Australia is a vibrant multicultural democracy with robust institutions, but in 2020 the global Black Lives Matter movement refocused attention on the severe disadvantage suffered by First Nations people in Australia, particularly the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison and high rate of deaths in custody.
While Australia largely contained the spread of Covid-19, a severe outbreak in Victoria after a mismanaged hotel quarantine scheme led to more than 700 deaths, mostly residents of aged care homes. Police efforts to enforce curfews and lockdowns during the pandemic raised concerns over freedom of expression and the misuse of police powers.
Asylum Seekers and Refugees
2020 marked seven years since the Australia government introduced offshore processing of asylum seekers. Approximately 290 refugees and asylum seekers remained in Papua New Guinea and Nauru at time of writing, with more than 870 resettled to the US under an Australia-US resettlement deal. Of those remaining offshore, all are adults, and most have been there since 2013.
Australia has rejected offers by New Zealand to take some of the refugees, with the government arguing that accepting the offer would encourage more boat arrivals as New Zealand is a “backdoor route” to Australia. At least 12 refugees and asylum seekers have died in Australia’s offshore processing system since 2013, six of them suicides.
More than 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers transferred to Australia from Papua New Guinea and Nauru for medical or other reasons remain in limbo, with no permanent visas. Authorities placed more than 120 male asylum seekers and refugees in detention under guard in hotels for months, not allowed to go outside and with visitors banned during the pandemic. In April authorities forcibly removed a Kurdish asylum seeker who complained to the media about hotel conditions and placed him in immigration detention.
The government introduced a bill in May that would enable detention center staff to confiscate mobile phones in immigration detention. It would also grant detention facility officers new search and seize powers without the need of a warrant. The bill passed the lower house of parliament in September and was still pending at time of writing.
Indigenous Australians are significantly over-represented 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.
There were at least seven Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia in 2020 - four in Western Australian prisons, two in Victoria, and one in a Brisbane police watch house.
In April, a Victorian coroner found the 2017 death of Aboriginal woman Tanya Day "clearly preventable” and that "unconscious bias" was a factor in her being reported to police and arrested. Day died when she sustained a head injury in a police cell. Despite the coroner ruling that police officers may have committed an indictable offense, Victoria Police decided not to bring charges.
In June, the Western Australian parliament passed laws to reduce the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines, which disproportionately impact Indigenous people and people with lower incomes.
Three young Indigenous men in Western Australia took the government to court in July, alleging they were held for more than 23 hours a day for up to eight weeks in solitary confinement in prison, prompting an official review of prison policy.
In August, the Queensland health ombudsman found that the health care delivered to a 6-year-old Australian boy who died from a sudden illness in 2017 was “likely inadequate” and that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples remain at a significant disadvantage compared to other Queenslanders across many health measures.”
The chief executive of global mining giant Rio Tinto announced he would be stepping down following an outcry over the company's destruction of a 46,000-year-old Indigenous site in Western Australia in May.
Incarceration disproportionately affects Indigenous children: they are 21 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous children.
Across Australia, about 600 children under the age of 14 are imprisoned each year. State and territory attorney generals had the opportunity to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years, the recommended international minimum, after a major public campaign ahead of their annual summit, but they declined. In August, the Australian Capital Territory parliament committed to introducing their own legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
A landmark report by the South Australian Guardian for Children and Young People revealed disturbing treatment inside Adelaide's Youth Detention Centre including invasive body searches.
A bill introduced to parliament in May would allow Australia’s domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), to question children as young as 14. The bill raised concerns about the sufficiency of safeguards to protect children’s rights.
The Queensland Human Rights Commission called for an independent prison inspector in the state after reports of prolonged lockdown and potential solitary confinement at Brisbane Youth Detention Centre during a Covid-19 outbreak in August.
Freedom of Expression
Pretrial proceedings in the case of former spy "Witness K" and his lawyer Bernard Collaery continued, with both charged with breaching secrecy laws for exposing wrongdoing by the Australian government to obtain an advantage in trade negotiations with Timor-Leste. The court ruled that it would hold parts of the trial in secret after the attorney general invoked powers under the National Security Information Act.
The University of New South Wales apologized in August after deleting a twitter post and temporarily removing an article about human rights in Hong Kong that pro-Beijing students had criticized. In response, the federal education minister announced an independent review into whether universities were meeting national free speech standards.
A Deakin University report in September found that more than half of environmental scientists working for the government said they had been "prohibited from communicating scientific information.” Government workers said they had been restricted from speaking out on threatened species, climate change, and logging.
Following police raids in June 2019 on several Australian journalists, a parliamentary inquiry into press freedom recommended that journalists not be immune from secrecy prosecutions but be granted new defenses for “public interest” journalism. In April, the High Court ruled that a police warrant issued to raid the home of a NewsCorp journalist in 2019 was invalid because the warrant was "impossibly wide."
Human Rights Watch research analyzing coroners’ inquest reports between 2010 and 2020 found that about 60 percent of people who died in prisons in Western Australia had a disability. Of that group, 58 percent died as a result of lack of support provided by the prison, suicide, or violence.
Rights of Older People
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on people living in aged care facilities in Australia. At time of writing, in Victoria there had been 655 deaths in aged care homes, and many outbreaks were preventable, according to experts. The pandemic has shone a light on insufficient staffing and inadequate community-based models of care in such facilities.
Many aged care facilities across Australia routinely give dangerous drugs to residents with dementia to control their behavior, rather than providing them with the support they need.
Terrorism and Counterterrorism
Despite a continuing public campaign to change its approach, the Australian government was unwilling to repatriate Australian citizens held in northeast Syria for suspected involvement in the extremist armed group Islamic State and their family members. At time of writing, approximately 80 Australians, 47 of them children, remained trapped in harsh conditions in camps and prisons. The government had helped bring home eight children from northeast Syria in 2019.
A parliamentary committee approved a proposal that would authorize the home affairs minister to strip dual nationals of Australian citizenship if the minister is “satisfied their conduct demonstrates a repudiation of their allegiance to Australia and it is not in the public interest for the person to remain an Australian citizen.”
A spate of cases of racial abuse and attacks against people of Asian descent were reported across the country after the Covid-19 outbreak began in February.
Victorian authorities subjected more than 3,000 people in public housing towers in Melbourne to a sudden, mandatory lockdown for 14 days in July after a rise in coronavirus cases among residents. The discriminatory approach included a heavy police presence outside the towers and reports that police and health officials blocked a mother from breastfeeding her ill baby in the hospital. Residents complained about lack of communication by authorities and difficulties accessing food, exercise, fresh air, and medical supplies. The state compensated those held under the lockdown with hardship payments of A$1,500 (US$1,080) to residents forced to miss work and A$750 (US$540) to those without employment.
The disruption caused to around 4 million students' schooling was compounded by inconsistent messaging from federal and state politicians. Pre-existing inequalities were reflected in differences in student access to internet-connected devices.
Early research suggests that rates of domestic violence increased during Covid-19 lockdowns. The government committed more than A$3 million (US$2.1 million) in additional funding to service providers and announced a new emergency accommodation program for victims.
In response to the threat of Covid-19, the government announced restrictions on visits to nursing homes. Some facilities banned visitors altogether, cutting off older people from important family and social connections.
In Queensland and Victoria, several prisons and youth detention centers endured long periods of lockdown and extreme isolation during Covid-19, with visitor bans and conditions reportedly akin to solitary confinement.
The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly. In June, Black Lives Matter protest leaders in Melbourne were fined for organizing a public rally that police claimed breached social distancing restrictions in place to stop the spread of Covid-19, while in July Sydney police won a Supreme Court case to prohibit a Black Lives Matter protest. Police then arrested and fined six attendees for not abiding by the ban. In September, police arrested and fined protesters at Sydney University despite protester measures to abide by health advice.
Metropolitan Melbourne was placed under a strict lockdown in August after a rise in Covid-19 cases, with a daily curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. and residents only allowed to leave their homes within a 5 kilometer radius for a limited time to buy food, provide care, or exercise while permits were required to attend approved work.
Victoria’s police have used harsh measures during that lockdown that threaten basic rights. In September police were recorded arresting a pregnant woman on incitement charges for organizing an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook. The Victorian government introduced problematic new legislation that would give anyone designated an “authorized officer,” such as a police or public security officer, the power to preemptively detain individuals who test positive for Covid-19 and are “likely to refuse or fail to comply with the direction.” After public pressure, the government removed that provision.
Australia banned citizens from leaving the country as a public health measure during the coronavirus pandemic unless they met strict criteria. Restrictions on the number of passengers allowed into Australia left tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas including 3,000 classified as vulnerable because they were experiencing health complications or financial troubles. This punitive approach to travel left thousands of Australian families separated from their loved ones.
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.
2020 marked Australia’s third and final year on the United Nations Human Rights Council. At the council, Australia was on a core group on Eritrea, and supported joint statements calling for greater scrutiny of human rights violations in China, Saudi Arabia, and several other countries. However, Australia was weak on international accountability for “drug war” killings in the Philippines. Officials said they would instead pursue “constructive engagement,” not appreciating that private advocacy without public pressure often only shields violators from international scrutiny. Australia was the only UN Human Rights Council member to vote against all resolutions seeking to address rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Tensions between the Australian and Chinese government grew in 2020 as Beijing retaliated with trade sanctions after Australia led calls for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Beyond statements in Geneva, the Australian government rarely called out human rights violations in other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. A meeting between Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar and Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief in January undercut international efforts to sideline the senior general for his role in serious abuses against ethnic Rohingya Muslims since 2017.
Australia has not endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, an intergovernmental pledge now signed by 105 countries to protect education in times of conflict.
Australia exports military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite grave concerns about alleged war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.