19 Oct 2016

Australia criticised for policy against human rights defenders

4:31 pm on 19 October 2016

The United Nations has called on the Australian Government to dispel civil society's growing concerns about the chilling effect of its recent laws, policies and actions constraining the rights of human rights defenders.

The call was made by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michael Forst at the end of his first fact-finding visit to Australia.

Mr Forst said he was astounded by the frequent public vilification of rights defenders by senior government officials, in a seeming attempt to discredit, intimidate and discourage them from their legitimate work.

He said the media and business actors have contributed to this stigmatisation.

Mr Forst said environmentalists, whistleblowers, trade unionists and individuals like doctors, teachers, and lawyers protecting the rights of refugees have borne the brunt of the verbal attacks.

Australia's Human Rights Law Centre says the latest UN criticism is a wake-up call.

Emily Howie of the Human Rights Law Centre says despite a strong track record as a vibrant and diverse democracy, the reality is that more and more people in Australia feel silenced by government and fearful of speaking out.

She says Australia is incoherent as it defends the rights of people in places like China, yet at home the government can be seen as silencing its own people through measures such as the aggressive pursuit of whistleblowers.