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100 Days Into The Job, Our PM Still Has So Much To Do On Human Rights

Eventually, the balance will be tipped in favour of humanity.

27/10/2016 5:43 AM AEDT | Updated 27/10/2016 5:43 AM AEDT
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"With the world facing some of its biggest-ever human rights crises, we need leadership from the Prime Minister."

In the 100 days since the swearing-in of the new ministry, Prime Minister Turnbull has certainly made an impression on human rights supporters, sometimes in surprising ways.

Since last year, Australia has stepped up its international advocacy against the death penalty -- which Amnesty International has been working to abolish for three decades. The Government has also done valuable work through its foreign aid program to promote the rights of women and girls and support global efforts to end modern slavery.

These important initiatives on the international stage have been countered by less distinguished developments closer to home.

Three short weeks after the election, people around Australia and the world were horrified by footage of appalling treatment of Indigenous children at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. The abuses in the Northern Territory youth detention system had been public knowledge for years, but the powerful images and testimony on a national TV program finally provoked a real Government response, in the form of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

In fact, Amnesty International is aware of allegations of self-harm or abuse of children in detention in every state and territory in this country. When the Royal Commission reports next year, I urge Mr Turnbull to take those recommendations, show national leadership and implement radical improvements to the juvenile justice system nationwide.

There also is positive talk within government about Australia finally ratifying the Optional Protocol on the Convention Against Torture. Ratification would allow independent inspectors, including United Nations experts, to monitor and report on the conditions and treatment of children and adults in all places of detention. I urge the Turnbull Government to make this reform happen now.

Other terrible abuses have not elicited action. When ABC's Four Corners -- the same TV program that exposed the abuses at Don Dale -- recently reported on the desperate situation facing refugee and asylum seeker children trapped in Nauru, the Prime Minister and his Immigration Minister continued with the same old lines of response.

Our report Island of Despair based on detailed research -- made difficult because of Australia's wall of secrecy around Nauru -- found a litany of abuses, including conditions resulting in high rates of self-harm and mental illness, targeted attacks and harassment of refugees and asylum seekers in the community, including children.

Our researchers concluded that Australia's offshore processing regime fits the definition of torture under international law. As one of the organisations that helped bring about the Convention Against Torture, Amnesty International understands very well the meaning of the term, and does not use it lightly.

Asked in an ABC radio interview to respond to our conclusion, the Prime Minister said: "I reject that claim -- totally." We are used to this kind of response. Governments often reject our findings -- after all, human rights abuses make for bad press, especially in liberal democracies that profess to uphold and protect those rights.

While the Border Force Act was recently amended to exempt doctors and nurses from the secrecy provisions in the legislation, the Act has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech. This was heavily criticised by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, who said the Immigration Department has gone to extraordinary lengths to curb information flowing to the public.

Nevertheless, more and more whistleblowers, including teachers and contractors, are bravely coming forward, despite the threat of a two-year prison term for disclosing information about serious human rights abuses in offshore detention centres.

Eventually, the balance will be tipped in favour of humanity. Until then, Australia's leadership on this issue remains as dreadful as it was 100 days ago.

We've also seen continued hand-wringing over marriage equality since the election, despite the leaders of all major parties and the majority of Australians being in support of this important human rights reform.

The plebiscite is finally dead, and I call on the Prime Minister to do the right thing and allow the Parliament to legislate for marriage equality without further delay.

LGBTQI Australians have waited long enough to be treated as equals in this country, and they shouldn't need to wait until next Valentine's Day, let alone the next election, to realise their human right to marry.

We recently conducted a survey of Amnesty's supporters, asking them to rate the Turnbull Government's performance on human rights.

Out of more than 4,900 surveyed, 98 percent rated the government's commitment to defending human rights over the past 100 days as "low" or "very low". Amnesty supporters are perhaps harsh critics when it comes to the human rights records of governments -- after all, there is always more to be done -- but this is a damning assessment.

When one considers that Australia is campaigning for a 2018 seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, it's clear that now is the time for the government to lift its game.

With the world facing some of its biggest-ever human rights crises, we need leadership from the Australian Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Turnbull and his Cabinet must now unite the Parliament behind an unfailing commitment to defend the rights of everyone -- especially the most vulnerable and most marginalised -- and not just the rights of the few.

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