The misuse of police powers in Australia during COVID-19 lockdowns as well as excessive restrictions on movement harmed the country’s reputation on human rights, Human Rights Watch said in its latest report.
While Australia has been praised for largely containing the spread of the coronavirus, the human rights group has taken aim at police in Victoria for heavy-handed tactics used to enforce restrictions, in its World Report 2021.
“Victoria’s police have used harsh measures during that (second) lockdown that threaten basic rights,” the report noted.
It said following the introduction of a strict lockdown last year that included a daily curfew, police arrested a pregnant woman on incitement charges for organising an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook.
The Victorian Government also tried to introduce “problematic” new laws that would give an “authorised officer” the power to pre-emptively detain anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 and were thought likely to refuse or fail to follow directions. This was withdrawn after a public outcry.
Human Rights Watch was also critical of the sudden, mandatory lockdown of more than 3000 people in public housing towers in Melbourne, which was also found by the Victorian ombudsman to have violated people’s human rights.
“The discriminatory approach included a heavy police presence outside the towers and reports that police and health officials blocked a mother from breastfeeding her ill baby in the hospital,” the report noted.
“Residents complained about lack of communication by authorities and difficulties accessing food, exercise, fresh air, and medical supplies.”
The pandemic also resulted in restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, the report noted.
Other protesters at Sydney University were fined despite measures to abide by health advice.
The report also noted a spate of racial abuse and attacks against people of Asian descent that was reported across the country, as well as restrictions on visits in nursing homes that cut off older people from family and social connections.
“Australia has done very well in containing COVID-19, but some police practices during Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdown threatened basic rights,” Australia director at Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson said.
“A punitive approach to international travel has left thousands of Australian families overseas and out of pocket, separated from their loved ones.”
The report was critical of a “punitive approach to travel” that left thousands of Australian families separated from their loved ones, after the Morrison Government banned citizens from leaving the country and restricted the number of people allowed back in Australia.
“Restrictions on the number of passengers allowed into Australia left tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas including 3000 classified as vulnerable because they were experiencing health complications or financial troubles,” the report said.
Meanwhile, prisoners and those in youth detention centres in Queensland and Victoria endured “long periods of lockdown and extreme isolation during COVID-19, with visitor bans and conditions reportedly akin to solitary confinement”, the report said.
The World Report 2021 reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. It also took aim at Australia’s handling of asylum seekers and refugees, Indigenous rights, children’s rights, freedom of expression, disability rights, rights of older people, foreign policy, as well as terrorism and counterterrorism.
“In 2020 the global Black Lives Matter movement refocused attention in Australia on systemic racism and inequality against First Nations people, particularly high death rates in custody, and over-representation in prisons,” Ms Pearson said.
“Australian federal and state governments need to urgently prioritise reforming longstanding policies that discriminate against First Nations people.”
At least seven Indigenous people died in custody in Australia in 2020, and the group are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 29 per cent of Australia’s adult prison population, but just 3 per cent of the national population.
The report suggests that systemic reforms are needed including repealing punitive bail laws and mandatory sentencing laws, decriminalising public drunkenness, ending over-policing of Indigenous communities, and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years old, to at least 14.
It also noted the results of a four-year military investigation into alleged war crimes by Australian forces in Afghanistan, which found credible information about 23 incidents involving Special Forces who unlawfully killed 39 civilians or captured combatants, none of which were “disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle”.
Australia’s continued offshore processing of asylum seekers was also described as “punitive, cruel, and unlawful”.
The Morrison government continues to reject New Zealand’s offers to take some of the 290 people remaining in Papua New Guinea and Nauru; 208 have been recognised as refugees and 23 have asylum claims pending.
In his introductory essay, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights.
Mr Roth emphasised that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. He said the Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.