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People hold a banner as thousands gather at a Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney, Australia, July 5, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

(Sydney) – Australia’s global reputation on human rights suffered from the government’s failure to address longstanding abuses against First Nations people, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. The misuse of police powers during Covid-19 lockdowns and excessive restrictions on movement, as well as the government’s continued mistreatment of asylum seekers, were among the year’s major human rights issues.

“In 2020 the global Black Lives Matter movement refocused attention in Australia on systemic racism and inequality against First Nations people, particularly high death rates in custody, and overrepresentation in prisons,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australian federal and state governments need to urgently prioritize reforming longstanding policies that discriminate against First Nations people.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 

In 2020 at least seven Indigenous people died in custody in Australia. Indigenous Australians are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising 29 percent of Australia’s adult prison population, but just 3 percent of the national population. Reducing incarceration rates requires systemic reforms including repealing punitive bail laws and mandatory sentencing laws, decriminalizing public drunkenness, ending over-policing of Indigenous communities, and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14.

In June, the Western Australian parliament took a positive step by passing a law to reduce the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines, which disproportionately affects Indigenous people and people with lower incomes.

In November, the government released a redacted report of a four-year military investigation into alleged war crimes by Australian forces in Afghanistan. The report found credible information about 23 incidents in which Special Forces unlawfully killed 39 civilians or captured combatants, none of which were “disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle.”

The Morrison government responded by announcing the creation of an Office of the Special Investigator to gather evidence and refer cases to the prosecutors. 

It has been seven years since the Australian government introduced offshore processing of asylum seekers, which has been punitive, cruel, and unlawful. The Morrison government continues to reject New Zealand’s offers to take some of the 290 people remaining in Papua New Guinea and Nauru; 208 have been recognized as refugees and 23 have asylum claims pending.

While Australia largely contained the spread of Covid-19, a severe outbreak in Victoria after a mismanaged hotel quarantine was linked to more than 700 deaths, mostly aged care homes residents. Police efforts to enforce pandemic curfews and lockdowns raised concerns over freedom of expression and the misuse of police powers. A spate of cases of racial abuse and attacks against people of Asian descent were reported across the country during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Australian government banned citizens from leaving the country as a public health measure during the pandemic unless they met strict criteria. Restrictions on the number of airplane passengers allowed into Australia left tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas.

“Australia has done very well in containing Covid-19, but some police practices during Victoria’s Covid-19 lockdown threatened basic rights,” Pearson said. “A punitive approach to international travel has left thousands of Australian families overseas and out of pocket, separated from their loved ones.”

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