Since the outbreak of the coronavirus at the beginning of the year, hundreds of Asian-descent residents across Australia have reported incidents of racial discrimination, including being verbally and physically attacked, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission and the advocacy group Asian Australian Alliance.
The commission said that complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act hit a 12-month high in February, though the number had fallen towards the “high end” of the “normal range” since then.
It did not specify the number, nor say what constituted “normal range”.
It said one third of all racism complaints since the start of February had related to COVID-19, though it declined to outline the nature of the attacks.
Those who shared their stories publicly or on social media have spoken of the trauma of being targeted, and the fear of returning to the public places where they were subjected to the discriminatory behaviour.
Barrister Greg Barns SC, a spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said that these fears and trauma showed that the liberties and rights of victims had been violated.
“Australians are very poorly protected in terms of fundamental human rights. Unlike every other democracy, there is no human rights law enshrined in the constitution or even as an ordinary act of parliament,” he said.
UN Secretary General António Guterres has said that hate speech and xenophobia seen across the world show the COVID-19 pandemic, besides being a public health emergency and an economic and social crisis, was turning into a human rights crisis.
Unlike the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and other European countries, where there are national laws that punish racist offenders as criminals, Australia does not have a human rights law at the federal level to deal with racism as a crime.
Instead, people in Australia who are victims of racial discrimination can only seek apologies and monetary damages under state and territory laws and the only federal act that deals directly with racism, the Racial Discrimination Act. While racial discrimination is unlawful under the Act, it doesn’t attract criminal penalties.
While nearly all states and territories – rather than at the national level – had some form of law that makes it a criminal offence to racially vilify a person, these were rarely used, Barns said. In Western Australia, for example, penalties of up to 14 years’ imprisonment can be imposed.
The Racial Discrimination Act allows the Australian Human Rights Commission to take civil action against individuals or institutions for racial abuse through a usually long process of mediation and arbitration. Compensation may be awarded.
Given the limits of the justice system, Barns said it was critical for the Australian government and law enforcers to work on preventing racism.
“The issue here is the need for national leadership on discrimination and racism. Just as we have had a united political front on dealing with Covid-19, we need that same pressure on the issue of racism,” Barns said. “Police need to be on the front foot in using those laws and police commissioners can show leadership on it.”
The call to step up Australia’s anti-racism campaign was important because its human rights “report card” with the UN – the Universal Periodic Review – was due in early 2021, Human Rights Watch said.
The Human Rights Law Centre has already submitted its usual report to the UN on behalf of NGOs in Australia, and among the many recommendations it made, said: “Australia must strengthen measures to combat discrimination and violence on racial, ethnic or religious grounds, particularly through education and dialogue.”
There were no issues with Australia’s last review four years ago, although the UN recommended that Australia strengthen its initiatives in anti-racism, tolerance and non-discrimination. (Source: SCMP)