My weekly Guardian column is published today:
This month, the United Nations accused Canberra of potentially breaking international law by forcibly repelling refugee boats back to Indonesia. Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said that the international body was “concerned by any policy or practice that involved pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection.” He continued: “any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention and other international law obligations.”
The comments were brushed aside as soon as they were uttered. Prime minister Tony Abbott’s administration insists that its policies are legal and safe, and the vast bulk of Australians apparently back even harsher methods against asylum seekers. It is now clear who has won this battle, and it isn’t the forces pushing for moderation.
After 20 years of steadily increasing cruelty towards refugees, it’s time to admit that we’ve reached a stalemate. Simply arguing for a more humane approach has failed. Reason, international law and common sense are no match against inflammatory media reporting, false fears about asylum seekers living in the community, and politicians proudly punishing the most vulnerable in the name of “deterrence.”
Enter the need for a new approach, one that seriously ups the ante: sanctions against the Australian state for ignoring humanitarian law. Australia deserves nothing less. A price must be paid, in a political and economic sense, for flagrantly breaching Australian and international conventions. This could be directed at both the multinationals such as Serco and G4S, who are administering the government’s policies, and the bank accounts and assets maintained by government ministers and officials.
Australian citizens must feel this global isolation in their daily lives, and be made to realise that business as usual is a choice that will bring tough penalties. Locking up children on remote Pacific islands, without proper medical or psychological care, is designed for only one purpose: pain. States opposed to these breaches must gather together and take action, regardless of the inevitable short-term bleating from the Australian government. Activists around the world and at home must have a clear target and goal: to make Canberra believe that the ramifications are simply too high to maintain the current system of a privatised detention network.
Western state powers believe they are immune from prosecution. The idea of a senior western leader or official being charged for war crimes or abuses of power is almost unheard of. The recent news that British human rights lawyers are pushing for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute local military figures and politicians over serial breaches against detainees in Iraq after 2003 was an important reminder that it isn’t only presidents in dictatorships that might face the wrath of The Hague. We are surely not far away from a precedent being set with the sight of a London or Washington-based official found guilty for covering up systematic assaults against Iraqis or Afghans during the last decade.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, explains how the US system is designed to protect the powerful at the expense of the majority. There are countless officials after 9/11 who haven’t been jailed for ordering and performing waterboarding, sexual assaults, illegal interrogations, hiding prisoners in black sites and invading nations. President Barack Obama has ferociously protected the worst abusers, including CIA torturers, and provided immunity.
The relevance to Australia is clear. Western leaders live under the belief that they can behave as they like to the powerless and invisible. Asylum seekers are essentially voiceless, reporters are barred from visiting where they’re warehoused in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the daily drumbeat of dishonest rhetoric wrongly accuses them of being “illegal”.
Even the threat of sanctions against Australia would enrage the Abbott government and its backers. Australia is a democracy, they will claim. Australia’s decisions are checked and approved by lawyers, they may argue. Australians can vote out recalcitrant regimes, they could state.
And yet transparency over asylum seeker policy has arguably never been more absent. There are far too few journalists dedicated to investigating the refugee issue, media organisations prefer sending their “journalists” to junkets in Los Angeles promoting Australian celebrities, and the result is an immigration bureaucracy that rightly believes its actions have few consequences, shielded from censure.
Sanctions against Australia would wake them up immediately – even though the usefulness of traditional sanctions are questionable. Imagine if immigration minister Scott Morrison feared leaving the country amidst threats of questioning if he landed at Heathrow airport because of the abuse of asylum seekers in his care.
The first, obvious step is rousing worldwide support to place serious pressure on Australia and make its officials and leaders uncomfortable. Ask them tough questions in global forums. Demand they explain why dumping vulnerable men, women and children in isolated prison camps doesn’t warrant sanctions. Tell them that the humane treatment of asylum seekers, at a time when the globe is struggling to cope with millions of displaced Syrians and growing numbers of climate refugees, is vital in a connected world.
The Australian government feels invincible, protected under America’s security blanket and selling its dirty coal to the world. We are sold the myth that building remote detention camps will protect us from the “hordes” trying to enter our promised land. It’s impossible not to conclude that Australia, a colonial construction, doesn’t see itself akin to Canada, the US and Israel as countries struggling to cope with people various officials call “infiltrators”. That bubble must be burst, and the threats of sanctions will be the required shot. Until Australia and its defenders appreciate the necessity to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect, they should feel the world’s opprobrium.
Talk is no longer enough. The UN has had more than 20 years to convince Australia to abandon mandatory detention and its associated ills. Frankly, it hasn’t tried hard enough. Absent of a complete overhaul of the UN system, something that is long overdue, let legitimate legal sanctions be threatened and used.
It’s a price every Australian, myself included, should feel.