ABC's editorial director Craig McMurtrie speaks to the media as Australian police raided the headquarters of public broadcaster in Sydney on June 5, 2019. 

© Peter Parks / AFP
(Sydney) – Australia’s sweeping national security laws and police actions against journalists and whistleblowers are having a chilling effect on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

Refugee rights, indigenous rights, and aged care are, among other issues, raising concerns. Australia has demonstrated some progress in its performance at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.  

“Australia’s national security laws shouldn’t be used to intimidate the media or those holding the government to account,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government seems intent on sending a message to officials not to share information with journalists.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future. 

In 2019, police raided the Sydney headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the home of a News Corp journalist over reports about war crimes in Afghanistan and surveillance in Australia respectively. Closed court proceedings continued against a whistleblower, “Witness K,” and his lawyer for secrecy breaches regarding exposures of alleged wrongdoing by the Australian government concerning trade negotiations with Timor-Leste.

About 600 refugees and asylum seekers who have been sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru under Australia’s offshore processing system remain in legal limbo there after six years. In 2019, the government transferred about 170 refugees to Australia under a medical evacuation (medevac) law that enabled refugees and asylum seekers in ill-health who cannot get appropriate care in Papua New Guinea or Nauru to come to Australia. But in December, the government repealed the law, baselessly claiming it was necessary for border security.

“Repealing the medevac law was a cruel political maneuver that makes it more difficult for refugees and asylum seekers with serious illnesses – victims of offshore processing operations – to get the care they need,” Pearson said.

Indigenous Australians remain significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and people with disabilities are particularly at risk of neglect and abuse. In February, in Perth’s Hakea prison, prisoners beat to death an Aboriginal man with a mental health condition. At least two Aboriginal men with mental health conditions committed suicide in Western Australia prisons in 2019.

A royal commission into abuse and neglect of people with disabilities began hearings. Another royal commission found Australia’s aged care system to be “a shocking tale of neglect,” and recommended immediate action on the rampant practice of chemical restraint: using drugs to control people’s behavior in aged care facilities. A government regulation that went into force in July purported to minimize the use of physical and chemical restraints, but may in fact simply normalize the practice, Human Rights Watch said.

At the UN Human Rights Council, Australia took the lead on a joint statement bringing attention to human rights violations by Saudi Arabia and ensuring the council renewed the mandate of the UN expert on human rights in Eritrea.