United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights criticises inhumane and racist policies

26 May 11

DATE: 26 May 2011

The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay has reiterated long-standing concerns by the international community that Australia’s mandatory immigration detention regime is in breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations and criticised racist and inhumane elements within Australia.

In a press conference held yesterday, as part of a six-day visit to Australia, Ms. Pillay expressed her concern at Australia’s refugee policies stating that they had cast a “shadow over Australia’s human rights record” with thousands of men, women and children held in prolonged and indefinite detention.

Mandatory detention has led to a rise in the number of asylum seekers who attempt suicide, self-harm and suffer from deep trauma as a result of imprisonment. The policy of indefinite detention does not take into account the individual circumstances of those seeking asylum and is in breach of international law according to the High Commissioner. The use of rhetoric such as ‘queue jumpers’ by political parties to describe asylum seekers, for political gain, has led to the stigmatization and demonization of those held in detention and reflects an undercurrent of racism in the country.

The High Commissioner also expressed her doubts over the federal government’s Malaysia refugee agreement, as Malaysia has not ratified the Refugee Convention or Convention against Torture and the policy could run the risk of breaching international law.

As part of her six-day visit to Australia, Ms. Pillay has visited two detention centres in Darwin and met with indigenous local government representatives and communities in Cairns.  Recounting her visit to these communities, the high commissioner urged a “fundamental rethink” of the Northern Territory Emergency Response to ensure that communities are not only consulted but are active participants in improving their future.

The intervention into the Northern Territory has led to much pain within indigenous communities who feel that government policies have been imposed on them without taking into account more effective local solutions for empowerment. These policies fail to recognize the right to self-determination for indigenous people as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Whilst the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been highly critical of Australia’s indigenous and refugee policies, she recognised and welcomed efforts by the government to implement a Human Rights Framework, the National Apology and investments being made to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and health. The commissioner hopes that these developments will lead to a national Human Rights Act.