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Monday, 21 February, 2000, 12:07 GMT
Annan skirts human rights debate

James Wurramara James Wurramara: Jailed for stealing biscuits

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has ducked a political row over mandatory sentencing laws while on a visit to Australia.

Mr Annan side-stepped the domestic spat, in which human rights groups have called on the federal government to overturn laws in the Northern Territory and Western Australia that allow children to be put in prison.

Human rights groups had hoped Mr Annan would support their calls after a 15-year-old Aboriginal apparently hung himself after being jailed for stealing pencils, and another young Aboriginal was jailed for a year for stealing a box of biscuits.

Issue for Australia

But Prime Minister John Howard, who earlier warned that he would not be lectured by outsiders, said in a joint news conference that the issue did not come up.

Mr Annan with Mr Howard Mr Annan shied away from joining the debate
And Mr Annan maintained a diplomatic silence.

"I think you just raised the question with the prime minister and you are right.

"There are reasons why he is the prime minister and I am the secretary-general," Mr Annan said.

French news agency AFP quoted officials as saying that Mr Annan was embarrassed that the issue had overshadowed the main reason for his trip to Australia - to thank Canberra for its leading role in stemming the violence in East Timor.

Amnesty criticism

Later on Monday, opposition Labor leader Kim Beazley asked Mr Annan if he had opposed such laws.

State parties to human rights treaties are accountable to each other
Amnesty International
"He said he'd get back to us on it," Mr Beazley said. "He has promised to get back to us a view from the human rights commissioner (Mary Robinson)."

Amnesty International said Mr Annan's praise for Australia's assistance to East Timor contrasted with Mr Howard's refusal to accept that human rights standards equally applied to Australia.

The coalition government has rejected UN committees' criticisms of juvenile justice laws and mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

"The prime minister's blunt rejection of Australia's accountability to the rest of the world over its human rights record is a flagrant violation of the principle that state parties to human rights treaties are accountable to each other," Amnesty said.

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See also:
17 Feb 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Australian laws 'violate children's rights'
13 Mar 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia defends 'racist' land law
04 Aug 99 |  Asia-Pacific
High level of trauma among Aborigines

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