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.

40 Responses to “A brief history of the Coalition’s hostile encounters with the UN”

  1. Hypocritophobe July 17, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    The Greens are heading for more seats in both houses.


  2. metaboleus July 17, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    pointing out LNP is like shooting fish in a barrel. but looking over the history of ALP migration policy, it is hard to see how Gillard is being against the ALP ideals.
    all democracies pervert elctions in their own way. our mandatory voting force the parties to make policy that appeals to the idiots. idiot being from the greek idiotes, meaning (among other things) a private person, a person not interested in the political culture of the state.
    keep up the good work!


    • Jennifer Wilson July 17, 2012 at 10:13 am #

      Yes, I was thinking about how things might change if we didn’t have compulsory voting. I can’t decide if it would be better or worse!


      • doug quixote July 17, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

        Too true Jennifer. The American system requires candidates to pander to their core voters, the rusted on; the Australian system requires candidates to try to occupy the centre, to woo the so-called swinging voter.

        The result is that the Yanks look more radical, the Aussies look more centrist. Hence the perception in Australia that “they’re all the same” when the truth is that there are huge differences in their world views.

        Don’t fall for the rhetoric.


  3. samjandwich July 17, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Just quickly, Jennifer with all your copious spare time I thought you might be interested in looking at Australia’s performance against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which still isn’t that great. A consortium of NGOs prepared a report on this last year: http://www.childrights.org.au/

    I just remember Howard, perhaps having taken George W’s “you are either with us or with the terrorists” to heart a bit too much, concluding that since the UN wasn’t for us, then they must be against us! even though we are members. That never quite made sense to me!-/


    • hudsongodfrey July 17, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      Interesting stuff, but if you’re any good at finding stuff then you might hit upon more than just this for follow up reading.


      Click on the link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_ratification_of_the_Convention_on_the_Rights_of_the_Child as well because it makes for interesting reading.

      The problem as I see it is that the UN’s expectations seem set upon having laws made that would guarantee that minimum levels of child welfare are met that go beyond just the prevention of atrocities. I may be wrong on this and could happily stand corrected. However without wanting to be a down in the mouth naysayer on this I tend to think that the best intended legislation and government policy making in the world isn’t going to make it easy to deal with problems that are often basically created by failing parents.


  4. Marilyn July 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    Australia’s human rights record is appalling and will stay appalling.

    The whining about people who arrive quite legally by sea is deranged.


  5. hudsongodfrey July 17, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    People will hark back to Keating’s introduction of a policy of detention for refugee arrivals, but I tend to agree that it was only in the Howard era that it became the divisive political monster that we’re faced with today.

    And If Howard supporters do want to argue pull factors then they really ought to try explaining how the imagined crisis got worse under Howard for a time, despite a Labor policy of detention that was already in place as a so called “deterrent”. This is not only an inconsistency in their rhetoric but one that is also premised on a great big lie. It’s the push factors guys! Don’t they even have the decency to acknowledge that Howard joined Bush and Blair in the excellent adventure that exacerbated the Afghan come Pakistani regional refugee crisis.

    As for Labor’s current policy it is worse than the Liberal policy that preceded the Hawke government, A fact that I think is more or less universally acknowledged. It isn’t even controversial to argue that Fraser’s policy avoided the toxic issue of refugees by achieving bi-partisan support for a proposal no different from the one Clive Palmer and Julian Burnside would bilaterally support today.

    So in short I hated Howard for his callous obsequiousness to the Hansonite putsch, but we have what we thought we needed to make this go away. We have a Labor led government. And yet we still have the kind of policy on this that makes me want to scream, JULIA WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU!


    • Marilyn July 18, 2012 at 5:25 am #

      Julia Gillard wrote the fucking policy we are using today to add to the horror of the Howard era.

      She has more deaths in custody, more drownings due to the failure to rescue people, more suicide attempts and more cruelty than even Ruddock.

      But don’t forget her Lowy speech where she said that even though people are fleeing torture, genocide and other human rights abuses we will push them away or make them stay home and die.

      You cannot begin to understand how much this ghastly coward of a woman hates refugees but believe me she does.


      • hudsongodfrey July 18, 2012 at 9:43 am #

        You make what strikes me as an interesting point. To begin with I’m writing from the point of view of somebody who prefers Labor over the coalition in general and on this issue in particular. What I’m not particularly addressing are Gillard’s personal views on the matter or issues of her credibility as you seem to be doing.

        So on the one hand we could characterise her leadership thus far as being a product of representative government, perhaps because the numbers are so delicately balanced. But on the other we could do what it seems a lot of people tend towards and simply reduce the question of government to a comparison between the two leaders.

        So to the extent that the question is one of factional support and leadership qualities I find Gillard something of a mystery. I know what her policies are but none of them seem to be imbued with a moral or ideological dimension perhaps because since taking office she has consistently failed in my view to share her motives with the public.

        If, for example, an atheist can’t or won’t even move on gay marriage then I’d at least hope she’d present a reason like not believing in the institution of marriage at all.

        And if there’s a shred of a reason for digging ourselves deeper and deeper into the mire that accompanies our attempts to shrug off our obligations to help displaced people then it is certainly far from evident to me. I for one don’t accept the precept that if the polls say we don’t like little brown people with irreconcilable religious beliefs then that means their human rights don’t matter.

        But the question remains as to whether we choose to trust this leader simply because the alternative is something we can rely upon being worse?


        • Hypocritophobe July 18, 2012 at 10:23 am #

          Advice is free.
          Leaders are strong.They should posess the judgement to make wise decision,tempered by balance and fairness(especially Labor).
          Gillard has always been free to lead and to choose.
          If not,she never,ever was a leader,but a weak insipid follower.

          And the proof is in the pudding.She did this all to herself and dragged us and the refugees,indigenous people,workers etc etc along with her.
          We can blame (and do) the Labor NSW right,but in the end is her.She is theirs.They shafted Rudd,they installed her.She railed.The end.
          The election will be a sheer monumental bloodbath,and if that is what it takes to crush the insanity driving the psychos in the wheel room,bring the process on.ASAP.
          Me? I’ll vote who ever closely represents Labor’s value of old.Currently that is Green.
          This version of Labor is toast( yes the media is 30% responsible) Anyone thinking Labor has any hope of even ending up in a recognisable force after the election is crossing the line into Delusion-Ville.


          • hudsongodfrey July 18, 2012 at 11:33 am #

            The problem is that your attitude will get us an Abbott government. Which will inevitably be worse than Howard in the way that people who claim to have morals seem least capable of acting upon them in anyone’s interests other than their own.

            I say that if Labor can be cast into the wilderness by an electorate who’ll probably re-elect them under a new leader within the next two elections then why not change now?

            The question in the media always seems to be around leadership because it adds the dimension of interpersonal drama. I just happen to think that policy matters and that changing it could also make the difference we require.


            • Hypocritophobe July 18, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

              if Abbott turns out to be the creature he is fully capable of being and as espoused by all and sundry,he will only last one term.
              That said,if Labor cares to jettison principles,their allies and their voters then as fate would have it, we get the government we get.
              I for one won’t vote for either big party at this moment in time.
              If you are saying my choice(and others like me) deliver an Abbott government, then that is the way it works.Labor needs all the votes and preferences it can muster.The thing is they don’t actual believe that.
              I number every single box at every election,and usually in such a way so as to put my most desirous choice first,and least last.
              I weigh that up with preference distributions.

              Labor has changed the game,not me.No matter how many people say,no matter how many times,Labor is NOT frigging Labor any more.We have lost Labor.They have gone.
              Never fear I can live with my vote.
              And as I have repeatedly said we have two unelectable leaders in the 2 majors.

              You said;
              “I say that if Labor can be cast into the wilderness by an electorate who’ll probably re-elect them under a new leader within the next two elections then why not change now?”

              Believe me,they will have plenty of time to think about that.And that my friend is not of my doing.


              • hudsongodfrey July 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

                I agree with what you’re saying but I think you may be missing my point when I say Labor could change and for the better rather than simply consigning themselves to the waste basket.


                • Hypocritophobe July 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

                  They could change.But they won’t.That is obvious.
                  A funeral is imminent.
                  Let’s prepare for a new ‘paradigm’ (choke-choke)


                  • hudsongodfrey July 18, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

                    Well look I should add something here. There’s a kind of confirmation effect that occurs when so many of the pundits and others simply write off the party that they think will lose or that the simply hope to see toppled. My hope would be that we see the virtue in not adding to it.


                    • Hypocritophobe July 18, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

                      One man’s defeatism is another man’s realism.

                      (Dead horses often get relentlessly flogged in the Political Derby, HG.)

                      I’m not on a sales pitch here HG.
                      Just calling it like it is.
                      Look at the following policy positions Labor 2012.
                      Imported Labor OK
                      Refugees not OK.
                      Gay marriage.Not OK.
                      Howard’s intervention. OK.
                      Protecting and sponsoring big polluting business.OK
                      Paying to have kids,OK
                      Adopting right wing or pro ACL strategies/policies?
                      Seems to be increasingly OK
                      School Chaplains(Liberal policy) OK
                      etc etc.

                      Not Labor values, not ever.I’m sure there are more examples..
                      And we may never agree BUT if this country can break the political dichotomy,which has now become a monoculture,we may have a win.

                      I’m over the endless political impasse.Time to move on.


                    • hudsongodfrey July 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

                      Well I can’t really disagree with you but if Obama can change his mind….


  6. paul walter July 17, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    Its the ALP Right faction, hudsongodfrey.They just wont let go.


  7. doug quixote July 17, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    So true Paul; the right wing Christian ie Catholic right that has dominated NSW politics and Labor politics especially since the early days. NSW Labor never split the way Victoria and Qld did; the rightists weren’t leaving the honey pot.

    Abbott was once thought a good fit for the NSW right; that should tell you enough.

    Julia made a pact with the devil to secure their votes; all of her socially conservative positions since have their genesis right there. She still needs their votes. A significant Labor victory in 2013 would allow her out from under.

    I live in hope.

    PS There is no refuge in a change of government, rest well assured. Out of the frying pan and into the fire with Abbott and the miserable rag-tag opposition.


    • Hypocritophobe July 17, 2012 at 11:30 pm #

      If the right of NSW Labor can accumulate enough votes to account for those who have now officially abandoned Labor(for abandoning them) and account for QLD and WA, they may save Julia.
      There a few very real possibilities for Australia’s political future.
      Labor has a minuscule chance.Gillard has none,Nada, zilch.
      That is not me giving a fuck,that is reality.
      Unless and until Labor repays my blood sweat tears and loyalty in kind, (and I am wel away from alone on that) and reverts to its core ethos,they are dead to any TRUE believers.
      The union shiny arses may call themselves Labor or working class,but they are anything but.Unions are being shafted as are their members.

      Labor has entertained the idea that plagiarism is policy,for way too long.
      And please stop blaming the greens, people.It’s pathetic and desperate.


    • hudsongodfrey July 18, 2012 at 12:06 am #

      Interesting theory but what the faceless men seem to fail to recognise is that they don’t actually hold the balance of power any more. The theory goes that king makers can help an individual rise within the party the only problem being that if they themselves are standing on a house of cards then they really shouldn’t pretend to pick pretenders to the throne.

      It doesn’t make much difference whether they hold NSW if they’ve not the ability to deliver QLD and WA. And alienating Labor voters in VIC and SA isn’t going to help their cause one iota.

      The only way out that I see is that Gillard turns out to be the kind of genius intellect capable of kicking off the shackles of unreason for the precise moment of time that it takes to do something really and honestly surprising.

      Admit she was wrong and change! Despite the polls. And this is the issue to do it with. It may be a “Field of Dreams”, build it and they will come, kind of strategy, but I think people don’t want the boats to stop so much as many of them want the issue to go away as a result of some decisive action that Australia can take to make that happen.

      The solution that the left wants, that Clive Palmer endorses, and that mimics Malcolm Fraser is that magic bullet. Because unless pull factors exist, and they patently don’t, then this problem will be decisively overcome by taking in the 10,000 or so currently waiting in Indonesia and thereabouts. And all she has to do is to say that at some point we will set a limit in accordance with an intake that recognises the present risk to people making dangerous boat journeys, and reassessed only after those currently at risk are cleared. It’s a toe in the waters of compassion that involves a risk but which may reward her with the people’s endorsement.

      And if the NSW right can’t see that then Labor really is fucked!

      Because there IS no other issue she can flip to her advantage that has ANY chance of changing her fortunes.

      And because if she takes the high moral ground then Abbott cannot argue against her without looking like a racist toad.


  8. paul walter July 17, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Onya Doug, although it’s plain we are moving into prozac territory.


  9. doug quixote July 18, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    Don’t believe the Big Lie : “that this is an incompetent government”

    It’s what Murdoch and the opposition have been touting for years, and it is just not so by any objective criteria you care to measure it by.

    As Lincoln said, you can fool most of the people some of the time . . .


  10. gerard oosterman July 18, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    The Abbott reply that refugees coming to Australia ‘via the backdoor, being un-christian’ just about takes the cake. Good that Sales Leigh pointed this out at last night’s 7.30. Even so, what sort of primitive country did my parents come to that can spout politicians like Abbott and Morrison,and Pine, and Mirrabella? Where did their hatred come from? It is worse now than during the days of the White Australian Policy. Where are the uni students and their professors seething with discontent manning the streets and hurling rocks at the Parliament?


    • Marilyn July 19, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

      Silenced through funding cuts and inanity.


  11. Julia July 18, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    The last time Howard was re-elected on numbers the majority of voters actually voted Labor…but because of preferences and the re-jigging of electoral boundaries the Libs still won the most seats


  12. Marilyn July 20, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Catherine Branson found 75 cases of serious arbitrary imprisonment of refugees last year alone and ordered compensation to be paid and was ignored by Roxon.

    And the media still prattle about the number of asylum seekers who arrive by boat as if coming by boat to an island is some bizarre aberration only invented to annoy us.


    • hudsongodfrey July 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm #


      When you say Catherine Branson “found”, after some quick checking into whether she was still sitting on the Federal Court benches it seems she wouldn’t have been last year so in what sense do you mean “found”? I’m not sure whether you just mean that she highlighted these things as part of her Human rights work, which I fully support, but which may not compel a response from Ms Roxon. Moral failure though it may be, perhaps Roxon is not the only person who would be impugned by the parlous state of this governments’ policies. We may need to give Mr Roberston a yell to see if he can’t mount an actual case to do something about the matter.


      • Marilyn July 20, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

        She is the Human rights commissioner. Nothing to do with the courts. the courts have no power to find that detention is arbitrary.


        • hudsongodfrey July 20, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

          In fairness I’d have to refer that question to someone who actually knew what our legal obligations were in relation to human rights treaties we’ve entered into. But I would have thought that it was the courts rather than the Human rights commission who had authority to force the attorney general to respond to their concerns. That’s why I asked.

          If you don’t know then I don’t necessarily expect you to and it is still a good point you make though perhaps a less compelling one in the legal sense.


          • doug quixote July 20, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

            The High Court upheld mandatory detention.

            It is within power; whether you think it is good, evil or somewhere in between matters not a whit.


            • hudsongodfrey July 20, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

              Another case where the law is an ass perhaps. The technicalities of the situation are such that you have to be able to detain people who you mean to deport, but you don’t have to assume that you intend to deport everyone who arrives irregularly. Thus I can see how on the legal technicalities it can’t be struck down. It is up to the system of government that we institute to act as the moral conscience for how we legislate, and in this case it has failed to do so, and we cannot blame the courts.

              That said, long term detention, and detention of children in particular is demonstrably harmful to such an extent that a case for unjustifiable neglect may well be mooted. There must be some kind of parallel or precedent set by provisions made to compensate people who are wrongly accused of crimes and remanded in custody. The idea that these people would have no recourse to deterrents that have been characterised as tantamount to mental torture seems incredibly abhorrent to me.


              • doug quixote July 20, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

                Exactly; it is for Parliament to legislate. At present it is hard to imagine any reasonable legislation getting made, mostly because the opposition is determined to be the dog in the manger.

                Dog in the manger is what Abbott truly has been for two years or so, and he gets away with it. Appalling.


                • hudsongodfrey July 20, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

                  I still say put it to them that we do the Palmer/Burnside solution and make Abbott squirm for all he’s worth.


        • hudsongodfrey July 28, 2012 at 9:23 am #


          Looks like she’s got enough teeth to rock the media after all.


  13. Hypocritophobe August 17, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

    Hostile encounters?
    The morphing of members of a black SA govt to become the second gen Apartheid is complete.
    As Western mining companies bring greed and corruption to town,black and white authorities alike enforce the way of the rich.
    Killing their own,to protect foreigners, while the foreigners plunder resources,enslave the locals and suck the aquifers dry.
    Why thankyou so,so much Mining Inc.
    Boy how lucky is Australia.We are mining central.




  1. A brief history of the Coalition’s hostile encounters with the UN « No Place For Sheep « Secularity - July 17, 2012

    […] brief history of the Coalition’s hostile encounters with the UN « No Place For Sheep A brief history of the Coalition’s hostile encounters with the UN « No Place For Sheep. Share […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: