Tag Archives: Justice Bhagwati

A brief history of the Coalition’s hostile encounters with the UN

17 Jul

March 28, 2005 – “Australia was facing a United Nations committee’s scrutiny for the first time in five years. The event went unreported back home and the verdict – handed down on March 12 – was the subject of only a few, scattered reports in the press.”

“Australia was rebuked for its treatment of migrants, Muslims, asylum seekers, refugees and Aborigines. In the eyes of the Geneva committee, the list of this country’s failures on the human rights front has only grown longer since the Howard Government came to office.”

The Coalition’s recent insistence that asylum seekers can only be sent to states that have signed the Refugee Convention is startling, given its history with the UN throughout the Howard government years. This history can be fairly described as hostile and bordering on the pugilistic, with then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reacting to negative UN committee reports with this outburst:

  “We won’t cop it any longer. We are a democratically elected government in one of the most liberal and democratic countries you will find on Earth. And if a United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose.”

On Howard’s watch in 1998, Australia became the first Western nation to be issued with an “urgent action” notice following what the UN committee identified as a risk of “acute impairment” to native title rights. We were then found in breach of our obligations to the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and again earned the dubious distinction of being the first Western nation to incur a breach finding.

John Howard reacted to UN criticisms thus: “Australian laws are made by Australian parliaments elected by the Australian people, not by UN committees.” Amnesty International confirmed his attitude with this observation, after a 2004 High Court ruling sanctioned mandatory detention:  “These findings show the limited impact that international human rights law has had to date on Australian law-making.”

As an indication of the Coalition attitude in 2001, Liberal Senator Ross Lightfoot referred to boat arrivals as “uninvited and repulsive peoples whose sordid list of behaviours included scuttling their own boats.” (Human Rights Watch Report, 2003).

In 2002, at the request of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, the Howard government agreed to allow Special Envoy Justice P.N. Bhagwati to assess the conditions of asylum seekers held in indefinite mandatory detention, with specific regard to the question of their human rights.

Justice Bhagwati’s report, which can be read in full at the above link, contains this observation:

As noted above, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 7) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, explicitly prohibit torture and all cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. The human rights situation which Justice Bhagwati found in Woomera IRPC could, in many ways, be considered inhuman and degrading.

Australia signed the CAT treaty in 1985, and ratified in 1989.

Justice Bhagwati’s report was described by Howard government ministers as “fundamentally flawed,” “emotive” and lacking objectivity. The government received an advanced copy of the report, and had the opportunity to correct any “flaws” prior to its release. The Special Envoy was also accused of interfering in domestic policies.

A personal observation: I visited Woomera Detention Centre in 2002, just before Justice Bhagwati undertook his visit to Australian detention centres. It was entirely appropriate to react with emotion to the conditions in that place, and to the suffering of the children, women and men behind its razor wire. Indeed, the inability to feel disturbed by those conditions and the resultant human suffering, indicates the presence of sociopathic tendencies, an inability to accept those imprisoned there as human.

For a much more thorough analysis of the Coalition’s relations with the UN than I’ve provided, I strongly recommend “The Howard Government’s Record of Engagement with the International Human Rights System” by Sarah Joseph.

The series of events over the last decade and more rather gives lie to this extravagant claim: “The Opposition’s immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the Coalition has always supported the UN Refugee Convention, and will continue to do so.”

The Opposition’s recent decision to refuse to allow asylum seekers to be sent to any country that hasn’t signed the Refugee Convention is wildly inconsistent with its attitude to the United Nations for the last fourteen years. When in government, the Coalition regarded the UN as toothless, and our obligations to the treaties we signed as irrelevant. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as children were and still are kept in mandatory detention, with and without their parents.

These attitudes are not peculiar to the Opposition. The current government does not observe our obligations either.

Now Scott Morrison seems to be getting himself in something of a twist, having declared the Refugee Convention to be out of date and needing an overhaul, while simultaneously demanding the government observe the fundamental protections it offers in ensuring asylum seekers are sent to a signatory country.

Neither major party have anything to boast about when it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Both pander to the prejudice and xenophobia of voters they believe will give them government. Both claim they wish to avoid deaths at sea, but they apparently have little or no concern about asylum seekers dying anywhere else, as long as it’s out of our sight and mind.

This is a drastic failure of leadership on both parts. It’s been shown time and time again, that if people are given the opportunity to meet and know asylum seekers, even the most hardened attitudes can change dramatically. Leaders worth the title would grasp this, and take the opportunity to extend our hearts and minds rather than encourage their shrinkage for political gain. There are many things that can be described as despicable in politics, but surely up there at the top must be the demonisation of human beings, and exploitation of their suffering for domestic political gain.

A pox on both their houses.


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