Tag Archives: United Nations

How can we hurt you? Let us count the ways…

26 Nov

Politicians from both major parties have set themselves quite a challenge to come up with a deterrent that will persuade asylum seekers that traveling to Australia by boat will result in them facing a situation worse than that they’ve fled. Potential refugees are clearly undeterred by the prospect of life threatening boat journeys: the desire to escape their circumstances is stronger than the very real threat of dying at sea.

It is a comment on the profound emotional, psychological and moral stupidity of leading politicians that they seem on the whole to be incapable of getting their heads around this core reality.

According to Amnesty International

The Australian Migration Act sets out the laws regulating migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Australia. The Act incorporates the UN Refugee Convention and defines a refugee as anyone who:

 owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

The people our politicians wish to “deter”, many of whom will be granted refugee status anyway, are fleeing circumstances of such gravity that there is no “deterrent” a self-satisfied, self-interested Westerner can impose that will make the slightest difference to their will to live, and the risks they will take to make a life for themselves and their families. In any sane world, these courageous qualities would be appreciated and the people demonstrating them encouraged and welcomed as the kind of citizens who can be expected to enrich a country.

But we are a conflicted country when it comes to the stranger. On the one hand we are signatory to the UN Refugee Convention which in its introduction clearly states:

 The Convention further stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refu-
gees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay. This recognizes
that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules.
Prohibited penalties might include being charged with immigration or crim-
inal offences relating to the seeking of asylum, or being arbitrarily detained
purely on the basis of seeking asylum.
 
Finally, the Convention lays down basic minimum standards for the treat-
ment of refugees, without prejudice to States granting more favourable treat-
ment. Such rights include access to the courts, to primary education, to work,
and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in
passport form.

We need go no further than the Introduction to find examples of how many of these conditions we continue to quite cheerfully breach. The latest is the Gillard government’s refusal to allow those granted refugee status who are released into the community the opportunity to work, a refusal that in itself can be described as “persecution” or as causing “serious harm.”

 In the Guide to Refugee Law in Australia Chapter Four offers the following criteria for assessing persecution, or serious harm:

SERIOUS HARM

Under s.91R(1)(b) of the Act, persecution must involve “serious harm to the person. It provides:

For the purposes of the application of this Act and the regulations to a particular person, Article 1A(2) of the Refugees Convention as amended by the Refugees Protocol does not apply in relation to persecution for one or more of the reasons mentioned in that Article unless: 

(b)  the persecution involves serious harm to the person …  

Subsection (2) sets out a non-exhaustive list of the type and level of harm that will meet the serious harm test. It lists the following as instances of “serious harm:

 (a)  a threat to the persons life or liberty;15 

(b)  significant physical harassment of the person; 

(c)  significant physical ill-treatment of the person; 

(d)  significant economic hardship that threatens the persons capacity to subsist;16 

(e)  denial of access to basic services, where the denial threatens the person’s capacity to subsist; 

(f)  denial of capacity to earn a livelihood of any kind, where the denial threatens the persons capacity to subsist.17 

Persecution necessarily involves two elements: serious harm and a failure on the part of the state to afford adequate protection.

An asylum seeker who is granted refugee status is presumably potentially eligible to become a citizen of this country. We are creating potential citizens whose first experiences in our country have been entirely negative. This does not and cannot augur well for us in the long term.

The amount of financial support offered to refugees who arrive by boat is inadequate to feed, clothe and house them. Denying them the right to work will further dehumanise them. In its cruel and ignorant pursuit of a “deterrent,” the Gillard government has hopefully reached the end of the road in terms of punishment it can inflict for arriving by boat.

This is punishment we voluntarily undertook not to inflict in our role as signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Our parliament has demonstrated its utter contempt for the UN Convention, while simultaneously bidding for and winning a seat on the Security Council.

There is no moral or ethical dimension to current asylum seeker policy. As many have pointed out, this is a policy and a discourse entirely bereft of values. The question is, can a democracy continue to be a democracy if its political discourse is bereft of values?

Deterrence has never worked. It never will work. If we don’t want people arriving by boat and seeking asylum, we have no alternative but to remove ourselves as signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. The invitation we extend as signatories to this Convention is precisely what asylum seekers respond to, and they have every legal and moral right to expect they will be accepted in this country no matter how they arrive. That is what we have voluntarily agreed to do: unconditionally accept asylum seekers no matter how they arrive. If this is not what we intend, there is an urgent  moral imperative to withdraw the invitation, not to find increasingly cruel methods of punishment for those who accept it.

In implementing an impotent and dehumanising policy of magical thinking called “deterrence,” our parliament has made mockery of us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.


Why the UN cannot protect asylum seekers we send to Malaysia

23 Dec

Australia 2002:

The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson, requested Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Regional Advisor for Asia and the Pacific, to visit and report on the treatment of asylum seekers in detention in Australia in 2002, specifically focussing on the Woomera IRPC in South Australia. This report focused on ‘…the human rights issues related to the conditions of detention and the treatment of persons in the immigration facilities…’ (Bhagwati, 2008). Under ‘General Impression’ the first paragraph of the report reads as follows:

Justice Bhagwati was considerably distressed by what he saw and heard in Woomera. He met men, women and children who had been in detention for several months, some of them even for one or two years. They were prisoners without having committed any offence. Their only fault was that they had left their native home and sought to find refuge or a better life on the Australian soil. In virtual prison-like conditions in the detention centre, they lived initially in the hope that soon their incarceration will come to an end, but with the passage of time, the hope gave way to despair…He felt that he was in front of a great human tragedy. He saw young boys and girls, who instead of breathing the fresh air of freedom, were confined behind spiked iron bars…these children were growing up in an environment which affected their physical and mental growth and many of them were traumatised and led to harm themselves in utter despair.

The Australian government’s response to UN concerns about our treatment and indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers was absolutely zero.  The UN had no influence at all over our practices, and still does not.

To all those who take comfort from the lie that the UN will watch over asylum seekers we send to Malaysia and ensure they are not criminalized and treated inhumanely, can you explain why the UN has greater powers in that country than it does here, or anywhere else in the world?

The UN has no power to control what nations do to asylum seekers. Of all countries, we should be aware of that. The government continues to lie in the most bare-faced fashion about the UN’s influence in Malaysia, in order to justify sending asylum seekers into an unsafe situation.

Next time a politician or anyone else says the UN will supervise the treatment of asylum seekers from Australia, ask them how, and remind whoever is making that claim that the UN can’t stop us indefinitely detaining them, and driving them mad in appalling conditions.

The UN has no teeth in these situations. It is a disgraceful falsehood to pretend otherwise.


Gillard continues to pretend that the UN matters

10 Jun

It should be obvious to everyone by now that  being a signatory to a United Nations convention doesn’t mean anything in real terms.

Unless the UN is about to start hauling recalcitrant signatory countries before an international court, the conventions aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Especially in a country that doesn’t have a bill of rights in the first place.

As proof of this, since 2002 the UNHCR has been castigating Australia about our treatment of asylum seekers. That’s ten years of being publicly reprimanded for our disregard of the Refugee Convention, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We breached these conventions ostensibly in the interests of protecting our totally unthreatened sovereignty. In reality it was done in the interests of self serving careerist, and immoral politicians.

Have we taken any notice? Have we been shamed? Who is there among us that really gives a stuff what the UN thinks of us?

John Howard started it by complaining that UN committees critical of his government’s stand on indigenous affairs and refugees were unfairly treating democratically elected governments. Howard didn’t acknowledge that the purpose of the UN was to look out for democratic governments that are also disregarding of human rights, as if such institutions couldn’t possibly exist:

Those who had argued before the UN that mandatory sentencing laws or native-title legislation were racially based were wrong, and it was absurd to let a foreign group decide such issues from afar. ‘ I mean, can’t these things be resolved by Australians in Australia and not us having to dance attendance on the views of committees that are a long way from Australia,’ Mr Howard said.

Things have gone down hill from there.

In a breathtaking act of hypocrisy, the Gillard government now expects us to believe that the UN has some control over Malaysia. Although the Gillard government continues to ignore the UN’s complaints about our treatment of asylum seekers, she simultaneously seeks its support to sell her Malaysian solution.

You can’t have it both ways. If you don’t give a damn about the UN’s opinions on our breaches of the conventions, you can’t then claim that their approval of the Malaysian solution carries any weight at all, let alone makes such an agreement safe and sound.

The UN conventions mean nothing. They are entirely dependent on signatory countries implementing the undertakings. Nobody really gives a stuff about a bad report from a body that has no legs and teeth. This is a post UN world. Catch up, Gillard. We see right through your spin.

Chris Bowen outdoes Philip Ruddock: who would have thought?

3 Jun

The opposition is quite within its rights to call for marching in the streets as a reaction to the Gillard government’s deal in progress with Malaysia to send boat arrivals to camps in that country.

What we know, however, is that the opposition doesn’t give anymore of a stuff about the well-being of boat arrivals than does the government. It’s just an opportunity to score points. The calls for demonstrations against the Malaysia plans are hollow and hypocritical. I can’t imagine why any one of the opposition would think the punters actually believe they care, except perhaps those who’ve forgotten the children overboard saga, and Woomera, and the sinking of the Siev X.

I’m not sure how much more sickening this whole thing can get. The human capacity for vile behaviour never ceases to amaze me, and that’s probably more a comment on my inability to to acknowledge that the triumph of hope over experience is far more common than the other way round.

What has to be accepted, it seems, is the reality that fear and xenophobia are setting the political agenda in this country. Emotion and irrationality have won the day.

Emotion and irrationality are never a good foundation for deciding anything. Yet the whole asylum seeker debate is driven and dominated by nothing more substantial than the xenophobic emotions of focus groups. People who’ve never seen an asylum seeker  and likely never will, are in charge of making refugee policy.

When they’ve managed to stop the boats, these people will begin to notice that their lives are no better for it. It wasn’t the asylum seekers that were causing their misery after all. Their misery comes from the inside, and nothing is going to make it go away.

Focus Groups

The policies of both major parties are held hostage by a demographic that lift its leg and pisses on the UN Conventions to which we are signatory. This demographic doesn’t give  a flying f**ck about Australia as part of a global community, and the responsibilities that come with that. They have no awareness of the origins of white settlement in this country and could care less, or of how our presence here counts for less than a nanosecond in deep time. They just don’t want boat people here. They just don’t like them.

It would have been quite something to have a government that was capable of standing up to these bullies,  instead taking a principled stand on boat arrivals in keeping with the Conventions to which we are signatories, and our domestic laws. But that ship has long since sailed.

It remains to be seen how much Chris Bowen will capitulate to Malaysian demands. We are quite likely already the laughing stock in our region. Our neighbours must be enjoying having us by the short and curlies. Rudd’s farcical “solution” with Indonesia and the Oceanic Viking. Gillard’s premature announcement of her plans for a detention centre in East Timor. Nauru just begging us to come back. And now, Malaysia having us dance to their tune. If we aren’t ashamed of the government’s treatment of asylum seekers, we ought to be cringing at how demeaned we are by our humiliating begging for someone, anyone (except Nauru) to make this all go away.

2002: UN condemns Australia on refugees. 2011: UN condemns Australia on refugees.

27 May

Mandatory Detention

Australia, 2002: The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson, requested Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Regional Advisor for Asia and the Pacific, to visit and report on the treatment of asylum seekers in detention in Australia in 2002, specifically focussing on the Woomera IRPC in South Australia. This report focused on ‘…the human rights issues related to the conditions of detention and the treatment of persons in the immigration facilities…’ (Bhagwati, 2008). Under ‘General Impression’ the first paragraph of the report reads as follows:

Justice Bhagwati was considerably distressed by what he saw and heard in Woomera. He met men, women and children who had been in detention for several months, some of them even for one or two years. They were prisoners without having committed any offence. Their only fault was that they had left their native home and sought to find refuge or a better life on the Australian soil. In virtual prison-like conditions in the detention centre, they lived initially in the hope that soon their incarceration will come to an end, but with the passage of time, the hope gave way to despair…He felt that he was in front of a great human tragedy. He saw young boys and girls, who instead of breathing the fresh air of freedom, were confined behind spiked iron bars…these children were growing up in an environment which affected their physical and mental growth and many of them were traumatised and led to harm themselves in utter despair.

Australia 2011: Change the names, dates and detention centres.

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A DECADE OF COMPLETE FAILURE ON THE PART OF ALL POLITICAL PARTIES 

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