Less than a month after Australia was appointed to the United Nations' peak human rights body, the U.N.'s Human Rights Committee has once again savaged the country's record on refugees, prisons, Indigenous people and law enforcement.
Australia was elected unopposed to the United Nations' Human Rights Council in October. At the time, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia's three-year term on the council would "provide a unique Indo-Pacific perspective and ensure that the voices of our Pacific neighbours and other small states are heard", but just three weeks on from Australia's election to the council, the Human Rights Committee has taken us to task over how we treat the most vulnerable in society.
Marriage equality poll not "acceptable"
The result of the controversial postal survey on marriage equality is to be announced on Wednesday, and the committee has criticised the Government for putting a significant human right to a public poll.
"The Committee is concerned about the explicit ban on same-sex marriage in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) that results in discriminatory treatment of same-sex couples," the report reads.
"The Committee is of the view that resort to public opinion polls to facilitate upholding rights under the Covenant in general, and equality and nondiscrimination of minority groups in particular, is not an acceptable decision-making method and that such an approach risks further marginalizing and stigmatizing members of minority groups."
As marriage equality supporters push for the reform to be quickly enacted and legislated in the result of a 'yes' result, conservatives and marriage equality opponents have ramped up their calls for the debate around the change to not be rushed. The U.N. said same-sex marriage should be allowed regardless of the outcome of the survey.
"The State party should revise its laws, including the Marriage Act, to ensure, irrespective of the results of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, that all its laws and policies afford equal protection to LGBTI persons, couples and families."
Australia's policy of mandatory detention for unauthorised boat arrivals, offshore processing and indefinite detention in some cases has been a long-running issue slammed by the U.N. In 2017, as the Australian-run detention centre on Manus Island closed down and left hundreds of refugees without food and water in the now decommissioned facility, the story is no different.
"The Committee is concerned about the conditions in the offshore immigration processing facilities in Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) and Nauru that also hold children, including inadequate mental health services, serious safety concerns and instances of assault, sexual abuse, self-harm and suspicious deaths; and about reports that harsh conditions compelled some asylum seekers to return to their country of origin despite the risks that they face there," the Human Rights Committee's outlined.
The committee also voiced concern about "severe restrictions on access to and information" about the processing facilities, the difficulties faced by the Australian Human Rights Commission in trying to monitor conditions there, and the closure of the Manus centre "without adequate arrangements for long-term viable relocation solutions for all refugees and asylum-seekers transferred there".
"The State party should end its offshore transfer arrangements and cease any further transfers of refugees or asylum-seekers to Nauru, Papua New Guinea or any other 'regional processing country", the U.N. said.
"The State party should... Take all measures necessary to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers affected by the closure of processing centres, including against non-refoulement, ensure their transfer to Australia or their relocation to other appropriate safe countries, and monitor closely their situation after the closure of the centre."
The committee also voiced concern about mandatory and indefinite detention, saying it was "particularly concerned about what appears to be the use of detention powers as a general deterrent against unlawful entry rather than in response to an individual risk." The U.N. called for detention to be limited to finite periods, no longer than necessary, and for more effective avenues for detainees to appeal.
The Federal Government has enacted and proposed tough new anti-terror laws in recent years, in response to terrorist incidents and attempts both domestic and abroad. New measures floated have included longer periods of detention, keeping offenders in prison after the end of their sentence, keeping suspects in custody for 14 days without charge, and a national register made up of drivers licence photos.
The U.N. committee accepted the need for Australia and other nations to respond to terrorist threats, but criticised the "haste" in which some of these laws were proposed and enacted into law.
The committee questioned the "necessity and proportionality" of measures including control orders, search and seizure powers, preventative and post-sentence detention order regimes, 'declared areas' offences, and revoking citizenship for foreign fighters.
"While noting the State party's explanation that many of the prescribed powers have not been used, or have been used only rarely as a last resort, the Committee is concerned about the risk that such emergency measures would become over time the norm rather than the exception," the committee said.
Another long-running U.N. dispute with Australia is around the nation's treatment of Indigenous people. Perhaps of most consequence is a call for "a national reparations mechanism, including compensation schemes, for victims of the stolen generation".
Elsewhere in its report, the committee said incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians were a worry.
"The Committee is concerned about the significant overrepresentation of indigenous men, women and juveniles in prisons, with indigenous adult prisoners making up 27 percent of the overall prison population as at 30 June 2016, and notes with concern that mandatory sentencing and imprisonment for fine defaults might contribute to such disproportionately high rates of their incarceration," the committee said.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz voiced concern over Indigenous incarceration during a tour of communities, organisations and juvenile detention centres earlier this year.
In its report, the committee said that there was "insufficient" access to legal services, interpretation and translation for Indigenous people who came into contact with the law.
"The State party should take robust measures to address the overrepresentation of indigenous Australians in prisons, inter alia by identifying and revising regulations and policies leading to their high rates of incarceration, including the mandatory sentencing laws and the imprisonment for fine default, and by enhancing the use of non-custodial measures and diverting programmes," the committee said.
The U.N. also called for an increase to the "limited" funding for the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, a the establishment of a firm timeline for a referendum on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, and hold "genuine consultations" with traditional land owners regarding the management of heritage sites in northern Australia.
Elsewhere in law enforcement, the committee took aim at Australia's prisons and treatment of prisoners. The U.N. said it was concerned about overcrowding, a lack of adequate mental health services, solitary confinement and "routine strip searches".
Recommended were alternatives to prison so that overcrowding could be managed, boosts to mental healthcare, avoiding solitary confinement "except in the most exceptional circumstances and for strictly limited periods", and basic calls to ensure prisoners are "treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person".