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Guardian News article 29 January 2015 Human Rights Watch World Report 2015

Australia’s global reputation as a defender of human rights is being undermined by its continued “harsh” treatment of asylum seekers, persistently high Indigenous incarceration rates, and “draconian” new anti-terrorism laws that restrict citizens’ freedom, the Human Rights Watch annual global report says.
In particular, Australia’s obsession with “stopping the boats” and sending asylum seekers offshore is distorting the country’s foreign policy and weakening Australia’s moral authority in the region, it says.
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2015, released on Thursday evening Australian time, is an assessment of the human rights record of 90 countries and territories.
The report says Australia had a solid record of protecting civil and political rights, but that its current asylum policies “fail to respect international standards” and undermine Australia’s ability to call for stronger human rights protections abroad.
“Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities. The government has muted its criticism of authoritarian governments in Sri Lanka and Cambodia in recent years, apparently in hopes of winning the support of such governments for its refugee policies,” the report says.
HRW’s Australia director, Elaine Pearson, said Australia’s moral authority in the Asia-Pacific region was compromised because it relied on the assistance of governments with questionable human rights records. 
“Unfortunately, Australia’s obsession with offshore processing of asylum seekers means that government is willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in places like Cambodia and Sri Lanka, because Australia feels it needs those countries onside in order to achieve its policy goals,” she said.
Pearson said the negative impact of offshore processing policies on asylum seekers themselves had been documented by human rights organisations, the United Nations, Australia’s parliament, and the media.
“Harsh refugee policies may score domestic political points,” she said, “but the human toll is unacceptable.” 
The HRW report says Australia’s steps towards a referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, and some improved health and socio-economic indicators, are positive developments. But Indigenous Australians still suffer significant and persistent disadvantage.
“Indigenous Australians account for only 3% of Australia’s population [but] they account for 27% of Australia’s prison population. In part because they are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, Indigenous Australians are more likely to face stigma and discrimination in employment.”
Indigenous Australians die, on average, 10 to 12 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians, have an infant mortality rate almost twice the non-Indigenous rate, and suffer disproportionately from preventable diseases such as diabetes and respiratory illnesses.
Pearson told Guardian Australia that with the world in a tumultuous state and the rise of new terrorism threats such as Isis, there was a temptation for governments to respond with wide-ranging anti-terrorist laws.
But Australia’s suite of counter-terrorism legislation was “overboard” and would “infringe on freedoms of expression and movement”. New laws could define sharing links on social media as “advocating terrorism”, and could see people prosecuted simply for travelling to certain “declared areas”.
But in particular the National Security Legislation Amendment Act, which could see government whistleblowers, journalists and activists jailed for up to 10 years for disclosing information about special intelligence operations, would have a “chilling effect, leading to cover-ups”, Pearson said.
“Australia’s new counter-terrorism laws mean journalists, whistleblowers and activists will risk prison for certain disclosures – even if it’s in the public interest,” she said.

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