28 June 2011


The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay completed her six day visit to Australia in May. During her visit she met with various Government Ministers (including the Prime Minister), the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and indigenous local government representatives. She also visited two immigration detention centres and met with indigenous people, migrants, NGOs and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

At the conclusion of her visit she praised Australia’s strong history of commitment to human rights at the international level, and its robust system of democratic institutions. The Australian Government’s efforts to promote the rights of persons with disabilities, as well as the rights of older persons were also singled out for special praise.

However Ms Pilay also raised the two ongoing issues of particular concern for which Australia was heavily criticised during the recent Universal Periodic Review in January - the treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples and asylum-seekers. These two issues were raised by Edmund Rice International in its UPR submission.

Whilst welcoming advances that have been made in addressing some of the disadvantages faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples she noted that those advances were "undermined by policies that fail to recognise the right to self-determination for indigenous people" She urged a fundamental rethink of the policy and "a major effort to ensure not just consultation with the communities concerned in any future measures, but also their consent and active participation."

In her discussions with the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Ms Pilay reiterated the long-standing concerns expressed by UN human rights treaty bodies that Australia’s mandatory immigration detention regime is in breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations - a policy has for many years cast a shadow over Australia’s human rights record.

She noted that thousands of men, women and – most disturbingly of all – children have been held in Australian detention centres for prolonged periods, even though they have committed no crime. This has led to suicides, self-harming and deep trauma.

She went on to point out the consequence of the "constant political refrain that Australia is being 'flooded' by people who are 'queue jumpers' has resulted in a stigmatization of an entire group of people, irrespective of where they have come from or what dangers they may have fled and urged the leaders of all Australia’s political parties to take a principled and courageous stand to break this ingrained political habit of demonizing asylum-seekers."

The full text of Ms Pilay’s comments can be found at the OHCHR website.

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