The Hon Kevin Rudd MP
Prime Minister
Parliament House

Re: Australian foreign policy with regard to Burma, China, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea and Australian domestic policy on counter-terrorism, refugees, indigenous Australians, and same-sex relationships

Dear Prime Minister Rudd:

Congratulations on your recent election as Prime Minister of Australia.

Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization based in New York that monitors and reports on international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law issues in more than 70 countries around the world.

We write to you outlining key areas of foreign and domestic policy where we believe that Australia can and should do more to promote and protect human rights. On foreign policy, Australia is a significant political actor and donor in the Asia-Pacific region, so your government is well placed to play a leading role in promoting human rights at a regional and international level. Over the past decade, the Australian government was notably absent or obstructionist in such efforts. The significant international attention paid to your signing of the Kyoto Protocol and your statement at the Bali conference on climate change shows the clout Australia has and the ways in which it can be put to good use.

Any promotion of human rights, of course, begins at home. Your government has an opportunity to distinguish itself on domestic issues by reversing some of the previous government’s policies that undermined basic rights in areas such as refugees, indigenous Australians, counter-terrorism, and discrimination against same-sex couples.

Australian foreign policy


Your new government should redouble efforts to pressure the brutal military government in Burma, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to respect human rights and begin a genuine transition to civilian rule. The brutality of the crackdown on peaceful protestors, monks, and nuns in September 2007 must not be forgotten. Human Rights Watch welcomes efforts by the Australian government to curtail the financial power of the SPDC, its leadership, senior officials, and their financial supporters through Reserve Bank restrictions on money transfers. We also welcome the decision to deny the appointment of a former Burmese army officer to the post of Burmese ambassador to Australia. We call on your government to pursue other measures which will continue to pressure the SPDC to reform, including:

  • Lead efforts in the United Nations to impose an arms embargo on Burma, particularly arms transfers that directly assist continued military rule and further military abuses against civilians;
  • Lead efforts in the UN Human Rights Council to institute a commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Burma;
  • Lead efforts to interdict financial transactions through regional networks which directly assist the military leadership and the army to stay in power;
  • Impose targeted sanctions on imports, exports, and new investment in sectors of Burma’s economy that substantially benefit the military and/or are associated with serious human rights abuses. These include the petroleum (oil and gas), mining (gems, metals, minerals), and logging (logs and timber) sectors, as well as hydropower and other major infrastructure projects;
  • Institute monitoring of Australian business investment in Burma, particularly energy companies, to ensure that human rights violations are not perpetrated as a result of their business presence and that profits do not flow directly to the SPDC and military.


For more than 20 years, Human Rights Watch has investigated and documented extensive human rights violations in China. These include violations of freedom of religion, freedom of expression and labor rights, media and internet censorship, and forced evictions of people from their homes. As a fluent Mandarin speaker with a longstanding interest in human rights in China, you surely understand the severity of the current situation there. Under your leadership, we expect Australia to play a major role in raising human rights concerns with China’s senior leadership in Beijing. The strong trade relationship between Australia and China, which subordinated human rights concerns in the last government, should instead be an avenue to raise such concerns, as will be the period before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. As a matter of priority, we urge you to publicly as well as privately raise the following concerns with Chinese officials at the earliest opportunity and call on the Chinese government to:

  • Ensure media freedom by enforcing the temporary regulations providing greater freedoms for foreign journalists put in effect in the run-up to the Olympics, so that foreign journalists do not face harassment, intimidation, or detention, extending these rights to Chinese journalists, and making the “temporary” regulations a permanent component of Chinese law;
  • End unlawful forced evictions carried out in preparations for the Olympics and ensure all evictions are carried out in line with legal requirements regarding adequate notice, compensation and access to new housing;
  • Ensure implementation of the labor law so that all Chinese workers receive their legally mandated pay and benefits, including accident and health insurance, paid overtime, days off, and a healthy and safe work environment;
  • End restrictions on Chinese workers’ freedom of association and assembly by allowing workers to form independent trade unions outside of the government’s official All China Federation of Trade Unions.


Australia’s military links with Indonesia’s special forces, Kopassus, are of serious concern given Kopassus’ long history of human rights abuses in East Timor, Aceh, and Papua. We welcome your comments, made in 2003 as Opposition Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, against the decision by the Australian government to resume links with Kopassus.

You have talked about the need to expand Australia's counter-terrorism cooperation with Indonesia. In doing so, you should recognize that essential efforts to reform the Indonesian military to make it more accountable have stalled. For example, a 2004 law (Law No. 34/2004) mandated an end to the military’s involvement in business, and set a five-year deadline, until 2009, for the Indonesian government to take control of all the businesses the military owns or controls. Yet a draft government decree selectively defines “military business” to cover only a few companies and ignores business activity carried out by military foundations and cooperatives, gutting the reform process before it has truly begun. Meanwhile, military profit-making continues. In May 2007, Indonesian marines in east Java killed four villagers, including a pregnant woman and a three-year old, in a land dispute tied to the Navy’s local business interests.

This is a crucial test of military reform in Indonesia, but much remains to be done to turn the promise of the 2004 law into real change.

We call on your government to:

  • Formally end the military relationship with Kopassus and cease any future planned joint training exercises between Australia’s Special Air Service and Kopassus Unit 81;
  • Press the Indonesian authorities to act quickly and decisively to eliminate all military business activity, without exception.

Papua New Guinea

Human Rights Watch welcomes the strong commitment of Australia to sustainable development in Papua New Guinea and to address the country’s rapid increase in HIV/AIDS. Recent research by Human Rights Watch shows that police violence in Papua New Guinea is systemic and widespread, particularly against vulnerable populations such as children, sex workers, and men who have sex with men. This violence has a significant negative impact on the development of a functioning justice system and on the response to the country's rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic.

As the largest donor of foreign aid to Papua New Guinea and given the central role that Australia has played in training and developing the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary, the Australian government should be more proactive in addressing widespread police violence. To this end, it should:

  • Express concern at the highest level to the Papua New Guinea government over police violence, including torture, rape and excessive force, against vulnerable populations such as children, sex workers, and men who have sex with men;
  • Call on the government of Papua New Guinea to ensure that police treatment of all citizens conforms to international human rights standards;
  • Ensure that mechanisms, both internal and external to the Papua New Guinea police services, are instituted that hold police accountable for any violence committed;
  • Assist local human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations to develop effective independent monitoring of police violence and provide services and support to victims of any such violence;
  • Support a human rights based approach to HIV/AIDS, which adequately supports and empowers vulnerable populations such as young people, sex workers, and men who have sex with men.

Domestic issues


Australia should amend its counterterrorism legislation to bring it into compliance with international human rights standards. The case of Dr. Mohammed Haneef, an Indian citizen who was detained without charge for almost two weeks in July 2007 under the 2005 Anti-Terrorism Act (he was then charged, but the charges were dropped), highlights the need to revisit Australia's approach to counter-terrorism. In order to combat terrorism more effectively, the government should reaffirm its commitment to human rights principles.

Human Rights Watch recommends that Australia reform the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2005 in the following ways:

  • Revise control orders procedures to ensure that individuals have access to the information submitted to the courts for the purpose of securing control orders, that control orders are limited in time, and that they do not effectively constitute house arrest. Imposing house arrest through control orders is tantamount to meting out criminal punishment without trial, violating the fundamental right to due process;
  • Amend the law’s overbroad provisions on sedition to avoid infringing the right to freedom of expression;
  • Modify preventive detention procedures to allow detainees to promptly inform their family members and legal counsel that they are being detained and ensure their communications with lawyers are not monitored by the police;
  • In line with the December 2006 report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism on Australia, narrow the law’s definition of “terrorist act,” so that it covers only conduct carried out with the intention of causing death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages.


Human Rights Watch welcomes the pledge by the Labor Party to end the "Pacific Solution" policy by closing the Nauru and Manus Island processing and detention facilities and to replace the temporary protection visa scheme. We are pleased to note that your government already granted political asylum to seven Burmese refugees who spent more than a year on Nauru Island, and we see this as a very positive sign of your intention to restore Australia’s reputation as a country that provides refuge to the persecuted.

In order to ensure that Australia's refugee policy respects human rights and meets international obligations, we call on your government to:

  • Close the Nauru and Manus Island facilities and offer asylum in Australia to any of the 89 people found to be refugees;
  • End the policy and practice of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Introduce community-based supervision for people whose refugee application is pending, with detention used only as a last resort where there is a compelling security risk;
  • End the practice of excluding parts of Australian territory from the Australian migration zone through “territorial excision,” which dictates that asylum seekers processed in excised places such as Christmas Island do not enjoy the same legal rights as those processed on mainland Australia. All asylum seekers under Australian jurisdiction should be able to file a claim for asylum and have full access to legal assistance, an independent appeal process, work permits, and community support;
  • Not implement the agreement with the United States to “swap refugees” between Nauru Island and Guantánamo Bay;
  • Replace the temporary visa protection scheme with a system that accords the same protection to all recognized refugees regardless of their manner of entry into the country.

Indigenous Australians

The quality of life for most indigenous Australians remains unacceptably low, with a 17-year gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, an infant mortality rate that is almost three times higher than the general Australian population, and rates of death from treatable and preventable conditions such as diabetes and respiratory illness ranging from three times to eight times higher than for non-Indigenous Australians. Although they live in one of the world's wealthiest countries, most indigenous Australians do not have access to adequate health care, housing, food or water. Human Rights Watch welcomes your commitment to close the gap in life expectancy, and to formally apologize to indigenous Australians for the Stolen Generation of indigenous Australian children. We call on your government to act immediately to:

  • Make the existing Northern Territory National Emergency Response, designed to address child abuse and social breakdown in rural indigenous communities, subject to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. All government action taken should be consistent with the fundamental right to racial equality;
  • Ensure, in deciding the future of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, that indigenous Australians are regularly consulted and play a central, formal role in addressing child abuse and social breakdown in their communities.

Discrimination against same-sex couples

Australia was at one time at the forefront of international efforts to recognize the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens. Over the past decade its record on this issue has fallen behind many other countries. The lack of legal recognition of same-sex relationships under federal law means that these Australians and their children face disadvantage and exclusion on a daily basis. We welcome the commitment by the new government to tackle this discrimination by implementing the recommendations of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's (HREOC) report, "Same-Sex: Same Entitlements." We call on the new government to remove all discrimination against same-sex couples by:

  • Enacting legislation as a first-term priority that implements the recommendations of the HREOC report, so that same-sex couples and their children have equal access to benefits and entitlements in areas such as public sector superannuation, the Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme Safety Nets, income tax, and child support;
  • Providing for effective educational programs to ensure that all those affected by the HREOC reforms are aware of the changes, particularly Commonwealth employees and agents who will be responsible for administering the new laws;
  • Introducing federal anti-discrimination legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity;
  • Amending the Marriage Act 1961 so that civil marriage in Australia is available to any two persons, regardless of their gender.

We thank you for your attention to these issues, and hope that your recent election will mark a turning point for Australia’s record on human rights, both domestically and abroad. We look forward to a constructive relationship with your government.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

Cc: The Hon Stephen Smith, MP - Minister for Foreign Affairs
The Hon Robert McClelland, MP - Attorney-General
Senator the Hon Chris Evans - Minister for Immigration and Citizenship
The Hon Jenny Macklin, MP - Minister for Indigenous Affairs
The Hon Bob McMullan, MP - Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance
Michael Lye - Social Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister