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Australia: Remove excessive restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly

Australia should repeal excessive restrictions on the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, say ISHR and the Human Rights Law Centre in advance of the Universal Periodic Review of Australia.

(Geneva) – Australia should repeal excessive restrictions on the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, according to a new report to be considered by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The report prepared by the International Service for Human Rights, with input from Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, documents a worsening trend of laws, policies and funding arrangements being used by federal and state governments to restrict free speech and peaceful protest, censor and criminalise the work of journalists, and impede the independence and effectiveness of non-governmental organisations and the national human rights institution.

‘There is a growing disconnect between Australia’s support on the world stage for vibrant civil society, strong national human rights institutions, and the protection of journalists, and its apparent disdain for the vital work of these actors at home,’ said ISHR Director Phil Lynch.

According to ISHR, Australia’s inadequate legal protection of human rights has enabled the enactment of regressive laws restricting the right to peaceful protest and to freedom of the press, contrary to international human rights law. As examples, the report cites the Tasmanian Workplaces (Protection from Protesters) Act, which criminalises protests which ‘hinder or obstruct’ business operations, and 2014 amendments to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act, which criminalise the disclosure of information on so-called ‘special intelligence operations’, including by journalists, even where those operations violate fundamental rights.

‘There is a disturbing trend in Australia of governments eroding basic democratic freedoms – such as freedom of expression, association and access to information – which are the basic ingredients of good government and accountability,’ said Emily Howie of the Human Rights Law Centre.

In addition to calling for repeal of restrictive legislation, the submission recommends that Australia strengthen the legal protection of rights, such as by amending the Public Interest Disclosure Act to provide protection to whistleblowers where the disclosure reveals or promotes accountability for alleged human rights abuses.

‘Recent revelations in the Guardian newspaper that the Australian Government has asked the Australian Federal Police to investigate journalists to uncover their confidential sources for reports on asylum seekers are yet another illustration of the need for stronger laws to protect freedom of expression and access to information in this country,’ Ms Howie said.

The report highlights that Australia has failed to incorporate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights into national law, despite the expert recommendations of United Nations treaty bodies and Special Rapporteurs, together with a major public consultation undertaken in Australia in 2009.

‘Building on the positive experiences of the Charter of Human Rights in the state of Victoria and the Human Rights Act in the Australian Capital Territory, the Australian Government and other state and territory governments should enact laws giving full domestic force and effect to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,’ Ms Howie said.

The ISHR report also documents policies and arrangements that Australian governments are increasingly putting in place to restrict advocacy and silence dissent, including by defunding organisations and through contractual requirements which prohibit or restrict advocacy and law reform work. Organisations working in areas such as indigenous and refugee rights, like the Refugee Council and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, have been hit particularly hard.

‘A vibrant and critical civil society is essential to democracy and development. In accordance with its obligations under the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, Australia should reinstate funding to these vital civil society organisations. It should also repudiate contractual provisions which purport to restrict the right and ability of non-governmental organisations to advocate for progress and reform,’ Mr Lynch said.

ISHR is particularly concerned at government steps to defund and delegitimise the Australian Human Rights Commission, contrary pledges Australia has made on the international stage.

‘Substantial funding cuts, the appointment of commissioners without proper processes, and persistent political attacks on the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission are all flagrantly incompatible with Australia’s international position and promises,’ Mr Lynch said.

Australia leads a bi-annual resolution on strengthening national human rights institutions at the UN Human Rights Council which calls on all States to safeguard the independence of human rights commissions, ensure that they are not subjected to unreasonable budgetary limitations, and are protected from all forms of pressure or reprisal in connection with their work on individual cases, inquiries and reports.

‘Australia should heed the advice it frequently dispenses to other nations at the UN by restoring funding to the Commission and by defending the independence and integrity of the Commission’s highly qualified President,’ Mr Lynch said.

The ISHR report will be formally considered by the UN Human Rights Council when it meets to review Australia’s human rights record again through the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva in November.

A major coalition of Australian NGOs, coordinated by the Human Rights Law Centre, the National Association of Community Legal Centres and Kingsford Legal Centre, is also expected to submit a report to the UN in the coming weeks.


Phil Lynch, Director, International Service for Human Rights, on + 41 76 708 4738 or [email protected]

Emily Howie, Director of Advocacy and Research, Human Rights Law Centre on + 61 421 370 997 or [email protected]

Photo: UN Photo / Evan Schneider (Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott meets with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon)

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