Harry Minas discussing the Amnesty International Report on Nauru on 3RRR, Melbourne Independent Radio 20/10/16

To hear the radio interview, click on http://www.rrr.org.au/whats-going-on/news/asylum-seeker-amnesty/

To read the transcript, please scroll down.

Jeff Sparrow: In a new report released this week, Amnesty International has said that the Australian government is flouting international law and is subjecting refugees and asylum seekers to an elaborate and cruel system of abuse. To discuss that report, we’re joined in the studio by Harry Minas, Director of the Melbourne Refugee Studies Program. Welcome to Triple R, Harry.

Harry Minas: Good Morning, Jeff.

JS: We’re accustomed to human rights activists criticizing Australian refugee policy but some of the statements in this new report are quite amazing. Amnesty says that allowing mental health to deteriorate seems to be a deliberate policy, and they’re going to say that the system to which asylum seekers are subjected amounts to torture. Have we ever heard rhetoric as strong as this before?

HM: We have, actually. The UN has a special rapporteur on torture who looks at circumstances in various places around the world that might be described as either torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. He’d looked at what was happening on Manus Island, and he came to the conclusion that what was happening with asylum seekers on Manus Island could be understood as amounting to torture. The response to that from the Prime Minister at the time was “we’re a bit sick of being lectured by the UN”. And the general response of successive governments has been “we really don’t want to be told what to do”… It’s a little bit a reflection of John Howard’s statement about “we will decide…” and so on. So we have heard this kind of language before, it hasn’t been brought together in quite the same ways as the Amnesty report has done, it’s made a number of statements that I think clarify the intent of governments in relation to asylum seekers.

Sarah Smith: And so, what has been the response of the government to this particular report?

HM: To ignore it and to deny what is being said in the report.

Geraldine Hickey: If a report from Amnesty International saying this is not going to have any impact on our government or the way that we treat asylum seekers and refugees, what will?

HM: Well, that’s the big question, because the situation of people in Nauru and Manus Island has been deteriorating for quite some time. They have been here for a little over three years, there have been all kinds of arguments made about what is the best thing to do for them, but also for the country, in terms of how we should be dealing with these issues. …[T]he Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has said, including at the summit in New York recently, that yes, our policies are harsh, but they are effective. And the justification which is routinely given is that we are doing this in order to prevent people getting on boats and drowning at sea. So, that actually makes the links that Amnesty is most critical of, which is to say we will treat one group of people in a very harsh way in order to affect the way other people behave, to influence the decisions that other people make. And that’s the point at which Amnesty is saying that this in effect amounts to torture. Nobody denies that the people on Nauru are in terrible trouble, nobody can deny any longer that the government knows that they are in terrible trouble, and that they are being seriously harmed by the circumstances. [S]o, the conclusion that you can draw is that that harm is knowingly and intentionally done, as an instrument of policy. And that’s what moves it into that area where the government is treating a group very harshly in order to achieve some kind of policy objective. Whether the policy objective is good or bad, there’s lots of room for arguments about that, I think most people would say that this is not an acceptable way for government to behave… except our governments, successive governments, have said that it’s perfectly OK.

JS: What are the legal implications of this, I mean there are all sorts of international laws forbidding the practice of torture – Amnesty explicitly says Australia is breaking international law, is there any legal recourse?

HM: Australia is a signatory to multiple conventions, as many countries are. So, when a country signs a UN convention, for example, the convention against torture, and then ratifies the convention, it brings the provisions of that international convention into domestic law. If there is a breach… for example, take crimes against humanity. Individuals can be taken to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but countries aren’t taken to courts, there is in fact no real legal recourse. All that can be said is that the behaviour, the actions can be condemned by the UN. An argument that refugee advocates and many others have been making for a long time is that Australia has been trashing its reputation as a good international citizen, because of the way that it has been dealing with asylum seekers. I think Amnesty makes that point as well. So it’s not like Australia can suffer any legal consequences, and it’s not like there will be any kind of formal inquiry by the UN to determine whether Australia is guilty of breaching its international obligations.

JS: It feels like the situation is moving very quickly, I mean since that report came out – that report is looking primarily at Nauru, but we’ve just had the Head of the Immigration Department, Michael Pezzulo, at a Senate hearing, a couple of days ago, saying that Australia had no responsibility for what happened to gay asylum seekers on PNG. This is a country where male homosexual acts are punishable by 14 years jail. Saying that Australia had no responsibility and it’s up to PNG to do what they want to these people, again it just seems extraordinary!

HM: Well, it’s extraordinary and it’s false. And I think Amnesty International has been very careful about documenting the ways in which Australia is in fact largely in control of what happens on Nauru. Previous reports on Manus Island have found the same, that Australian Immigration Officers are largely in charge. Manus Island and Nauru are formally in control, this stuff is happening on their territory, it’s happening under contract – they become essentially like client states, or vassal states,  that are doing the bidding of a country that’s paying them to do this stuff. So, when New Zealand made an offer for instance to take 150 of the refugees from Manus Island and Nauru, the Australian government said “no, that’s not going to happen”. Now, how can they say that if they have no control?

SS: You spoke before about Prime Minister Turnbull essentially boasting of our immigration policy at the moment overseas. What is the response from the broader international community? What does say the US, or Canada, or countries in Europe, think about this? Are they kind of telling us off or are they secretly going “oh you’re doing a good thing here”?

HM: No, the response is divided. Some places are saying  “we can’t believe that Australia is behaving this way”, given Australia’s history in terms of its response to asylum seekers and refugees. And there are many people who are saying that it’s kind of inconceivable that Australia would be treating refugees and asylum seekers in this way. But there there is a fairly strong backlash against the massive numbers of asylum seekers who have been entering Europe from Syria, from North Africa, from other places. There are some other countries that are saying, “well this is… we’re overwhelmed, what are we going to do, let’s look at what Australia is doing this seems to be working”… And when they say “this seems to be working”, what that means is stopping the flow. Now, none of them has said “this seems to be working but look at the consequences for the people who are in those two places, on Manus and Nauru”. So it’s not a universal condemnation of Australia, it’s not a universal “well this is a fantastic example, let’s follow it and do something along the same lines”. It’s really quite divided because Europe at the moment, is at its wits’ end on how to respond. And even where there has been what can be seen as a very generous response – in Germany for example, Angela Merkel’s response, about a million Syrian asylum seekers taken into Germany – there is a very strong backlash internally against this.

JS: All right, well it sounds like if we want something to happen we’re going to have to do it ourselves, but it’s been fascinating talking to you, we’ve been talking to Harry Minas, Director of the Melbourne Refugee Studies Program, thanks so much for coming in.

HM: Thanks Jeff.


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