This Week’s Human Rights News

By Eva Csik
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9 February 2012

Australian Lawyer’s Alliance warns of risk of increase in Indigenous incarceration rates

The Australian Lawyers alliance has warned that high incarceration rates among Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders could get worse if the federal government pursues its plan to launch a second phase of the Northern Territory intervention. The legislation will expand measures introduced by the Howard Government’s NT intervention policy. The bill will increase indigenous incarceration due to its continuation of alcohol restrictions, increasing penalties for ‘grog runners’ and quarantining welfare access for parents who don’t send their kids to school.

Australian Lawyers Alliance national president, Greg Barnes, said many of the measures were regressive. Mr Barnes said the proposed laws would mean that any indigenous person found carrying alcohol into a prescribed area could face up to six months in prison and for individuals found carrying more than 1.35 litres of alcohol it could be an 18-month sentence.

Human Rights Law Centre urges Government to take action on Papua

Human rights groups have urged for observers to be allowed into Indonesia’s Papuan province to monitor the trial of five Papuan leaders facing life in prison after being charged with treason. The five men were arrested for raising the Papuan ‘Morning Star’ pro-independence flag during the Papuan People’s Congress in the Papuan capital last week.

The Human Rights Law Centre has called for Australia to raise the matter with Indonesian authorities and has said that this case once again puts the spotlight on Australia’s silence on human rights violations in the region. Currently, all foreign journalists and non-government organisations are prevented from travelling to Papua by the Indonesian Government.

Tom Clarke, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Law Centre has said that “Australia needs a new approach, underpinned by a principled and persistent commitment to human rights, to addressing conflicts in our region.

Mr Clarke points out that while these Papuan men find themselves facing life imprisonment for raising a flag, the Indonesian military personnel who pleaded guilty to killing Theys Eluay, the elected leader of the second Papuan People’s Congress in 2000, were sentenced to three and a half years.

Australia needs to play a leadership role in bringing the world’s attention to the problems in West Papua and supporting those moderate voices within Indonesia that support human rights and are pushing democratic reforms forward” Mr Clarke said.

Amnesty International calls for detention centre to be shut immediately

Amnesty International has called for Curtin detention centre to be closed immediately. The detention centre is located in remote north Western Australia and currently holds about 860 men. Dr Graeme Thom, Amnesty International’s Refugee Coordinator has said that there exists an ‘air of hopelessness’ among asylum seekers.

Dr Graham Thom, amnesty International’s refugee spokesman has reported that “the level of distress we have seen in these centres is a clear indicator that the policy of indefinite mandatory detention does not work”.  Mr Thom said  “We saw grown men break down in tears because of the uncertainty. This on top of fearing for the safety of their families left behind.”

The visit to the centre is the first stop in Amnesty International’s twelve day tour of Australian detention facilities. Concern has also been raised with the Perth Immigration Detention Centre, which is close to maximum capacity. “The cramped conditions of the Perth centre show that it is unsuitable for people to spend a significant amount of time there.

Reconciliation Action Plan increase Indigenous workforce participation

Reconciliation Australia has announced that a national employment scheme has worked to increase Indigenous workforce participation. The Reconciliation Action Plan was launched in 2006 and is now being evaluated. The Action Plan has been responsible for recruiting 13,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians across 280 organizations.

Tom Calma, the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia says the key has been getting employers to create opportunities. Employers have said that better training and improved cultural awareness have been critical to the program’s success.

Protecting migrant women in Australia

Australian Law Reform Commission’s final report on Family Violence and Commonwealth laws – Improving Legal Frameworks,  released by Attorney-General Nicola Roxon yesterday, recommends several immigration law reforms to allow migrants on temporary visas to stay and seek help in Australia.

The report calls for the creation of a new temporary visa which would allow secondary visa holders, such as partners of international students to stay in Australia to seek help or apply for residency and also suggesting simplifying the evidence of family violence required by immigration tribunals.

The proposals were welcomed by domestic violence and migrant services struggling with a surge in temporary migrants seeking help. Fiona McCormack, chief executive of Domestic Violence Victoria “This is a human rights issue for Australia; we have a positive obligation to provide protection to women in Australia to live free from violence.

While the Federal Government has not indicated if it will adopt any of the recommendations in the report, Ms Roxon has said “the Australian Government takes a very strong stance on family violence and child abuse and is committed to improving Commonwealth laws to respond to this issue”.

Australian military involvement in secret prisons

Reports claim that according to a US military document, Australia was an “integral” element of the potentially illegal detention of prisoners of war at a secret Iraqi Western desert prison, codenamed H1, in 2003.

Australian military may have been complicit in war crimes by handing detainees over to the so called “black-site”. The prison was used to interrogate enemy fighters believed to hold important information. Detainees at such prisons were beaten, waterboarded, spat on and tortured.

The Defence department denied the allegations and stated that Australia was only “providing security” while detainees were being handed over. Australia has previously never been accused of involvements in any such incidents.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Sydney, said the Australian government now needed to clarify exactly what it knew about H1 and other secret prisons.

Australian Defence Force to use Drones

The Australian Defence Force is phasing in the use of Drones as part of its Defence Capability Plan. The initial fleet of drones, otherwise known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) will mainly be used for maritime surveillance. However, our special forces are already being trained to use drones in combat.

The New America Foundation’s study The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2010 found that the 114 reported drone strikes in North West Pakistan from 2004 to the beginning of 2010 killed between 830-1210 individuals. Around 550 to 850 of these were described as militants which means the remaining third were civilians.

Legal restraint and even public debate about the use of drones has been previously been silenced. Drones highly endanger civilians; “this is a clear contravention of international humanitarian law, which upholds the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants”.

Company fined for dismissal of pregnant employee

A Sydney printing company has been fined more than $20,000 after dismissing a clerical worker because her pregnancy “caused a lot of inconvenience”.

The employee had taken sick leave when she suffered complications with her pregnancy and in this time, her employer allegedly hired a full-time worker to replace her.

The employee had lost her baby, and upon returning to work was given a new position doing manual labour for less pay.

When she complained to the Fairwork Ombudsman, the employee received a letter from her employer stating that her employment with the company was to be terminated.

Justice Dennis Cowdroy said the directors had “engaged in an abusive action…on the ground of gender and pregnancy” and that this was a “gross violation of their obligation under the FWA” (Fair Work Australia).

Tasmania claims it can’t afford the introduction of Charter of Human Rights

The Tasmanian Government has decided to put aside the introduction of a Charter of Human Rights because of budgetry constraints. Tasmanian Attorney-General Brian Wightman has said that work has been stalled on establishing a Charter of Human Rights because Tasmania can’t afford it. Despite Tasmania’s budget cuts other important legislation will still go ahead.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Ben Schokman has said “Human rights are not optional extras. Experience in other jurisdictions such as Victoria and the ACT demonstrate that human rights protections in fact provide substantial economic and social benefits with minimal implementation costs”.


Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.