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'Harsh measures': Human Rights Watch raises concern about Victorian lockdown

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A leading international human rights group has lashed the Victorian government for subjecting more than 3000 people in public housing towers to a mandatory lockdown and a heavy-handed police response to the state’s second wave of coronavirus cases.

Human Rights Watch has said in its annual report that while Australia was a vibrant democracy with robust institutions, police efforts to enforce lockdowns during the pandemic raised concerns over freedom of expression and the misuse of police powers.

Nine Flemington and North Melbourne public housing estates were forced into lockdown.

Nine Flemington and North Melbourne public housing estates were forced into lockdown.Credit:Getty

The report also blasts Australia’s record on asylum seekers and refugees, the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in prison, police raids on journalists and the prosecution of "Witness K" and his lawyer Bernard Collaery over the East Timor spying scandal.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass found the government’s decision to lock down nine public housing towers in North Melbourne and Flemington for 14 days with no warning on July 4 violated the human rights of about 3000 tenants.


In its report, Human Rights Watch said the "discriminatory approach" included a heavy police presence outside the towers and reports that police and health officials blocked a mother from breastfeeding her ill baby in the hospital.


It said residents complained about a lack of communication by authorities and difficulties accessing food, exercise, fresh air, and medical supplies.

The summary on Australia said that while the country largely contained the spread of COVID-19, "a severe outbreak in Victoria after a mismanaged hotel quarantine scheme led to more than 700 deaths, mostly residents of aged care homes".

"Police efforts to enforce curfews and lockdowns during the pandemic raised concerns over freedom of expression and the misuse of police powers," it said.

"Victoria’s police have used harsh measures during that lockdown that threaten basic rights."

Human Rights Watch singled out the arrest of a pregnant woman on incitement charges for organising an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook and the introduction of "problematic new legislation" giving the police powers to pre-emptively detain individuals as areas of particular concern.

It also said the disruption caused to about four million students' schooling across the country was "compounded by inconsistent messaging from federal and state politicians".

"Pre-existing inequalities were reflected in differences in student access to internet-connected devices," it said.

Human Rights Watch also called out the Australian government for its continuing unwillingness to repatriate about 80 Australian citizens held in northeast Syria for suspected links to Islamic State.

In his forward to the report, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth calls for the new Biden administration in the United States to work with allies to shore up global defences to human rights abuses.


"After four years of Trump’s indifference and often hostility to human rights, including his incitement of a mob assault on the Capitol, Biden’s election provides an opportunity for fundamental change," Mr Roth said.

"Trump’s flouting of human rights at home and his embrace of friendly autocrats abroad severely eroded US credibility abroad. US condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Israel."

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Anthony Galloway

Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.