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Events of 2023

A “Walk for Yes” rally hosted by the Yes23 campaign prior to Australia's referendum on Indigenous issues, at the Todd River in Alice Springs, Australia, September 17, 2023.

© 2023 REUTERS/Jaimi Joy

Australia is a vibrant democracy that mostly protects the civil and political rights of its citizens; however, its reputation is tarnished by some significant human rights concerns. These include the cruel treatment of refugees and asylum seekers as well as its failure to address systemic discrimination against First Nations people. Indigenous people are still overrepresented in Australian prisons. A referendum in October on The Voice, which would have allowed Indigenous people to advise Parliament in the form of an advisory committee, was defeated in every Australian state.

Australia remains the only Western country without a national human rights act or constitutional charter. However, Parliament has opened an inquiry on the country’s human rights framework and is considering developing a human rights charter. In June 2023, Australia evacuated the last refugee detained on the island country of Nauru under its offshore processing policy but started sending new asylum seekers to the island just two months later. The Australian government maintains a policy of offshore detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat and in 2023 allocated additional funds for the practice. Serious concerns surrounding the treatment of children in custody and use of “chemical restraint” in aged care have yet to be seriously addressed by the government.

In March, an Australian soldier was charged by the Office of the Special Investigator with an alleged war crime in Afghanistan, the first case of its kind in Australia. In June, a court sided with three newspapers in a defamation suit brought by a former Australian Special Forces soldier over coverage of the murders of civilians during the armed conflict in Afghanistan. These cases represent important developments for justice and authorities. The families of the victims have been waiting for over a decade for prompt and adequate compensation.

Asylum Seekers and Refugees

The year 2023 marked 11 years since the Australian government reintroduced offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat. In June, Australia evacuated what was then the last refugee detained on the island country of Nauru under its offshore processing policy. However, Australian authorities again started sending new asylum seekers to Nauru just months later, including a group of 11 in September and a group of 12 in November. In October, Papua New Guinea’s chief migration officer said 64 refugees and asylum seekers exiled from Australia remained in Papua New Guinea, some of whom alleged they had been left without food and electricity and were being threatened with eviction from their accommodations following a dispute between Australia and Papua New Guinea over funding.

The Australian government has allocated 1.5 billion Australian dollars (US$1 billion) over the next four years for the continued operation of offshore operations, signaling its commitment to the practice. The “turn-back” policy of interdicting boats and summarily turning them to the high seas or returning the people onboard to countries of departure or origin has continued under the government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

In February, the government permitted 19,000 refugees holding temporary protection and safe-haven enterprise visas to apply for permanent residency and citizenship, fulfilling one of Prime Minister Albanese’s key election pledges. A permanent visa allows the holder to take out mortgages and higher education loans and receive social security payments. Despite this improvement, statistics from the Department of Home Affairs in August showed that 124 people had been held in immigration detention for over five years. Also in August, the government announced it would increase its annual refugee intake to 20,000 people, short of an earlier pledge to increase the intake to 27,000 people.

In July, a judge found that the government’s detention of refugee Mostafa (Moz) Azimitabar in a hotel room for over 14 months was “lawful but lacking humanity.” During the period of detention, Azimitabar could not access the outside world or proper medical treatment.

In September, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent released a report following its visit to Australia in 2022, finding “evidence of the weaponization of refugee and migrant status, placing migrants of African descent in a state of precariousness, including risk of loss of status, ‘indefinite’ detention, and/or deportation.”

In November, the High Court of Australia ruled that indefinite immigration detention is unlawful, overturning a previous ruling that had allowed the government to hold non-citizens without valid visas even when there was no possibility of deporting them. The decision triggered the release of more than 100 people, but new laws were rushed through parliament to place additional restrictions and surveillance upon the former detainees.

Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

Indigenous people are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders comprising nearly one-third of Australia’s adult prison population, but just 3 percent of the national population. In August, the Western Australia Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services found that Broome prison, where 80 percent of the inmates are Aboriginal, is “depressing, degrading and entirely inappropriate in a modern mental health service context,” emphasizing that such conditions were a product of underlying systemic racism. At least 19 Indigenous people died in custody in 2023, including a 16-year-old First Nations boy who died after self-harming in pretrial detention in October following prolonged solitary confinement.

On October 14, Australians voted in a referendum to decide whether to enshrine a First Nations Voice to parliament and government in the country’s constitution, which would recognize, for the first time, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of the land and allow them to give advice to the Australian Parliament and the government on issues that affect them. The referendum was defeated in every state and was considered a major setback for First Peoples’ rights. Presently, Australia has no national treaty with Indigenous Australians.

Disability Rights

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with a Disability continued its hearings in 2023 and released its final report in September. It found that people with disabilities experience substantially higher rates of violence than people without disabilities. In July, the commission reported that parents with disabilities are over-represented in child protection allegations and investigations. It also found that First Nations participants in Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) are 28 percent less likely to receive care through the scheme than non-Indigenous people. 

Prisons remain damaging and at times deadly for people with disabilities. A Human Rights Watch analysis of deaths in prisons from 2010-2020 found that about 60 percent of adult prisoners who died had a disability. In June, a court heard the case of Michael, an Aboriginal teenager with an intellectual disability, who spent more than 500 days in solitary confinement in the Townsville youth prison in Queensland for reasons unrelated to his behavior.

Youth Justice

In September, Queensland suspended its regional Human Rights Act for the second time to allow growing numbers of children in detention to be held indefinitely in police watch houses, which are concrete cells typically used for short-term detention of adults. Recent changes in youth justice laws, including the strengthening of punishments for breaking bail, have led to increases in the number of detained children that cannot be accommodated by the current size of youth detention centers.

Following the recommendations of a 2021 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government passed a bill banning medically unnecessary non-consensual surgeries on children with intersex traits.

In August, the Northern Territory government raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12; in April, the state of Victoria had committed to implementing the same increase. International standards, however, call for a minimum age of at least 14. In November, the ACT passed legislation adopting the age 14 minimum.

Older People’s Rights

Historically, many Australian nursing homes have used dangerous drugs, often without informed consent, to control the behavior of older people with dementia, known as “chemical restraint.” Even now, there are no national protocols for dementia care, including compulsory training for those who work at nursing homes.

At time of writing the Australian government was drafting a new Aged Care Act. The current act, enacted in 1997, does not guarantee protection from the use of chemical and physical restraints. It also does not specify minimum staffing levels for facilities that support older people or require mandatory dementia care training for those who work at nursing homes.

Freedom of Expression

In July, the Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media found that the risk of foreign interference through social media is a material and immediate concern, and recommended that the government implement measures that would call on social media platforms to meet certain transparency requirements or face fines. The committee opened its inquiry in the wake of concerns about the influence of Chinese social media companies and the Chinese Communist Party beyond China’s borders.

In May, the state of South Australia passed an anti-protest law that increased the maximum fine on “disruptive” protesters from 750 to 50,000 Australian dollars (US$500 to $33,000) and authorized potential imprisonment for offenders. This legislation was in response to a three-day climate protest.

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

In May, the families of some 40 Australian women and children unlawfully detained in life-threatening conditions in decrepit camps in northeast Syria since at least 2019 filed a lawsuit with the aid of Save the Children seeking to compel the government to bring them home. Many of these Australians were taken to Syria by family members who wanted to join the Islamic State (ISIS). Several Australian men are also unlawfully detained as ISIS suspects in the region. In November, a federal court dismissed the lawsuit.

Climate Change

As a top 20 global greenhouse gas emitter, Australia is contributing to the climate crisis and its growing toll on human rights. Despite the government’s increasing support of the renewable energy sector and significant emissions reduction legislation, Australia remains the world’s largest coking coal exporter and a leading exporter of liquefied natural gas or LNG. In February, the Australian government blocked a new coal mine in Queensland because of risks it posed to the Great Barrier Reef, freshwater creeks, and groundwater, but in May the government approved a new coal mine and rejected requests from civil society groups to reconsider three prior approvals for other coal and gas projects.

Improvements implemented in July to the “Safeguard Mechanismrequire Australia’s highest greenhouse gas emitting facilities to meet emissions targets that grow increasingly stringent over time in line with Australia’s goal to reach net zero emissions by 2050, or pay to offset emissions.

The government agreed with the UN Human Rights Committee’s landmark 2022 finding that climate change is currently impacting the daily lives and cultural practices of Torres Strait islanders but has rejected the committee’s recommendation to award compensation to the claimants.

Technology and Rights

In August, the Albanese government apologized for the Robodebt scheme, an automated debt assessment system that issued debt notices to vulnerable people and led recipients of welfare to pay more than what they owed. The government also forgave the debts of nearly 200,000 people that were being investigated under the scheme in an important acknowledgment of the human rights violations that took place due to lack of legislation.

In March, the Attorney-General’s Department released the Privacy Act Review Report, which delineated over 100 recommendations for an overhaul of the 1988 act that would make it better suited to developments in modern technology, including artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology. In September, the government responded to the report and committed to enacting new privacy protections in 2024.

Foreign Policy

The Chinese government eased some trade restrictions on Australia, including barley tariffs that were imposed three years prior after Australia called for an inquiry on the origins of Covid-19. Australia still has not taken concrete actions to address human rights concerns within the Chinese government or against Australian nationals. Australia has not imposed any Magnitsky-type sanctions on Chinese officials for violations in Xinjiang or elsewhere. Australian citizen and writer Yang Hengjun remains indefinitely and arbitrarily detained in China. In October, Australian citizen-journalist Cheng Lei was finally released and returned to Australia after three years in prison. In July, Hong Kong authorities issued baseless bounties on two Australian activists, Kevin Yam and Ted Hui.

In July, Vietnamese-born Australian citizen Chau Van Kham, a democracy activist, was released from a Vietnamese jail after spending four years in prison for his political beliefs.

The Australian government’s continued concern about stability in the region remains apparent. In April, Australia publicized its Defence Strategic Review, showing its investment in its defense capabilities, including maritime technology like nuclear-powered submarines.

Australia has continued to strengthen its relationship with India, its fellow Quad member, as well as with countries in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Vietnam. It has continued to purse “quiet diplomacy” with India, declining to publicly raise human rights concerns including recent crackdowns on civil society and the adoption of laws and policies that systematically discriminate against Muslims and Christians. Australia’s parliament launched an inquiry to examine government efforts to support democracy in the region but has fallen short of pressing for accountability for human rights.

In February, Australia imposed sanctions and travel bans on those responsible for the 2021 coup and ensuing human rights violations in Myanmar, as well as two military-owned companies. In March, it imposed 14 Magnitsky-style travel bans and financial sanctions on members of the Iranian “morality police” involved in the death of 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini in September 2022, along with those involved in the supply of drones to Russia. Further sanctions targeting Iranian individuals and entities who “oppress women and girls in Iran” were announced by the government in September. In November, sanctions were imposed on eight people and one entity in response to the October 7 massacres led by Hamas in Israel.

In March, Australia became the 117th country to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, an intergovernmental political commitment to reduce the likelihood that students, teachers, and schools are targeted for attack during armed conflict.