By Laura Thomas, Acting Australia Director
In Australia, occupying inconvenient places has been a crucial tactic for protesters to highlight human rights abuses and environmental destruction. That’s why it’s concerning to see the Australian government try to make it easier to deregister nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) if they promote protests where minor offenses may occur.
This week, the government will put forward a new regulation that allows the Australian charities and not-for-profits commissioner to take action against registered NGOs that engage in or promote certain conduct that could be dealt with as a summary – that is, minor – offense, including entering or remaining on land or damaging property. The government’s official explanation refers to “protests on forestry, mining and farming lands,” but when authorities have previously shut down protests, they have often done so for dubious reasons.
For almost 50 years, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has been an important site for protesters advocating for land rights and on many other issues important to Indigenous Australians. In 1972, the Australian government introduced new regulations to shut down the original Tent Embassy opposite the Australian parliament, but it persisted nearby until it was allowed to return to that site permanently in 1992. Over time, the government came to accept the protesters’ position on many issues, particularly by passing the Native Title Act 1993.
In the early 1980s, about 1,400 people were arrested and jailed for participating in a blockade preventing construction of a dam on the Franklin River in Tasmania, organized by conservation organizations, including the Wilderness Society. The protest saved the river, which is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Australian government claims the new regulation is “compatible with human rights” and “does not raise any human rights issues.” However, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a party, guarantees rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. A regulation that allows for NGOs to be sanctioned, or even deregistered, merely for promoting peaceful protest, infringes those rights.
A Senate committee has questioned whether the new regulation is compatible with Australia’s constitutionally protected freedom of political communication and asked the minister responsible for the regulation to provide an explanation. The minister’s response has not yet been published. The Senate has 15 sitting days to pass a motion disallowing the new regulation. It should do so.