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Report from major international rights group condemns high rate of Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody in Australia

Giovanni Torre -

A major international human rights group has slammed Australian governments, state and federal, for their failure to uphold the rights of First Nations people in its 2023 World Report.

Human Rights Watch highlighted Indigenous youth incarceration among a number of areas of grave concerns in Australia in the report released Thursday.

Human Rights Watch senior Australian researcher Sophie McNeill said the Australian government "should recognise that its credibility to advance democracy and human rights in the region means urgently addressing its own deficiencies".


"The authorities are jailing children under 14, punishing peaceful environmental protesters with outrageous sentences, and mistreating Indigenous people in prison and asylum seekers," she said.

The 712-page World Report 2023 reviews human rights practices in almost 100 countries.

The group's acting Executive Director Tirana Hassan wrote in the report's introduction that it is no longer possible to rely on "a small group of mostly Global North governments" to defend human rights.

"The responsibility is on individual countries, big and small, to apply a human rights framework to their policies, and then work together to protect and promote human rights," the group noted.

Human Rights Watch said "disturbing revelations" emerged regarding conditions inside Australia's prison system in 2022.

The group noted the refusal of the Western Australian state government to install air conditioning in residential cells at Roebourne Regional Prison, even though temperatures reached a record high of 50.5 degrees Celsius, "posing a significant risk to prisoners' health", and also that ninety percent of the prison population at Roebourne are First Nations people.

HRW said the state government "backtracked" in November under pressure from the Aboriginal Legal Service, their own campaign, and the efforts of others, and agreed to install air conditioning, but not until after 2024, meaning two more summers would pass in the meantime.

Human Rights Watch also noted that in October, the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture suspended its visit to Australia due to obstructions it encountered in visiting several detention sites in Australia and accessing requested documentation.

The group said Indigenous people are drastically overrepresented in the Australia's criminal justice system, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising 29 percent of the country's adult prison population, but only three percent of the national population.

"At least 17 Indigenous people died in custody in Australia in 2022, and 11 in 2021," they wrote.

Human Rights Watch's report found that an estimated 444 children under 14 were imprisoned over the past year across Australia, and that Indigenous children are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous children.

It observed that all Australian jurisdictions had, to date, persisted with a minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10, well below the internationally accepted age of 14.

Human Rights Watch also condemned Australian authorities' handling of climate change and refugees, and noted with alarm new severe anti-protest laws in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

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