Phil Robertson: Eroding human rights in Australian foreign policy

"Australia’s boat push-back policies, and offshoring asylum seekers into abusive conditions in Nauru and on Manus Island, are seen as a green-light by Asian governments to do the same." Image: Richard Milnes/Human Rights Watch

By Phil Robertson

The scene happens every day in capitals across south-east Asia: a strategy session in an ambassador’s ornate sitting room over coffee with like-minded senior diplomats from the US, Canada, and EU member states trying to figure out how to persuade a national government to reverse course on human rights.

On this particular day in Bangkok the ask was a tough one, demanding the government stop arresting and roughing up critics, chastising and censoring the media, and cracking down on public protests.

Human Rights Watch got a rare invite, and during the inevitable brainstorming, I asked “Where is Australia, why aren’t they here?”

Eyes lowered and heads shook ever so slightly around the room. Talking like a friend has fallen off the wagon, one diplomat said “We’re not sure of them anymore. They’re going a different way.”

Left unsaid in this polite circle is that the human rights principles once a core part of Australia’s foreign policy have been undermined by its single-minded determination to stop boats of asylum seekers and migrants “by hook or by crook.”

Last year was a hard one for human rights in many parts of Asia, with governments arresting and jailing critics in opposition parties and civil society, trying to put the internet genie back in the bottle through censorship and cyber-crime laws, and cracking down on NGOs and community groups with new draconian regulations.

Repression in Thailand is in full swing under the military government. Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia has arrested dozens of people for publicly criticising his government. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam routinely arrest and jail dissidents using ruling-party controlled courts.

Myanmar has a new government but no solution to end the repression of ethnic Rohingyas. Religious minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia face blasphemy charges, death threats, and massacres.

Rights-respecting solutions rare
Australia is rarely pushing for rights-respecting solutions these days – and more than that, is too often part of the problem. Politicians trapped in the refugee policy dialogue in Canberra frequently fail to recognise that Australia’s boat push-back policies, and offshoring asylum seekers into abusive conditions of detention in Nauru and on Manus Island, are seen as a green-light by Asian governments to do the same: send asylum seekers and refugees back into harm’s way or lock them up in indefinite detention.

For example, during the south-east Asia boat people crisis in May 2015, the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian navies played a cruel game of “human ping-pong” by pushing away boats of starving and sick Rohingya.

At a time when the governments were prepared to let these people float around waiting to die, then prime minister Tony Abbott did the unconscionable by justifying those tactics, saying “if other countries choose to do that, frankly that is almost certainly absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten.”

It suddenly became much harder for non-governmental organisations, governments, and UN agencies to persuade those three countries to bring the Rohingya to shore.

By soliciting governments to help stop boats, Australia also ends up looking the other way on other rights abuses. By cooperating with Australia to take back boats of their nationals, both Sri Lanka and Vietnam know they could count on Australia not to publicly raise concerns about the rights abuses that drove those people into the boats in the first place.

Push backs by other countries are also met with silent acquiescence from Canberra. Australia said nothing when Thailand sent back 109 ethnic Uighurs in July to China to face torture in custody and long prison terms, and has kept silent as Beijing pursues its dissidents in Bangkok.

China arrests and sends fleeing North Koreans back to the brutal regime of dictator Kim Jong-Un, and is met by deafening silence from down under.

Praised Cambodia
Australia has praised Cambodia for signing the September 2014 Cambodia-Australia deal to resettle refugees from Nauru to Phnom Penh. Prime minister Hun Sen told Australia that Cambodia was safe for refugees to resettle – but don’t tell that to ethnic Montagnards fleeing political and religious persecution in Vietnam who Cambodia hunted down in the border forests of Ratanakiri province and forced back into Hanoi’s hands, all after the Australia deal was signed.

Meanwhile, Cambodia is laughing all the way to the bank with at least $55 million of Australia’s taxpayer dollars for taking just five refugees so far from Nauru. All this for a deal that the UN high commissioner for refugees termed “a worrying departure from international norms” of refugee protection.

With the recent high court ruling, Australia now faces the return of 267 asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island, where they face possible renewed physical and sexual assault, and life in limbo.

Australia’s international reputation has suffered enough – it’s time to do the right thing by accepting its responsibilities, not only as a party to the UN Refugee Convention but also as a responsible neighbour and member of the international community, and provide this group with fair and timely refugee status determination in Australia.

And for those found to be refugees, let them stay.

Phil Robertson is the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. This article was first published in The Guardian.

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