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Australia’s human rights record will come under ‘intense scrutiny’ at the United Nations

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Australia’s human rights record is set to face scrutiny at a United Nations hearing, with a focus to be placed on the inequalities faced by Indigenous Australians.

Countries will question Australia at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva as part of a universal periodic review that takes place every five years.

The hearing – to be held on Wednesday night – is set to raise concerns ranging from the lack of progress towards reducing rates of Indigenous incarceration, to Australia’s use of immigration detention facilities. 

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Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser said Australia should expect to face “intense scrutiny” over several human rights concerns.

“As a wealthy, stable democracy, Australia could lead the world on human rights, yet too often Australian governments fail to respect people’s human rights in critical areas,” he said.

“Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and refugees and people seeking asylum in particular are likely to be in the spotlight at the review.”

Several countries, including Sweden, Uruguay and the Czech Republic, have all submitted questions in advance about the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian prisons.

In an advance question, Poland also writes that new reports raise concerns about certain practices existing in the juvenile justice system.

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This includes the low age of criminal responsibility, excessive periods of isolation, combined detention places for children and adults, or inappropriate conditions.  

Germany will also question Australia about what has prevented governments from raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years.

A decision on this was deferred by the council of attorneys-general last year, who said more work was needed on what the age should be lifted to.  

Natsils co-chair Priscilla Atkins said the UN’s review is needed to hold the Australian government accountable for the human rights concerns faced by First Nations people.

“Our people consistently suffer injustices from discriminatory policies, systemic racism, over-policing, human rights abuses and deaths in custody in the justice system,” she said.

Iran will also ask about the 432 Indigenous people that have died while in police custody and what is being done to address “systemic police brutality” against Indigenous Australians. 

In a submission to the review, the Australian government said it has acknowledged the “need to do better” to address the inequalities confronted by First Nations people.

It also said Australia had made “significant achievements” in the realisation of human rights since its last Universal Periodic Review in 2015.  

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“These include significant investments addressing family and domestic violence, human trafficking and modern slavery and the legalisation of same-sex marriage,” it said in a submission to the review.

Countries are also expected to press Australia over its use of immigration detention facilities, including its offshore facility in Nauru.

Panama will ask what measures have been taken to address the rise of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia in the country, including in public debates and the media.

The Australian government said COVID-19 is presenting new challenges in the protection of human rights across Australia – but work is being done to address these concerns.

“Particular regard has been paid to the rights of people with unique vulnerabilities,” the government’s submission said.

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