UN expert’s ‘astonished’ at the Turnbull government’s anti-democratic side

Dr Aruna Sathanapally
From the Human Rights Law Centre (I March 2018)

The Turnbull Government’s anti-democratic slide has been criticised at the United Nations Human Rights Council tonight, with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders delivering a major report on Australian democracy.

In an at times scathing report, the Special Rapporteur told the Human Rights Council that:

  • he is “astonished” to observe “mounting evidence of regressive measures” being pursued by the Government;
  • he was “astounded to observe frequent public vilification by senior public officials” of charities, community groups and democratic institutions who hold the Government to account “in what appears to be an attempt to discredit, intimidate and discourage them from their legitimate work”; and
  • that there is an “increasing discrepancy and incoherence” between the Turnbull Government’s statements on the world stage and its actions at home.

Rapporteur, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said it was deeply disappointing that the pressure being placed on Australia’s democratic institutions and freedoms had reached this point.

“The Special Rapporteur’s report is careful, but unflinching, in his scrutiny of our democracy in recent years. The picture is one of sustained pressure on the people and institutions that hold our government accountable here, in Australia.”

“To get a seat on the UN Human Rights Council the Turnbull Government promised the world to “promote good governance and stronger democratic institutions” and “protect freedom of expression”.  But scrutiny and criticism of government are vital to a healthy democracy, even if governments find it inconvenient or annoying” said Dr Sathanapally.

“Right now, our government is pushing for new laws that would make it much harder for community groups, charities, academics if they want to speak publicly about government policies, let alone criticise government.  The Prime Minister is doing so even though these laws may well be struck down as unconstitutional on the grounds of the freedom of political communication,” said Dr Sathanapally.

“At the same time, the government is proposing sweeping new laws to keep government information secret, and punish whistle-blowers, that have been widely recognised as going too far in a democratic country. The government must move quickly to withdraw or fix these Bills if it is genuinely committed to democracy, and being accountable to the people,” said Dr Sathanapally.

Daniel Webb, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, who is in Geneva for the Council session, will deliver a statement to the Council in response to the Special Rapporteur’s report. Mr Webb will advise the Council that the regressive and undemocratic trend was continuing and urge the Turnbull Government to accept the UN’s recommendations in full.

Mr Webb said that the report showed that the Turnbull Government needed to dramatically improve its own human rights performance if it wanted to have strong influence on the Council, especially on democratic freedoms and its treatment of refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Victims of cruelty and injustice all over the world desperately need Governments like ours to be part of the UN’s principled spine, not to gnaw away at the foundations of human rights with hollow words and unprincipled actions,” said Mr Webb.

“But while our Government can blow its own trumpet on the world stage all it likes, its credibility and moral authority on human rights will be limited until it stops violating them,” said Mr Webb.


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