On Monday morning (7 May 2012) Cathy Branson QC, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, gave a guest lecture to the Human Rights Law students at the Adelaide Law School.
Cathy began by explaining the constitutional position and international classification of the Commission – while technically it is part of the Executive, it is sufficiently independent from the federal government so as to be classed as an independent national human rights institution under the Paris Principles (Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions, adopted by the UN General Assembly resolution 48/134 of 20 December 1993). Since the 1995 Brandy case, the Commission only has powers to conciliate cases brought to it because of the requirement to separate judicial power from the Executive under the Constitution. Following this case, alleged breaches of federal anti-discrimination law are adjudicated by the Federal Magistrates’ Court and the Federal Court. Further information about making a complaint is available at: http://www.hreoc.gov.au/complaints_information/index.html.
Cathy spoke about a number of the Commission’s serious concerns regarding human rights in Australia. One related to the position of those asylum seekers who have been given refugee status but are subject to adverse security assessments by ASIO. Under the current system, these refugees are unable to access existing avenues for a merits review of these adverse decisions. This means that they are sitting in indefinite detention within our immigration detention centres because they are unable to return to their homeland out of fear for their lives and third countries are unwilling to accept them. Commission staff who have visited some of these detainees have confirmed reports that many are suffering serious mental health issues due to the indefinite nature of their detention. Some detainees have expressed a desire to end their lives and donate their organs to the Australian public. In March 2012 the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network recommended that the ASIO legislation be amended to enable a division of the AAT to review ASIO Security Assessments of refugees and asylum seekers. The government is yet to respond to this recommendation. See the Committee’s report at: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=immigration_detention_ctte/immigration_detention/report/index.htm
In 2011 the international community scrutinised Australia’s human rights record as part of the Universal Periodic Review process conducted by the UN Human Rights Council. While Australia was commended generally for its human rights record, the international community made 148 recommendations as to how Australia could improve its performance. Many of these recommendations concerned Australia’s approach to immigration detention, particularly its treatment of keeping children in detention facilities whereby they are not able to freely come and go. See the recommendations in the Outcome of the Review at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/PAGES/AUSession10.aspx
The Australian Human Rights Commission plays a very significant role in promoting human rights in Australia. A new part of the Commission’s website, entitled ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Know’ , seeks to address the problem of poor levels of knowledge about human rights within our population. The website can now be accessed here: http://tellmesomethingidontknow.gov.au/
Dr Laura Grenfell teaches Human Rights Law at the Adelaide Law School. As part of this course, a series of human rights experts and leading lawyers have generously volunteered their time to speak to her class including Cathy Branson QC, Robin Layton QC, Martin Hinton QC, Khatija Thomas, Kath McEvoy, Claire O’Connor, Abby Hamdan and Professor Ivan Shearer.