Refugee Council of Australia
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Rebuilding our damaged reputation: A strategy for Australian leadership on refugee protection

International perspectives of Australia’s human rights record

The Australian Government’s rosy view of its human rights record is not shared by many international figures who have been examining Australian refugee policy. In his first address to the UN Human Rights Council after his appointment as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2014, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein specifically named Australia when commenting on human rights abuses in different parts of the world.

He said: “Australia’s policy of offshore processing for people seeking asylum arriving by sea, and its interception and turning back of vessels, is leading to a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries.”

In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan Méndez, investigated four matters referred to him that relate to Australia: the detention of people seeking asylum and incidents of violence on Manus Island; the forced return of Sri Lankan people seeking asylum who were intercepted at sea; allegations of intimidation of two people seeking asylum who had made statements about violence in the Manus Island detention centre; and the implications of two pieces of legislation, the Asylum Legacy Caseload Bill 2014 and Character and General Visa Cancellation Bill 2014. Mr Mendez concluded that Australia had violated the rights of people seeking asylum to be free from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, as provided under different articles of the Convention Against Torture.

I was present in Geneva in June this year when the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, handed down his report on his visit last year to Australia and the regional processing centre on Nauru. In his remarks to the UN Human Rights Council, Professor Crepeau said:

I remain deeply concerned that some of Australia’s policies have eroded the human rights of migrants in contravention of its international human rights and humanitarian obligations. Of particular concern is the mandatory, prolonged and indefinite detention of undocumented migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, stateless persons and unauthorised maritime arrivals.

Australia is responsible for the damage inflicted to these migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, a damage that has been amply documented and which I have witnessed first hand and is especially concerning when children suffer. The involuntary geographical and psychological confinement in which these persons are detained for an indefinite time, without any hope of being able to leave any time soon, constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment according to international human rights law standards. Professor Crepeau recommended that Australia quickly close down the regional processing centres, end the offshore processing policy and bring those under the offshore processing regime to Australia.

These comments of the president of the UN Human Rights Council and the two Special Rapporteurs are consistent with the deep concerns expressed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in its reports of numerous monitoring visits to Nauru and Manus Island since 2012.

In July, the High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, quite unexpectedly issued a blunt statement attacking Australia’s offshore processing policy. In it, he said:

UNHCR fully endorses the need to save lives at sea and to provide alternatives to dangerous journeys and exploitation by smugglers. But the practice of offshore processing has had a hugely detrimental impact. There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land.

In his statement, Mr Grandi said that UNHCR had exceptionally agreed to help with the relocation of refugees from Nauru and Manus Island to the United States “on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there.” However, the news that Australia would not honour this agreement prompted Mr Grandi to go public in his criticism of the “extensive, avoidable suffering” Australia was inflicting on more than 2000 people in its offshore processing arrangements.

The US offer to resettle refugees from Nauru and Manus, we learned last month, resulted from concern within the administration of President Barack Trump about the way Australia was treating people. Heather Higginbottom wrote in Time magazine that, as the then deputy secretary of state, she was the official responsible for negotiating the deal with Australia.

She wrote that the Obama administration “strongly pressed the Australian government to change its policy toward people seeking asylum” and that the offer to resettle up to 1200 people was done “to immediately relieve the suffering of these refugees”. Until Ms Higginbottom’s article, we in Australia had been led to believe that the US resettlement deal was a result of the skill of Australian diplomats, not due to American horror at our behaviour.

However, not everyone around the world is horrified. When we all saw the transcript of the first conversation the new US president Donald Trump had with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it was clear that Mr Trump was impressed with Australian policy. Explaining the offshore processing policy to Mr Trump, Mr Turnbull said: “So, we said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize winning genius, we will not let you in.” Mr Trump replied: “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”

None of the international criticisms of the treatment of people in offshore processing can come as any surprise to the Australian Government. All of these issues have been canvassed thoroughly in reports directly to the Government or to Parliament. There have been three Senate committee inquiries into various aspects of detention on Nauru and Manus Island, as well as reports by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Australian National Audit Office and government-commissioned inquiries led by Keith Hamburger, Robert Cornall and Philip Moss. In addition, there have been numerous independent reports, including by organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Save the Children.

As we come up to the UN Human Rights Council election, it remains to be seen how much pressure will be applied, publicly or privately, to Australia, particularly given that it now has no competition for its position. However, Australia’s effectiveness as a Council member for the next three years will be undermined by our own hypocrisy if nothing is done to address significant international concerns about our nation’s human rights record.

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