Australia defies UN call to raise age of criminal responsibility

Indigenous and human rights advocates have accused the federal government of cowardice after it told the United Nations it shares responsibility with the states and territories for raising the age of criminal responsibility.

Children as young as 10 can be held criminally responsible for their actions and jailed in Australia, below the United Nations recommended age of 14.

Cheryl Axleby said the federal government lacked “the courage and decency to show leadership” by deflecting responsibility to the states.

31 member states of the UN – including Canada, Sweden, and Spain – urged Australia to raise the age during a UN Human Rights Council universal periodic review process in January.

In its response on Thursday, Australia noted the international recommendations but did not support or reject them.

“Responsibility for the minimum age of criminal responsibility is shared between the Australian government and states and territories,” the response reads.

“Some Australian governments have announced an intention to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility.”

Advocacy groups have accused the government of rejecting the recommendations and have questioned its commitment to Closing the Gap measures regarding youth incarceration rates.

Co-chair of Indigenous advocacy group Change the Record, Narungga woman Cheryl Axleby, said First Nations children are imprisoned at a disproportionally higher rate than other children.

“Australia has been condemned by over 30 countries worldwide for our cruel and harmful treatment of predominately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,” Ms Axleby said.

“If the Morrison government lacks the courage and decency to show leadership, we call on every state and territory government to step up and honour their promises to Close the Gap by raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old.”

The Human Rights Law Centre has also criticised the federal government’s response, saying children “belong in playgrounds, not in police and prison cells”.

“This means 10-year-old kids will continue to be prosecuted and locked up, and put on a path to adult offending,” said Meena Singh, legal director of the HRLC.

Under the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap announced last year, governments across Australia have committed to reducing the incarceration rate of Indigenous 10 to 17-year-olds by 30 per cent in the next decade.

The Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have previously committed to raising the age of criminal responsibility.

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