UN warns racism on the rise in Australia

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Senator Zed Seselja during a visit to the Crace Early Learning Centre in Canberra on Wednesday 8 February 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex EllinghausenThe United Nations has issued a scathing report on racism in Australia, warning discrimination is “on the rise”, including in the political sphere and in the media.
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But the assessment and its recommendations have drawn a fierce response from the Turnbull government’s Multicultural Affairs Minister, Zed Seselja, who lashed out at its “bizarre criticism”.

The periodic review documented 16 areas of concern including the welfare and status of Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers and migrant workers.

The UN committee proposed a range of radical changes to combat racism, including beefing up section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and effectively censoring aspects of the media and public commentary.

It suggested racist incidents were often “treated with impunity” and said section 18C should be better policed by “law enforcement officials”. UN officials were concerned too few racial discrimination complaints made it to court because the costs and the burden of proof were too high.

Free speech advocates consider section 18C – which makes it unlawful (but not criminal) to offend, insult or humiliate someone on the basis of race – a blight on free expression. The Turnbull government earlier this year tried to water down the section’s wording but was blocked by the Senate.

In its report released overnight in Geneva, the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination declared “expressions of racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia, including in the public sphere and political debates as well as in the media, are on the rise” in Australia.

The report’s conclusions are based largely on submissions and testimony from non-government organisations, communities and Australian governments.

Hate speech and violence particularly affected Arabs and Muslims, asylum seekers and refugees, Africans, South Asians and Indigenous people, the committee noted.

It recommended ditching the anti-terrorism and national security clauses of the Multicultural Australia statement – announced by the Turnbull government in March – which it warned could lead to racial profiling of Muslims and Arabs by police.

Senator Seselja said the Turnbull government “completely rejects this bizarre criticism” and that a successful multicultural Australia “is only possible, if at the same time, our borders are secure and our nation is safe”.

The UN committee also turned on politicians, saying Australia needed to combat xenophobia in political discourse by ensuring public officials “not only refrain from such speech but also formally reject and condemn hate speech”.

Furthermore, the media should “put an end to racist hate speech” in print and online, and adopt a “code of good conduct” with provisions banning racism.

Alina??? Leikin???, lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the UN report was a clear call to arms for the government to “act both urgently and effectively” in tackling racism.

Of particular resonance were concerns about Aboriginal land rights and the failure of the Closing the Gap strategy to improve the welfare of Indigenous Australians.

The UN said a “paradigm shift” was necessary in how governments deal with Indigenous people, calling on the state to “demonstrate the necessary political will to ensure that aspirational plans and programs become a reality”.

Several of the concerns raised in this year’s evaluation were already flagged in the UN’s previous report on Australia in 2010. However, the document released overnight was significantly more critical than the one seven years ago.

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