Australia’s global reputation on human rights has been marred by the government’s failure to address longstanding abuses against First Nations people, Human Rights Watch says in its annual report.
The New York based rights group also highlighted the misuse of police powers during COVID-19 lockdowns, excessive restrictions on movement and the government’s continued mistreatment of asylum seekers.
“In 2020 the global Black Lives Matter movement refocused attention in Australia on systemic racism and inequality against First Nations people, particularly high death rates in custody, and overrepresentation in prisons,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at HRW.
“Australian federal and state governments need to urgently prioritise reforming longstanding policies that discriminate against First Nations people,” she said in a statement.
In 2020 at least seven Indigenous people died in custody in Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 29 per cent of the adult prison population, but just 3 per cent of the national population, the HRW report said.
“Reducing incarceration rates requires systemic reforms including repealing punitive bail laws and mandatory sentencing laws, decriminalising public drunkenness, ending over-policing of indigenous communities and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14,” the report said.
HRW noted that in June the Western Australian parliament took a positive step by passing a law to reduce the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines, which disproportionately affects indigenous people and people on low incomes.
The HRW report labelled the federal government’s offshore processing of asylum seekers “punitive, cruel, and unlawful”.
“The Morrison government continues to reject New Zealand’s offers to take some of the 290 people remaining in Papua New Guinea and Nauru; 208 have been recognised as refugees and 23 have asylum claims pending.”
HRW also noted that police efforts to enforce pandemic curfews and lockdowns raised concerns over freedom of expression and the misuse of police powers.
“A spate of cases of racial abuse and attacks against people of Asian descent were reported across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic,” its report said.
“Australia has done very well in containing COVID-19, but some police practices during Victoria’s Covid-19 lockdown threatened basic rights,” Ms Pearson said.
HRW’s 761-page World Report 2021 reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries.