Australia is under international pressure to reduce the number of children detained, with more than 30 countries using UN human rights sessions to ask authorities to increase the age of criminal responsibility.
Amid the ongoing tension between China and Australia, Beijing’s representatives took the opportunity on Wednesday evening to demand Canberra “stop using false information to make baseless accusations against other countries for political purposes”.
Many countries also raised concerns about Australia’s border policies, including offshore processing and refusing to resettle those arriving by boat, with some representatives asking the government to ensure its approach does not violate international law.
Australian officials face questions from international counterparts as part of the United Nations periodic review of universal human rights, which happens every five years. As events were held in Geneva, the pandemic made up most of its appearance via video links.
Country after country voiced concern about why Australia was delaying the effort increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years – something that is said the related experts to the high incarceration rates of Indigenous children in Australia, and that is explored in the new series Guardian Australia Childhood in custody.
The 31 countries that raised the issue of age of criminal responsibility include Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Sweden, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Mexico.
Andrew Walter, a senior official from the Attorney General’s Department who led the Australian delegation, said the age of criminal responsibility remains 10 years at all locations in Australia.
“However, between the ages of 10 and 14 years, a child is deemed incapable of committing a criminal offense unless the prosecution establishes beyond a doubt that at the time of the offense the child knows that what they are doing is criminal guilt,” Walter said.
On one day in 2018/19, he said, an average of 5,694 people aged 10 to 17 were under youth supervision, with 84% of them being monitored in the community. The rest spend at least half their day in detention.
“While Indigenous Australians only 6% of young people are between 10 and 17 years old, they make up about 57% of those in juvenile detention, ”Walter said.
“This proportion rises to 78% for young people between the ages of 10 and 13.”
The country’s attorney general launched a working group on the issue in 2018 but Walter said they had postponed a decision in 2020 because they wanted more details on the adequacy of services for children exhibiting offensive behavior.
The main concern is to ensure appropriate support for individuals and their families and to keep the community safe, he said. Since then, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory have announced their intention to raise the age, “but this hasn’t happened”.
Civil society groups cited the power of feeling expressed at the UN session as evidence it was time for the Australian government to raise the age to at least 14.
“You cannot get a clearer message from the international community that children as young as 10 should not be jailed,” said Simon Henderson, head of policy at Save the Children Australia.
Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous Rights Leader, Nolan Hunter, said: “The fact that 10-year-old children – and let’s face it the majority of them are Indigenous children – are still being sent to prison is not only against the UN’s own recommendations, but it is morally wrong. “
Hugh de Kretser, executive director of the Center for Human Rights Law, said: “The fact that 10 year old children are incarcerated in prisons across the country is clearly an issue of significant international concern, as is the ongoing compulsory indefinite detention. and processing of persons seeking asylum abroad. “
Countries asking questions and making recommendations for Australia were limited to 55-second speeches during the UN session, but many cited excessive detention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, along with wider concern over gaps in health outcomes and action. other important.
The Chinese representative made five recommendations for Australia, including taking action “to combat racial discrimination, hate speech and violence and protect the rights of ethnic minorities” and eliminate systematic discrimination against Indigenous Australians.
China, which has faced harsh criticism from Australia and other countries for its own human rights record including Xinjiang, called on Canberra to close offshore detention centers for migrants.
That reiterated calls for a thorough investigation into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan – an issue at the center of a December tweet by a Chinese foreign ministry official who asked Scott Morrison’s apology.
Finally, the Chinese representative said Australia should “stop using false information to make baseless accusations against other countries for political purposes”, without elaborating.
Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, addressed the UN Human Rights Council in October criticize the Chinese government for imposing “repressive measures” against minorities in the Xinjiang region and for eroding rights and freedoms in Hong Kong – comments that sparked swift criticism from Beijing.
Mexico is one of a number of countries asking Australia to ensure refugee processing complies with international standards including non-refoulement, and ensures family reunification.
Andrew Rose, of the Department of Home Affairs, responded that Australia is committed to a strong border protection policy to “send a clear message that people smugglers cannot sell roads to Australia”.
He said the policy had “saved many lives at sea”.
The United States representative called on Australia to protect freedom of expression for those who oppose government policies, including changing national security laws that block speech by journalists, whistleblowers and lawyers.
The comments came as the US filed charges against Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange.
Several countries raised the issue of climate change. The Marshall Islands said it remained concerned about Australia’s “inadequate progress” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and called for an end to coal use.