For a country founded by thieves, we’ve built up an impressive history of emancipation, workers rights and international participation. Particularly we, from our isolated corner in the Antipodes have been one of the leading voices of the fight for inalienable human rights for every citizen of the world. So it’s irritating, to say the least, that a country so historically forward thinking can so often be determined to behave in ways that directly contradict its principles. Australia is the prized greyhound at the head of the pack, until a rabbit skirts the track, and we run off on a tangent.
In 1946 the world was blotted with ashes and rubble, and the veins of political discourse ran with the tears of grieving mothers. From this arose the noblest cause humanity has ever conceived: the pursuit of human rights and their protection from tyranny always. I’m shocked to discover that amidst the superpowers of the world, the faraway Island of Australia led this charge, and DR. H. V. Evatt, the Australian foreign minister, was the voice for our nation’s pursuit of justice.
Alongside an international team, ‘Doc’ Evatt, as he was affectionately known, conceived three documents: the Genocide Convention (Defining the first ‘Crime against Humanity’), the Geneva Convention (The rules for war), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (The UDHR). Together they spearheaded the formation of the United Nations, and in 1948 Doc Evatt was appointed the president of the United Nations General Assembly.
The fact that none of us young Australians are taught this incredible history in our schools ought to be deemed a ‘Crime Against Australia.’ Evatt championed workers rights throughout his political career as a Labor MP, afraid that Australia’s strikingly progressive tradition of upholding the rights of workers could falter; what a tradition it was. Only seven years after the Federation of Australia, in 1908, workers were granted the protection of a basic minimum wage. In Evatt’s time in 1948, Australia, alongside our Antipodean neighbour New Zealand, implemented the 40 hour week before any other country in the world.
Two monolithic hurdles stood in the way of the dream of an international system of protections for individual rights: The Soviet Union, and The United States of America. The former undoubtedly avoiding repercussions for the brutal pulping of its men, women and children in the streets and the Gulag; the latter to shirk responsibilities in its imperial quest for military and economic dominance. Today both countries continue to violate the rights of citizens internationally due to a deliberate watering down of the international treaties that, out of the ashes of the holocaust, were designed to build a new world centred on freedom and safety, one which could hold states accountable for their transgressions.
The post-war Human Rights commissions and treaties were designed to be binding documents and bodies, with the power to criminally charge heads of state and state officials in international courts. The Two powers above, along with a slew of countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and Apartheid South Africa fought tooth and nail against these binding clauses, vetoing at any chance they could.
The 90’s were a period of acceleration for international justice. The former President of Chile: Augusto Pinochet would be arrested in London in 1998 and trialled before an international court for facilitating illegal arms and drug trades, embezzlement, and crimes against humanity, including horrific charges of Torture. Geoffrey Robertson QC, an Australian Lawyer, was the representative of Human Rights Watch in the proceedings against Pinochet. Robertson alongside the international human rights community would face criticism for the actions taken against Pinochet by notable figures such as George Bush Senior, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger).
Merely one of the 94 counts of torture Pinochet was being charged in London for having ordered involved the rape of a woman by two men and a dog specially trained for the purpose, electric shock to the genitalia and breasts, and the forced consumption of the “human remains of her dead fellow captives.” Take a moment to internalise this point. Men doing what can only be described as the devil’s work can find unlikely support: the Catholic Church? A leader of the free world? More importantly, one must understand that Pinochet would inevitably be released, and spend the next ten years back in Chile under house arrest till his death in 2006, his pleas of ill health would stall any real justice till it was too late.
Robertson, Australia’s most prominent international human rights lawyer, would in the case against Pinochet, head what is often regarded as the most important moment in the history of bringing tyrants to justice since the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi’s. Through Robertson, Australia continues to be a prominent voice in the international stage, in 1990 he founded and jointly headed alongside fellow Queen’s Counsel; Doughty Street Chambers: the world’s most prolific international human rights legal chambers. He has consistently fought for and defended the right of every human to be free from persecution.
An alternate history in which the world had ratified binding documents would be a very different one to what we live in now. Much of the grease and dirt of unpunished atrocities would have been wiped from the grout between the mosaic tiles of history.
This isn’t to say that Australian history would survive such a Passover unscathed, for we have our disgraces that would place us into the firing line of a world that made an effort to imprison its oppressors. The greatest shame Australia is guilty of is that of the displacement of the stolen generations across history, and the subsequent disinterest in rehabilitating the families our government crippled over a period of just over 65 years (remember the Australian Government is only 117 years old, this was a central policy of the country’s formation).
A more recent embarrassment is Australia’s insistence on continuing Operation Sovereign Borders, while simultaneously being signatories to the Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture. Our conduct in this operation, exemplified by the Manus Island horrors, contradict our commitment to these conventions, it contradicts our visionary history of dedication to International human rights, and it contradicts everything Australia’s sons, brothers and fathers were slaughtered and tortured for in the fight against Fascism and Nazism in the 1940’s. After all, this is why we began the journey of establishing international justice.
Manus spits in the face of the so-called Australian spirit, with its promises of mateship and a fair go. Within the walls of Manus, the Australian spirit bites the curb, while the lucky country we call home presses down firmly with its boot.
Illegal; Unlawful. These seemingly synonymous words have a distinct meaning under the law. Unlawful denotes something that is not authorised by law, while The law strictly prohibits illegal acts. Australian Law cannot deem Refugees arriving by boat ‘Illegal’ as it contradicts the international law it has signed on to. To deem a maritime arrival illegal is to lie and mislead, our country does not and cannot outlaw the pursuit of refuge by boat. To do so would breach our obligation under international law. This obviously matters not to the Australian government, for new arrivals by boat now, under the updated Operations Sovereign Borders code, “settlement will never be an option for anyone who attempts to come here illegally by boat.” Perhaps Australia here is the ‘illegal’.
We’ve circumvented our obligation to the Australian values of justice and fairness as well. For refugees arriving by Boat, their asylum appeals lie in the hands of the Immigration Assessment Authority, which guarantees “a mechanism of limited review that is efficient, quick, free of bias.” It does not guarantee a review that is ‘just and fair,’ something guaranteed to every other refugee or visa applicant arriving by air. With rights stripped, one must ask if today’s “country shoppers” are simply a substitute for White Australia’s “fauna.”
On Manus, the duration of detention is effectively indefinite, depending on the case, the government is willing to pay for this with your income tax. Papua New Guinea will not issue permanent visas, and considering last year’s Good Friday: when soldiers ran through the detention centre and shot at and threw rocks at officials and asylum seekers over a football field dispute, one can understand not wanting to seek residence in PNG, even if it would allow this.
Our very own list of shame is being produced in the walls of Manus: the molestation of a 3-year-old boy by a security guard; a mass suicide attempt by a group of 6 boys, separated from their parents, all sharing the same razor blade; rape; two refugees have set themselves on fire in protest. All of this horror, occurring as open-ended, mandatory detention grinds at the mental health of the imprisoned, with the only out being to return to the countries fled, many of which have been internationally recognised as having a well-founded fear of their homelands. All of this horror to create a “return-oriented environment”, while pushing with financial incentives for asylum seekers to “Volunteer” to return home. I call this duress.
‘Volunteer’ Eyad (known to officials as EDE 043), fled Australian protection due to kidney stones that the government would not provide treatment for, despite its clear legal obligation to under the Refugee Convention. His payout would be US$2,310, and he would be sent to Daraa, an active war zone near Damascus to reunite with his wife and newborn daughter after fleeing to secure them safe passage to Australia, rather than risk their lives on the boat trip.
Upon his return to his village, which had marked him a dissenter, Eyad was apprehended by Syrian officials, tortured for 20 days and forced to turn over his payout from Australia. In finally reaching his family he finds his house had been recently destroyed and his wife injured by Syrian bombing. His Last communication with ABC’s Lateline was this: “”One day I am expecting myself to be killed or arrested… In Syria, there are two sects. Either you are a killer, or you are the killed person.”
This is what Australia desires many of its responsibilities on Manus to return to, the one place, they have a deep-seated, personal, yet internationally recognised fear of. Their facilities encourage this. The manipulation of the environment at Manus; the deprivation of medical attention; the taking advantage of each Asylum Seeker’s fears are all features of the torture commonly found in military prisons, designed to “outrage upon personal dignity”, as the Convention on Torture calmly puts it.
Is this what the great Australians of past and present envisioned for their country? Is this how Australia treats its subjects? One must ask these questions of the current Liberal government in particular, for they implemented Operation Sovereign Borders to the full extent of its inhumanity, and of the previous Governments that set up the conditions for this monstrous plan.
A curtain of shame, made of the same cloth our Stolen Generation scheme, suffocates the great desire this nation has had for international justice. The Australian spirit that we have come to be so proud of can only survive if we see the dire consequences of our past mistakes, and emulate the righteous vigour of our highest achievers. For if we leave our great legacy as fighters for a better world to die, our government will continue to piss on its grave, as it does today.