Australia's human rights under UN spotlight ... again

Navi Pillay
UN high commissioner of human rights
Navi Pillay

Larine Statham (AAP) Sydney Morning Herald May 20, 2011

Northern Territory Aboriginal leaders have told a senior United Nation official that "things have gotten worse" since the Howard government's intervention.

UN high commissioner of human rights Navi Pillay is visiting Australia as a guest of government to assess whether the country is complying with its international obligations.

"Two areas of concern are the discrimination against the Aborigine and Torres Strait Islanders and the mandatory detention of people," she told reporters.

She met with Aboriginal leaders in Darwin on Friday, who told her "things have gotten worse" since the federal government's 2007 intervention into remote Aboriginal communities.

"There is greater discrimination against them," Ms Pillay said they told her.

"Firstly they said there's been an intervention and so it started off wrongly without them being consulted and secondly that there is insufficient respect for their right to their land."

Ms Pillay said that as a former High Court judge in South Africa she was interested to learn about section 91 of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response (Intervention) Act of 2007.

It states that a court must not take into account any form of Aboriginal customary law or cultural practice in sentencing Aboriginal defendants.

She said she wanted to speak to Australian judges about the mandatory minimum sentencing of people smugglers, which has been heavily criticised by many judges as being excessive.

Ms Pillay visited two detention centres in the Northern Territory on Friday.

"I need to see more, which I will be doing in Cairns, and speaking to the government, by which time I will form an opinion.

"But really from a human rights based approach, I think that mandatory detention - in particular the detention of children - is extremely troubling.

"I did get a chance to speak to the asylum seekers and I was concerned how long they'd been held and what their hopes were, and about their visa requirements.

"I saw there were also suspected people smugglers, so it's a mixed bag of people.

"I saw families and they ... came to Australia with great hope, seeking asylum."

Ms Pillay will hold a more formal media conference in Canberra on Wednesday, when she is expected to outline her opinion of both situations in Australia.