NOOSA –Australia’s elevation this week as one of 15 countries elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council has occurred despite strident criticism – including from the UN itself - of the country’s harsh treatment of refugees in Manus and Nauru.
A coalition of Australian organisations has accused Australia of “backsliding” on human rights, a slap in the face for a nation that once ranked in the top echelon of defenders of both individual freedom and fair and compassionate treatment of people in need.
A recent Fairfax poll showed nearly one-third of Australians believe human rights to be under threat in Australia (table) and today Australia is expected to be grilled by an expert UN committee over its human rights record.
The UN council to which Australia has just been elected is able to rebuke governments that violate human rights and order investigations.
In recent years, Australia has found itself subject to inquiries and criticism from the UN on human rights issues.
Just last month, the UN's refugee agency condemned Australia saying that “those who have suffered most under inhumane conditions in Papua New Guinea and Nauru need care and compassion….
“All refugees and asylum seekers should be provided with adequate support and a much-needed long term solution outside of Papua New Guinea and Nauru."
And the head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, slammed the Australian government for a denial of “fundamental principles of family unity and refugee protection and to common decency" in its treatment of refugees.
"The practice of offshore processing has had a hugely detrimental impact," Mr Grandi said.
World Vision’s Rev Tim Costello called on the government to close "its inhumane offshore detention centres" which he said are a "blight on Australia's international reputation.
"If we are to play a credible role in promoting human rights internationally, we need to look to our own behaviour," Mr Costello said.
"We need to do more than talk the talk on human rights, we need to walk the walk."
Hugh de Kretser, executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, said the vast majority of asylum seekers in detention had already been found to be refugees.
"Australia owes those people obligations," he said. "We have promised to provide people fleeing persecution safety as a signatory to UN conventions, yet we have mandatorily detained them in remote camps on islands in the Pacific.
"Plus we have boat turn-backs still happening under secrecy on the high seas."
In related news, PNG attorney general Davis Steven (pictured) says the government is planning to create a human rights commission.
He told the eighth PNG Human Rights Film Festival that the government recognised the challenges of not just having a constitution that enshrined the rights of people but doing something about them.
As usual with government announcements about positive reform, PNG Attitude will await progress before issuing compliments.