The Australian government is facing a United Nations human rights case over its strict border rules, with the health minister speaking out on the latest twist.
Health Minister Greg Hunt has responded to a bombshell request from the UN Human Rights Committee for Australia to return a citizen stuck overseas.
The committee on Thursday made the request as it considers if Australia’s strict pandemic border rules breach international law, through a test case brought by stranded Aussie Jason George.
It requested Australia “facilitate and ensure” the return of Mr George, who is being represented by star human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC.
Mr Hunt said “hundreds of thousands” of Australians had returned home through the hotel quarantine system, when asked about the development in a press conference on Saturday.
“Our goal is very clear, to bring as many Australians home as early as possible,” he said.
“We welcome the fact that Victoria has reopened its hotel quarantine system and that will allow more Australians to come home earlier.
“NSW has been the backbone of that, Queensland and WA and others have played a significant part – but Victoria will help to address the problem and it will mean more Australians coming home.”
The UN request for Australia to facilitate Mr George’s return home is an interim measure while the committee continues hearing the case.
Mr George argues Australia is in breach of article 12.4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his [or her] own country”.
In a video statement following the ruling, Mr George slammed Australian border restrictions as “draconian”.
He said flight caps preventing Aussies stranded overseas from making it home were “probably stemming from a lack of adequate quarantine facilities”.
“This is an important moment for the case because there are about 40,000 Australians who are, practically, unable to come home to Australia because of the restrictions that have been placed on the border,” he said.
“I believe Australia can address the issue of a safe, but frictionless, border for people who have an absolute need to cross it, through the application of public health measures.”
The case is a project of Free and Open Australia, a group for Australians affected by border restrictions.
Campaign spokeswoman Deb Tellis said on Thursday the request was “an important victory for the rights of all Australian citizens.”
“Today‘s decision by the UN is a wakeup call to the government,” she said.
“It must use its power to expand quarantine facilities, and end travel caps that are being dictated by the states.
“There are thousands of our fellow citizens suffering loss of their relatives and loss of their jobs.
“By not caring about them, Mr Morrison and his ministers are not only acting cruelly, but unlawfully.”