Friday, December 16, 2011

A Human Rights Agenda for the new Attorney-General

Human Rights Law Centre | 15 December 2011

Australia’s new Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, was sworn in on 14 December 2011.

We asked some of Australia’s leading human rights advocates, activists and academics to tell us, in less than 100 words, what the Attorney’s top human rights priority or initiative for 2012 should be. We’ll be sharing more of them with you in the coming days and weeks.

Catherine Branson QC is President of the Australian Human Rights Commission

My hope is that the new Attorney-General’s priorities will include bringing along her fellow ministers and parliamentarians in making the new human rights scrutiny processes effective and seeing through the consolidation of federal discrimination laws process to create an effective national equality law. She should also ensure the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and establish a national system of monitoring places of detention. Finally, the Attorney must ensure that human rights considerations inform policy in all areas of her portfolio, for example in security policy where there is an urgent need for a system enabling review of adverse security assessments.

Nicolas Patrick is a Partner and Head of Pro Bono with DLA Piper

I would prioritise the human rights of people in places of detention. A significant proportion of Australia’s prison population suffer from mental illness. There is a causal and consequential link between imprisonment and mental illness. Australia is warehousing people with mental health problems in prisons, where mental health care is entirely inadequate.

The number of juveniles in detention is also a major concern, along with the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These issues raise significant concerns with respect to Australia’s obligations under the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and require the urgent attention of the Australian Government.

Professor David Kinley is Chair in Human Rights Law at Sydney Law School

Dear Attorney,

Pay very close attention to the newly established parliamentary human rights scrutiny committee. This is a sleeping giant, whose potential power and range is underappreciated; indeed largely unnoticed. Having authority to scrutinise all bills for compliance with all Australia’s international human rights obligations goes far beyond the scope of any equivalent mechanism overseas, and it will embarrass and expose. So, heads up for the enhanced human rights scrutiny of the next wave of immigration, anti-terrorism or workplace relations proposals.

PS. Don’t take up smoking this year.

Ed Santow is Chief Executive Officer of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre

Over the last few years, the Australian Government has made progress in improving the protection of our basic rights. However, Australia still lacks a comprehensive human rights law. This increases the vulnerability of already disadvantaged people — like Indigenous Australians, people experiencing homelessness and people with a disability. To rectify this, the new Attorney-General should take the lead in fully implementing the recommendations of the 2009 National Human Rights Consultation, including by enacting a comprehensive Human Rights Act.

Nicky Friedman is Head of Pro Bono & Community Programs with Allens Arthur Robinson

The new Attorney should ensure that asylum seekers can access and exercise their legal rights.
Since the High Court’s decision in M61, which confirmed that review by the courts is available to asylum seekers who are processed offshore, legal assistance providers have been hit with floods of applications for legal representation in judicial review proceedings. Despite the huge increase in demand, no extra funds have been provided and legal aid and community legal centres are turning away desperate people. The Attorney should provide funds to boost the capacity of refugee and immigration community legal centres and legal aid commissions to deal with these matters immediately.

Professor Sarah Joseph is Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law

There are many human rights priorities for Australiain 2012, such as properly implementing the new Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act and vastly improving this country’s impoverished refugee debate. As the number one priority, however, I would say that the Australian Government must take the lead in vigorously supporting amendment of the Australian Constitution to better recognise and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples, and to educate Australian people about the need for such amendment. A campaign against Constitutional recognition has already begun (see eg, J Albrechtsen inThe Australian on 14 December). The government and the opposition must get on the front foot to counter the scaremongering.

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