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Human rights report slams Australia's 'systemic discrimination' of Indigenous peoples

David Prestipino -

The Australian government's longstanding issues with overrepresentation of First Nations people in Australia's prisons and mistreatment of children in juvenile detention has been criticised by the Human Rights Watch in its annual World Report 2024 released on Friday.

The 740-page document, HRW's 34th edition, reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries, with the report's main criticisms of Australia aimed at its record with refugees and offshore detention policy, its relationship with China and "systemic discrimination against First Nations people".

"In October, the government held a referendum to enshrine a First Nations' Voice in the country's constitution," it read.

"While this was unsuccessful in every state, Australia's state and federal governments remain obligated to uphold the rights of First Nations people, which should remain a priority."

The report also slammed the significant overrepresentation in the criminal justice system of Indigenous people, who make up nearly one-third of Australia's adult prison population but just three per cent of the national population.

"At least 19 Indigenous people died in custody in 2023, including a 16-year-old First Nations boy who died after harming himself in pretrial detention in October, following prolonged solitary confinement," it read.

In her introductory essay, HRW executive director, Tirana Hassan, said 2023 was a consequential year for human rights suppression and also selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy, which carried huge costs for the rights of those not in on the deal.

But she said there were also signs of hope and possibilities of different approaches, and urged governments to consistently uphold their human rights obligations.

While the report said Australia had a "vibrant democracy", its "reputation is tarnished by some significant human rights concerns", especially the treatment of First Nations people, citing high incarceration rates and defeat of the First Nations Voice to parliament.

"In August, the WA Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services found that Broome prison, where 80 percent of the inmates are Aboriginal, is 'depressing, degrading and entirely inappropriate in a modern mental health service context', emphasising such conditions were a product of underlying systemic racism," the report read.

"At least 19 Indigenous people died in custody in 2023, including a 16-year-old First Nations boy who died after self-harming in pretrial detention in October following prolonged solitary confinement."

Human Rights Watch also criticised Australia's failure to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the referendum held here on October 14, which would have recognised Aboriginal people as the First Peoples of the land and allowed them to give advice to Parliament and the federal government on issues that affect them.

"The referendum was defeated in every state and was considered a major setback for First Peoples' rights," the report read.

"Presently, Australia has no national treaty with Indigenous Australians."

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told SBS the government was doing everything in its power to uphold human rights across the country.

"Australia employs every strategy at our disposal towards upholding human rights, consistent with our values and with our interests," they said.

Australia is the only western country without a human right's act or constitutional charter.

The federal government, however, has opened an inquiry into Australia's human rights structure and is considering bringing in a human rights charter in the future.

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