Australia is systematically violating the international Convention
Against Torture by detaining children in immigration detention, and
holding asylum seekers in dangerous and violent conditions on Manus
Island, a United Nations report has found.
But the prime minister, Tony Abbott, reacted angrily to the scathing
findings, saying Australians were “sick of being lectured to by the
The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez,
has investigated allegations of torture and abuse of 68 countries, in a
report to be delivered to the UN Human Rights Council on Monday.
The section on Australia is concerned entirely with the treatment of asylum seekers in immigration detention.
“The government of Australia, by failing to provide adequate
detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put
a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the regional
processing centre, has violated the right of the asylum seekers
including children to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment,” Mendez’s report said.
Two asylum seekers on Manus Island,
referred to as Mr A and Mr B, allege they were tied to chairs by
security staff and threatened with “physical violence, rape, and
prosecution for ‘becoming aggressive’” if they refused to retract
statements they had made to police about the murder of Reza Barati
during detention centre riots.
Mendez’s report found those men’s rights were also breached.
“The rapporteur concludes that there is substance in the allegations
presented in the initial communication, reiterated above, and thus, that
the government of Australia, by failing to provide any additional
information or details of the investigation into Mr A’s and Mr B’s
allegations, has violated their right to be free from torture or cruel,
inhuman or degrading treatment.”
And Mendez found that two government amendments to immigration
legislation both risk violating international law prohibiting torture.
“The Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment ... violates the Convention Against Torture
because it allows for the arbitrary detention and refugee determination
at sea, without access to lawyers. The Migration Amendment (Character
and General Visa Cancellation Bill) violates the CAT because it tightens
control on the issuance of visas on the basis of character and risk
When asked about the report on Monday, Abbott said the UN’s
representatives “would have a lot more credibility if they were to give
some credit to the Australian government” for stopping dangerous boat
journeys by asylum seekers.
“I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations,
particularly given that we have stopped the boats, and by stopping the
boats, we have ended the deaths at sea,” the prime minister said during a
media conference in Western Australia.
“The most humanitarian, the most decent, the most compassionate thing
you can do is stop these boats because hundreds, we think about 1,200
in fact, drowned at sea during the flourishing of the people smuggling
trade under the former government.
“The best thing you can do to uphold the universal decencies of
mankind, the best thing that you can do to ensure that the best values
of our world are realised is to stop the boats and that’s exactly what
we have done.”
Asked again whether he accepted the UN’s findings about Manus Island,
Abbott said the conditions were “reasonable under all the
circumstances” and “all of the basic needs of the people on Manus Island
are being met”.
“Everyone’s needs for food, for clothing, for shelter, for safety are
being more than met, thanks to the good work of the PNG government, the
Australian government and the people who are running the centre,” he
Abbott’s criticism of the UN follows his claim the Australian Human
Rights Commission, in particular its president, professor Gillian
Triggs, acted in a “blatantly partisan” way with its inquiry into children in immigration detention.
The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has also been contacted for comment on the UN report.
The 31-year-old United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is one of the most widely-supported conventions in the world. Some 157 countries are parties to the convention.
Australia ratified the treaty in 1989, and is legally bound by it.
The director of legal advocacy with the Human Rights Law Centre,
Daniel Webb, said the UN report confirmed that Australia’s offshore
processing policy was failing to meet basic human rights standards, and
that new legislation would risk further breaches of international law.
“Under international law, Australia can’t lock people up
incommunicado on a boat somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Nor can we
return people to a place where they face the risk of being tortured.
Yet these are precisely the powers the government has sought to give
itself through recent amendments to its maritime law.”
Australia relied on international law and to protect its own interests, Webb said.
“So it’s incredibly short-sighted for the government to start
thumbing its nose at the UN system just because it doesn’t like what
it’s being told.”
Ben Pynt from Humanitarian Research Partners said the government was
simply attempting to sweep torture allegations “under the rug”.
“The prime minister has attempted to discredit the special rapporteur
on torture in the same way as he attacked Professor Triggs, as biased
and disreputable. What he did not do is counter the evidence provided or
in any way attempt to disprove the allegations of torture, which the
global authority on torture found to be substantiated.”
The special rapporteur’s report addresses allegations of torture and
inhumane treatment in 68 countries. It criticises, as well, the United
States for holding a mentally ill man on death row for 30 years, and
raises concerns with the UK over several proposed deportations.
Papua New Guinea did not respond to inquiries from the UN over its handling of the Manus detention centre.
Australia is currently actively lobbying for a seat on the Human Rights Council, in the ballot to take place in 2017.
The foreign minister, Julie Bishop told Fairfax Australia’s bid was “consistent with our nation’s history of promoting and protecting human rights”.
“We abide by our international obligations and we are confident that
our experience and our commitment to human rights protection and
promotion makes us a strong contender for the UNHRC.”
Shadow minister for immigration Richard Marles described the prime minister’s attack as “absurd”.
“Instead of launching a cheap attack on the report’s author, Tony
Abbott should be providing an assurance that all the processing
facilities Australia funds are run in a safe, humane and proper manner.”
The last Labor government re-opened the Manus Island detention centre in November 2012.