Australian lawyers must take a more unified position after an “extremely disappointing year” for human rights, according to Professor Gillian Triggs.
The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has made a clarion call for the legal profession to take a clearer and more unified stance on the country’s treatment of human rights.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Professor Triggs (pictured) offered her view of the nation’s human rights scorecard for the past 12 months. Against a backdrop of “regressing” human rights compliance and rising executive government discretion, the AHRC president said that now, more than ever, lawyers have a responsibility to challenge the passage of domestic laws that breach international conventions to which Australia is a party.
“I would describe Australia as regressing in compliance with human rights, [so] that we had almost a licence ... to speak out in ways that are deeply demeaning of our multicultural communities. In 2016 we had retrograde moves in relation to migration issues – particularly the visa cancellations – and a declining position of women in Australian society. We’re simply going backwards,” Professor Triggs said.
“I don’t think the profession’s voice is as loud or as unified as it could be in standing up to the slow infringements on fundamental human rights,” she said.
According to Professor Triggs, recent government changes to the Migration Act stripped basic provisions of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees from the legislation. In effect, the amendments empowered government officers to deport people back to their home countries, irrespective of whether they have legitimate refugee status.
Professor Triggs said this is but one example of Australia actively moving away from its international obligations that the voice of the legal profession should challenge.
She underscored that a more abstract but equally disturbing trend this year has been the growing ministerial discretion to determine issues that hit at the heart of fundamental human rights. One of the clearest examples of this discretion being misused was the cancellation of visas as per section 501 of the Migration Act.
Professor Triggs suggested that bolstered ministerial powers under the section have resulted in the number of people detained on Christmas Island.
“These things are just sliding into the system and I don’t think the profession’s voice is as loud as it could be.
“One of the very curious things [this year] has been that the numbers in some detention centres on Christmas Island are now significantly increasing. We actually have more people on visa cancellations in detention than we do people who are asylum seekers,” she said.
Under the increasing powers, Professor Triggs said that government failure to use the discretionary powers and issue determinations has caused thousands more to be stranded without any clear status in the Australian community. This has led to a so-called ‘legacy caseload’, which she believes has been exacerbated in the last few weeks.
“About 26,000 people in Australia are unable to get any movement with regard to asylum seeker claims because the government has refused to consider their claims or has slowly, over the last few weeks in fact, encouraged the use of applications to settle their visa status.
“There are apparently 13,000 people who are completely off the record; the government is not even connecting with them. They are simply adrift in the community,” Professor Triggs said.
She was philosophical when asked about the recent fire that she has received from the government and some media quarters. She said that while some groups will inevitably take a political blowtorch to controversial matters, including Australia’s migration policy and the recent furore over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the commission plans to stick to its statutory mandate and speak about human rights in Australia with reference to the evidence and the law.
“We are reporting in measured, data-based, evidence-based terms. We’re linking it to the law and we are very clear about what we’re doing.
“But rather than reading our reports and concentrating on what we’re saying, the government politicises some issues when it decides to object to what we say. The government says that we take a political view, which is simply not true – the Australian Human Rights Commission is not a political organisation,” Professor Triggs said.
Ultimately, the Australian community and legal profession must come together and raise their voices against the further erosion of human rights, she said.
“We’re making very little progress on important issues like constitutional recognition [of Indigenous people] and we’ve come to what appears to be a full stop on marriage equality. It has been an extremely disappointing year.”