(Sydney, January 18, 2018) – Australia made important progress in 2017 by legalizing same-sex marriage and taking steps to end the abuse of children in detention, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018. At the same time, the government maintained its cruel practice of warehousing asylum seekers in abysmal conditions on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea in the face of repeated calls from United Nations agencies and experts to end offshore processing.
In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.
In December, parliament enacted legislation allowing same-sex marriage following a referendum that showed strong support for gay marriage. A Royal Commission report provided a roadmap to end systematic abuse against children in detention in the Northern Territory.
“The Australian parliament’s long-overdue enactment of a same-sex marriage law gives all Australians reason to celebrate,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “But this needs to be tempered by the shocking failures of the juvenile detention system in the Northern Territory and the abysmal treatment of asylum seekers sent offshore.”
About 2,000 asylum seekers and refugees remain on Manus Island and Nauru, sent there by Australia since 2013. Many have dire mental health problems, exacerbated by prolonged uncertainty and long periods in detention. Refugees and asylum seekers held offshore regularly endure violence, threats, and harassment from area residents, with little protection from local authorities. Since June, Human Rights Watch has documented attacks by groups of young local men against asylum seekers and refugees, including with sticks, knives, and machetes. In November, Papua New Guinean authorities forcibly removed asylum seekers and refugees from a center on Manus to new facilities that placed them at greater risk of attacks from the local population.
About 50 refugees have moved from Nauru and Manus Island to the United States under an Australia-US resettlement deal, but Australia rejected offers from the New Zealand government to resettle some of the refugees.
In 2017, Australia was elected by UN member countries to the UN Human Rights Council for a three-year term. The government pledged to give priority to freedom of expression, indigenous rights, gender equality, good governance, and national human rights institutions.
“To be a credible leader on the global stage, Australia needs to address serious shortcomings in its own human rights record,” Pearson said. “Sitting on the Human Rights Council will put Australia’s rights record under greater international scrutiny, so the government needs to act now to reverse its human rights failings.”