As we approach the last days of the decade, it’s important to reflect on the fight for human rights, the setbacks and successes over the past year in Australia and around the world.
Our list isn’t ranked, and far from exhaustive – we acknowledge it doesn’t include many human rights struggles worthy of greater attention. But, in flagging some of the issues needing urgent attention, we hope to gather support for the broader movement that strives to achieve justice and secure dignity for more people.
China holding one million Muslims in ‘political education camps’
China is arbitrarily detaining an estimated one million Muslims in Xinjiang, in what the authorities call “political education camps”. Millions more are subjected to intrusive mass surveillance.
Leaked internal Chinese Communist Party documents described in chilling detail just how the Chinese authorities keep the Uighurs locked up.
The size of your beard, where you travel and whether you use the back door of the house are all potentially indicators of “terrorism” that can send you to the camps with no legal process at all.
The leaked documents are consistent with previous reporting on Xinjiang, but reveal the campaign originated from President Xi Jinping himself. They dispel the Chinese government’s claims these camps are merely “vocational training centres”.
More than two dozen countries joined two United Nations statements in Geneva and New York urging China to end this arbitrary detention of Muslims.
In response, China organised several dozen countries, including notorious rights abusers such as Russia, Egypt, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to join statements commending China for its counter-terrorism efforts.
Faced with the growing body of evidence of large-scale human rights violations backed by China’s leadership, the question is whether the rest of the world will hold the Chinese government to account in 2020.
Some women in Saudi Arabia can travel freely
Following unprecedented global attention on Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, which restricts women’s rights to travel (among other things), Saudi authorities undertook reform.
At last, Saudi women over 21 years old have the right to travel abroad freely and obtain passports without permission from their male guardian. But this is a shallow victory for Saudi women, who still face myriad rights abuses at home.
Australia’s performance on the UN Human Rights Council
After initially taking a low-key approach to its membership in the UN Human Rights Council, Australia stepped up in its second year. This was to ensure the council renewed the mandate of the special rapporteur on Eritrea, where human rights continue to deteriorate.
In 2020, the final year of Australia’s membership term, the government should keep up the pressure on Saudi Arabia and China by pressing for independent international inquiries into longstanding abuses.
Aged care: a shocking tale of neglect
“A shocking tale of neglect” was the headline of the Royal Commission’s interim report into the Australian aged care system.
Tabled in the federal parliament in October, the report revealed more than 270,000 cases of substandard care in Australian nursing homes in the past five years. It argued for a major overhaul to transform the way Australia supports people as they grow older.
One of the issues the commission heard testimony on was the routine use of drugs to control the behaviour of older people with dementia, without a medical purpose.
This practice is known as chemical restraint, and the drugs have devastating effects. They increase the risks of falls or strokes, and can render previously energetic people lethargic and, in some cases, unable to speak.Shutterstock
A Human Rights Watch report detailed the practice in 35 aged care facilities in Australia, and its impact on residents and their families.
It called for the government to prohibit chemical restraint and ensure adequate staffing with appropriate training to support people with dementia.
Water rights under threat in Australia
Australians saw the haunting image of dead and dying fish in Australia’s most important river system, the Murray Darling.
Scientists concluded exceptional climatic conditions influence this “serious ecological shock” in a river system that now has very little water to serve the needs of people, agriculture and a fragile environment.
The right to clean drinking water, recognised under international human rights law, is already under threat for people in some rural and remote communities across New South Wales and Queensland. And it will become more relevant as droughts exacerbated by climate change continue to bite Australian cities and towns.
In the Northern Territory community of Laramba, 250 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs, the level of uranium in the drinking water is more than double the level recommended in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. It prompted legal action against the territory’s government.
What’s more, for the first time since records were kept, on November 11 no rain was recorded on continental Australia.
Youth-led climate justice movements
One of this year’s most refreshing developments was the youth-led action on climate change. It brought together environment and human rights concerns, inspiring an estimated 300,000 Australians to join a global strike in September.
For some, it was a way to demonstrate outrage at the federal government’s weak position and lack of action to address climate change.
For others, the enormous fires in the precious Amazon forest, fuelled by violence and impunity, was compelling.
And, of course, many were moved to strike because the brave and passionate voices of Greta Thunberg and other children who are demanding action for the sake of future generations.
We hear them loud and clear – and call on Australia’s leaders to listen and act.
Elaine Pearson is the Australia Director at Human Rights Watch. She is also on the board of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.
Louise Chappell does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Authors: Elaine Pearson, Adjunct Lecturer in Law, UNSW