Human Rights Watch report card gives Australia a fail for offshore detention

Annual assessment says fundamental freedoms under threat globally from new generation of authoritarian populists

Papua New Guinea and Australia must move swiftly to close the Manus Island detention centre, nine months after the PNG supreme court ruled it illegal and unconstitutional, Human Rights Watch has said.

Human Rights Watch released its annual report card on more than 90 countries on Friday, assessing the state of human rights in individual nations, including progress made on specific issues including womens health and safety, police brutality, and legislative protection of human rights.

Globally, HRWs executive director, Kenneth Roth, argues in the report, fundamental human rights are under threat from a new generation of authoritarian populists who regard rights not as a check on official power but as a barrier to the will of the majority.

The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights, Roth writes in the report. Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism.

They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny.

The PNG supreme court demanded last April that the government work with its Australian counterpart to close the controversial Manus Island immigration detention centre, where Australia forcibly sends asylum seekers who arrive in the country by boat.

Despite the courts order, the detention centre remains in operation, albeit with limited freedom of movement for detainees. The two governments appear at an impasse, refusing responsibility for the more than 800 men held inside.

Human Rights Watch found neither country had taken any steps to close it: Many refugees are afraid to leave the center due to acts of violence in the community. For instance, in August, Manus locals robbed and assaulted three refugees; one of the locals attacked them with an iron bar.

Human Rights Watch called for the centres closure and for the immediate resettlement of detainees in Australia or a third country. Refugees and asylum seekers on Manus have suffered enough, its time to let them move on with their lives in safety and dignity.

The HRW report criticised Australias policy of offshore detention for asylum seekers who arrive in the country by boat as draconian, saying people are held in abusive and dangerous conditions.

The report also highlighted the continuing disproportionately high rate of Indigenous incarceration, the ban on same-sex marriage (including the abortive attempt at a plebiscite on the issue), as well as a push to wind back protections under the Racial Discrimination Act.

Proposed counter-terrorism laws introduced by Malcolm Turnbulls government were condemned as overly broad. HRW said a bill introduced in September that would allow for ongoing detention of terrorist offenders who have completed custodial sentences could amount to arbitrary and indefinite detention, based on a low standard of proof and secret evidence. Another bill extends control orders to 14-year-olds.

Human Rights Watch found little had changed for the better in PNG, which in 2016 remained one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and girls. Police and prosecutors continued their track record of rarely prosecuting cases against perpetrators of family violence, despite a government focus on reform.

Sorcery-related violence continued, with horrific acts committed against women accused of being witches, and the countrys judicial system recorded its first conviction under a 1975 law outlawing abortion.

Homosexuality remained illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and the death penalty has not been abolished, despite both issues being subject to recommendations at the UN periodic review. The PNG government said LGBT rights were not a priority.

The Human Rights Watch report does not include a chapter on Nauru, the island state that hosts Australias other offshore processing centre, but HRWs Australia director, Elaine Pearson, told Guardian Australia: Nauru has seen backsliding on human rights in the past year.

There has been an absence of accountability for violence and harassment faced by refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru, and in fact senior officials have simply denied such abuses took place rather than investigating the allegations. More broadly, there has been an erosion of democracy and rule of law.

Nauru imposes severe limits on freedom of expression and the media it continues to block foreign journalists from entering the country. Institutions like the judiciary are deeply politicised and political opponents have faced intimidation, threats and travel bans.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2017/jan/13/human-rights-watch-report-card-gives-australia-a-fail-for-offshore-detention