By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalyis 13 March 2015
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot acted angrily to a United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report accusing Australia of violating the UN Convention against Torture, reproving it of bias and claiming that Australians are sick of being lectured to by the UN.
The UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, from Argentina, who investigated allegations of torture in 68 countries, tabled his report on March 9 at the UNHRC annual gathering in Geneva, where a section on Australia said that the government was systematically violating the international Convention Against Torture by confining children in immigration detention, and holding asylum seekers in dangerous and violent conditions on remote South Pacific islands.
It comes only a month after Australia’s own Human Rights Commission’s damning ‘Forgotten Children report about refugee children held in detention.
“The government of Australia, by failing to provide adequate detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the regional processing centre, has violated the right of the asylum seekers including children to be freefrom torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” the report by Mendez said.
The 1987 United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is one of the most widely supported conventions in the world. Some 157 countries are parties to it. Australia ratified the treaty in 1989, and is legally bound by it.
The UN Report cited two people on Australia’s off-shore asylum seeker detention centre in Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island, referred to as Mr A and Mr B, who allege they were tied to chairs by security staff and threatened with “physical violence, rape, and prosecution for ‘becoming aggressive’” if they refused to retract statements they had made to police about the murder of Iranian asylum-seeker Reza Barati during detention centre riots in February 2014.
The Mendez report found those men’s rights were breached. The Argentinian also found that two recent government amendments to immigration regulations, both risk violating international law prohibiting torture.
“The Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment … violates the Convention Against Torture because it allows for the arbitrary detention and refugee determination at sea, without access to lawyers. The Migration Amendment (Character and General Visa Cancellation Bill) violates the CAT because it tightens control on the issuance of visas on THE BASIS OF character and risk assessments,” the report said further.
Australia established off-shore refugee processing centres in Nauru and PNG almost a decade ago in response to boat loads of people arriving on Australian shores seeking asylum.
In September 2014, Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Cambodia to resettle asylum seekers that turn up on boats on Australian waters. No other country in the developed world has signed an agreement with a developing nation for the resettlement of refugees. The deal has been widely criticised by refugee law scholars. Since 2014, the Australian navy has also been pushing back refugee-boats intercepted in the high seas into Indonesian waters.
Responding to the UN report during a visit to Western Australia (where waves of ‘boat people’ arrived between 2008 to 2011), Abbott told a news conference, “I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations, particularly given that we have stopped the boats, and by stopping the boats, we have ended the deaths at sea.”
“The most humanitarian, the most decent, the most compassionate thing you can do is (to) stop these boats because hundreds, we think about 1,200 in fact, drowned at sea during the flourishing of the people smuggling TRADE under the former government,” he pointed out.
Trying to kill the messenger
But, human rights activists here argue that Abbot is trying to kill the messenger rather than listen to the UN advise to improve Australia’s human rights record in respect to its refugee policy. Since coming to power in September 2013, the Abbot government has introduced tough immigration laws making it virtually impossible for people coming by boat to successfully apply for asylum and RESIDENCY IN AUSTRALIA.
The government maintains that human smuggling syndicates bring these people to Australia’s shores and that the asylum seekers are “economic refugees” who are trying to break the immigration queue to Australia by paying thousands of dollars to human smugglers. Human Rights advocates have disagreed with the government.
Australia’s own Human Rights Commissioner Professor Gillian Triggs in the report released in February focused on the appalling effects of the mistreatment of children in immigration detention. Australia currently holds about 800 children in mandatory closed immigration detention for indefinite periods, with no pathway to protection or settlement. This includes 186 children detained on the remote South Pacific island of Nauru.
“Australia is unique in its treatment of asylum seeker children. No other country mandates the closed and indefinite detention of children when they arrive on our shores. No satisfactory rationale for the prolonged detention of children seeking asylum in Australia has been offered,” Prof Triggs’s report noted.
The Abbott’s government launched a full-scale attack on Prof Triggs without casting doubt on any of the facts she reported and has threatened to cut the Commission’s funding by 30 percent.
The director of legal advocacy with the Sydney-based Human Rights Law Centre, Daniel Webb, argues that the UN report confirmed that Australia’s offshore processing policy was failing to meet basic human rights standards.
“The Government always assures the Australian people that it complies with its international human rights obligations. But here we have the United Nations once again, in very clear terms, telling the Government that Australia’s asylum seeker policies are in breach of international law,” he noted.
“Under international law, Australia can’t lock people up incommunicado on a boat somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Nor can we return people to a place where they face the risk of being tortured. Yet these are precisely the powers the government has sought to give itself through recent amendments to its maritime law,” says Webb. “It’s incredibly short-sighted for the government to start thumbing its nose at the UN system just because it doesn’t like what it’s being told.”
In response to criticism from Abbot, Mendez said in a statement given to the Australian media, “it is my duty to tell Australia that, at least in that respect and in respect of keeping children in detention, that policy needs to be corrected”.
The finding of the UNHRC report has been based on four reports by human rights lobby groups including the Human Rights Law Centre. Thus Abbot has questioned the report’s credibility. “(The UN) went to the usual suspects, the human rights activists, accepted everything that they said as gospel truth and now we have got what is supposed to be a reputable body criticizing the Australian government for doing the right thing,” he noted.
In an editorial on March 12, Australia’s national daily ‘The Australian’ agreed with Abbot’s criticism of the UNHRC and called on the UN to focus on people-smuggling lessons from Australia. The editorial argues that the UN needs to reflect on the “many moral, legal and political questions” in order to understand Australia’s refugee policy.
The Abbot government’s tough anti-human smuggling refugee policy is widely supported by the Australian population. In a letter published in the same newspaper, reader Graeme Osborne argues that the UN should point the fingers at the human smugglers and not his government.
“Those who put hundreds of people in a confined area, where overcrowding was part of the course, where food and water was likely limited, where levels of hygiene fell, where privacy was non-existent, where outcome of the peoples’ travails was largely unknown” should be the real human rights issue the UN should put their resources into focusing, he argues, adding that the UN should work with their countries of origin and help governments to “destroy the livelihood of those criminal elements that take advantage of the displaced and disenfranchised”.