The Politics    Tuesday, March 10, 2015

In breach

By Russell Marks

Tony Abbott wants the UN to stop lecturing Australia about human rights

Following the violence on Manus Island that killed Reza Berati last February, the UN reminded Australia that it was in breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by detaining children, and would be in breach of the Refugee Convention’s principle of non-refoulement if it sought to resettle gay asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea. In mid 2014, the UN sought additional detail from Australia about the forced return of boatloads of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. In November, the UN asked Australia to explain how its amendments to the Migration Act that redefined Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and curtailed the High Court’s powers to review executive decisions were consistent with its international legal obligations. The Australian government’s responses were either not forthcoming or inadequate, so in his report on 68 member nations last week, the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E Méndez, declared Australia in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture.

Tony Abbott yesterday responded by falling back on his preferred formula: that all of his government's measures are necessary to stop the boats, and stopping the boats prevents deaths at sea. From his Catholic tutelage Abbott long ago took the principle that “the sanctity of life is a higher order moral issue than the promotion of social justice”, and that has become his justifying rationale: he said yesterday that the UN’s representatives “would have a lot more credibility if they were to give some credit” to Australia for stopping dangerous boat journeys. Talking to his base, Abbott said Australians are “sick of being lectured to” by the UN, an organisation Andrew Bolt describes as “extremist”.

But governments’ international legal obligations aren’t reducible to such a simple rule. In any case Abbott, who is “running from the law”, as David Marr puts it, is unable to demonstrate that breaching international law is necessary to save lives. The empirical evidence suggests no correlation between detaining asylum seekers and deterring them from making risky boat journeys, so Australia’s policy of potentially indefinite mandatory detention of all “unauthorised arrivals” is seen by the UN as arbitrary and hence contrary to the 49-year-old International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). For the record, Méndez responded to Abbott’s comments in an interview with AM this morning.

In other news:

Lisa Main and Steve Cannane report at ABC News: “The ABC has obtained leaked testimonies from the Moss inquiry that cast doubt on the evidence used to remove nine Save the Children staff from their jobs working with asylum seekers on Nauru.”

Callam Pickering comments at Business Spectator: “Allowing younger Australians to use their superannuation for a housing deposit would have a similar effect to the First Home Owners Grant. Although quite popular, that scheme has been an unmitigated disaster with regards to housing affordability.”

Joshua Robertson reports at Guardian Australia: “The Palaszczuk Labor government’s first bill before Queensland parliament will wind back laws that increased secrecy around political donations and put in place the ‘mechanism’ for realtime donor reporting.”

Greg Jericho’s analysis at Guardian Australia: “The Intergenerational report released last Thursday is a document so weighed down with imagined economic assumptions made for partisan political reasons that it is barely worth reading.”

Marianna Papadakis reports at the AFR: “Treasurer Joe Hockey was targeted by a ‘vindictive’ campaign by Fairfax Media after its newspapers were forced to apologise after an earlier story, his lawyers have told the opening of a defamation trial in the Federal Court.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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