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UN Periodic Review: Australia rejects calls to raise criminal responsibility, end offshore detention

Australia has rejected a criticism from the United Nations over a policy that has been labelled ‘cruel and harmful’ to children.

Australia has rejected global pressure to stop jailing kids as young as 10 years old, as its record on children was lashed as an “international disgrace”.

Responding to a United Nations report on Australia’s human rights record on Thursday evening, Canberra also dismissed demands to end offshore processing of refugees.

In a UN Human Rights Council periodic review (UPR) released in January, more than 30 countries called for Australia to raise the threshold for criminal responsibility to 14.

Currently, children as young as 10 are able to be charged with a criminal offence under the law.

But in what amounted to a rejection, Australia “noted” the recommendation, stressing responsibility for the threshold was shared between the Commonwealth and states.

Change the Record co-chair Cheryl Axleby said Australia disproportionately condemned Indigenous children to “cruel and harmful” treatment behind bars, where they were disconnected from culture and family.

She urged states and territories to “step up” if the federal government lacked the “courage and decency to show leadership”.

“Australia’s treatment of First Nations peoples, and our children, is a national and international disgrace. Governments talk about Closing the Gap on the one hand, but build new prisons and lock up children as young as 10 years old with the other,” she said.

NCA NewsWire has contacted the Foreign Minister Marise Payne for comment.

Just under 500 children aged between 10 and 13, two-thirds Indigenous, were detained in Australia’s youth justice system in 2019-20, according to Amnesty International.

New Zealand and England also allowed for 10-year olds to face criminal charges, while children as young as six can be considered criminally responsible in some American jurisdictions.

But the UN recommended 14 as the minimum age for criminal responsibility, while a 2008 study found the median age internationally was 13.5.

Human Rights Law Centre legal director Meena Singh said Australia had missed an opportunity to show leadership.

“Ten-year-old kids will continue to be prosecuted and locked up, and put on a path to adult offending. Children belong in playgrounds, not in police and prison cells,” she said.

“(Australia) has continued to fail its children, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.”

The federal government’s policy of detaining migrants, including children, in offshore detention was brought into the national spotlight last month, after the youngest member of the Biloela family fell gravely ill on Christmas Island.

But the practice has long sparked international ire, and was described by Human Rights Watch as “draconian” in its 2019 report.

Australia flatly rejected UN recommendations to end offshore detention, saying they had been “noted” but would not be “considered further at this time”.

The federal government argued offshore detention, along with boat turnbacks, were vital to deterring the people smuggling trade. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has insisted no one arriving by boat would be resettled on the mainland.

But Amnesty national direct Samantha Klintworth said despite “eight years and thousands of lives damaged”, roughly 230 refugees remained in offshore detention.

“This policy is a human rights catastrophe and a clear violation of international law,” she said.

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