 percent blamed on staff shortages.
Below, Croakey editor Nicole MacKee looks at the key findings from the 2021 Human Rights Tracker report.
Nicole MacKee writes:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and refugees and asylum seekers remain at risk of a range of human rights abuses in Australia, a new report has found.
The annual Human Rights Tracker report, produced by the New Zealand-based Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI), evaluated human rights scores last year for around 200 countries on up to 13 different human rights contained in United Nations treaties.
The rights measured fell into three categories: quality of life; safety from state; and empowerment.
The researchers produced the human rights scores using indicator data supplied by countries to international databases.
While there were some positive findings in the report — on the right to health, Australia scored 90.9% of what should be possible given its resources — there areas of significant concern.
Low score on torture
Australia scored 6.7 out of 10 for the overall Safety from State measure, which was close to average among the five high-income Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries included in the index.
However, Australia received a particularly low score (4.9 out of 10) for the right to freedom from torture and ill-treatment. The experts found a range of groups at risk of torture and ill-treatment, with people of low social or economic status and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the top of the list.
“The Indigenous people of Australia were identified by experts we surveyed as being particularly vulnerable to abuses of every single one of the rights we measure,” the report authors noted.
More than half of human rights experts surveyed (56%) identified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as at risk of having their right to freedom from torture violated.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were also found to be at risk of violation of their rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest (63%).
More than 70% of the human rights experts surveyed also identified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as being at risk of having their right to education violated; while 80% found Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s right to health and housing to be at risk.
The report also found refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights to be at higher risk of rights breaches.
For example, 75% of the group’s human rights experts identified refugees and asylum seekers as being at risk having their right to health violated; and 68% identified this group as being at risk of having their rights to work breached.
Anne-Marie Brook, HMRI Co-founder and Development lead, said it was important to measure human rights in holding governments to account and promote improvements.
“‘Leaders and other decision-makers already have lots of statistics on things like GDP growth,” she said.
“We want to make sure they also have robust data on how countries are treating people, so they can look at where things could be better and work towards making the changes that are needed.”
Brook said Australia’s civil and political rights performance was very disappointing, particularly since it could be so easily improved.
“I’m looking forward to the day when the Australian people – via their elected officials – decide to treat all people, including Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, and refugees and asylum seekers, with the dignity and respect that all people deserve,” she said.
The Australian human rights experts contributing to the report also found that COVID-19 had worsened the country’s human rights situation.
Dr Susan Randolph, HMRI Co-Founder and Economics and Social Rights Lead, said the pandemic’s effects had fallen most heavily on the most vulnerable countries and the most vulnerable people in all countries – the elderly, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, immigrants, refugees, poorer people, people in detention, children, and those facing ethnic or racial discrimination.
Examples of COVID-19 impacts cited by Australian experts included:
- People in quarantine and lockdown not being supplied with culturally-appropriate food;
- Elderly people from care homes not being admitted to hospitals; and
- Undocumented people and asylum seekers not being able to access income support.
“A focus on human rights is even more important in the context of COVID-19. Marshalling resources to improve human rights can simultaneously help stem the pandemic,” Randolph said.
“How can people protect themselves by washing their hands if they don’t have access to running water? How can people maintain social distance if they are homeless or living in an over-crowded home? How can people know to quarantine themselves when they feel ill if they don’t have access to tests? How can we prevent the deaths of those who contract COVID-19 if people don’t have access to affordable healthcare?
“It’s not just a matter of stemming the pandemic, but also of focusing our admittedly more limited resources on those factors that make the most difference to people’s lives.”
Earlier this week, Aboriginal health and legal experts sounded the alarm about the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on “rough sleepers” in Darwin and Alice Springs. The report follows longstanding governmental failures in addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prisons, and systemic racism across multiple sectors, including health and justice.
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