• Australia's Permanent Representative to the UN, William D. Forsyth (right), with UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, after acceding to the Refugee Convention in 1954 (UN Images)
Refugee advocates are marking a little-known anniversary in Australia, but it's a celebration tinged with a certain sadness.
By
Ron Sutton

Source:
22 Jan 2014 - 6:00 PM  UPDATED 22 Jan 2014 - 10:32 PM

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Refugee advocates are marking a little-known anniversary in Australia, but it's a celebration tinged with a certain sadness.

It's the 60th anniversary of a move by the Australian government that proved pivotal in the treatment of refugees around the world.

But it's a move not necessarily matched by the government's mood today.

Ron Sutton has the story.

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It was 1954, less than a decade after the end of the Second World War.

As his Liberal-Country Coalition Government weighed up whether to sign on to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the memories weighed on Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

"Robert Menzies signed on to the Convention in '54 because the memory of war -- and the aftermath of war, and the negotiations to deal with all the refugees produced by the Second World War -- was still very fresh in the Australian memory. I mean, Robert Menzies was no soft-hearted humanitarian. He wasn't necessarily an internationalist. He was pretty similar, in many ways, to the current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and John Howard. He was acting in Australia's national interests. Darwin had been bombed, Australians had been captured in Singapore, enemy submarines had been in Sydney Harbour. It wasn't inconceivable to Menzies that Australians might be refugees themselves. And so there was a reciprocity in signing the Convention, in the sense it might benefit Australians or our neighbours, and that sense of reciprocity is the heart of international law."

The speaker is international lawyer Dr Susan Harris-Rimmer, director of studies at the Australian National University's Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.

The moment she speaks of, Robert Menzies' signature on the UN Refugee Convention on January the 22nd, 1954, would prove historic.

As the Refugee Council of Australia's Paul Power reminds on the 60th anniversary, it was his signature that launched the laws still governing the world's treatment of refugees today.

"Australia was represented at the July 1951 conference in Geneva, where they spent three-and-a-half weeks developing the various articles of the Refugee Convention, and one of the articles said that it would come into force 90 days after the sixth country ratified, or acceded to, it. And it just so happened that Australia was the sixth country."

Ahead of Australia, five European countries -- Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany -- had signed up over the first two years.

Indeed, the original convention was very much about Europe, where the war had displaced millions of people.

Many were Jewish refugees who had escaped the Holocaust, and many were Eastern Europeans who didn't want to go back to their home countries now under Communist rule.

Mr Menzies signed into effect an international convention that defined who was a refugee, the rights of a refugee and the legal obligations of countries signing up to the Convention.

Refugees were, it said, people outside their own countries who feared persecution because of their race, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Nations signing up, it said, could not expel refugees, could not return them to places where they were not safe.

The convention, in fact, referred specifically to events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951.

Those specifics were removed in a 1967 protocol, but Paul Power says the specifics that remain are still far more narrow than how much of the world actually views refugees today.

"It's interesting that the treaties that exist in Africa, the sort of regional addition to the Refugee Convention, expand the definition to victims of conflict. So, the African definition of a refugee is broader. And it's probably more in line with general international opinion about who should be covered by the Convention."

A total of145 countries are signed up to the convention these 60 years after Robert Menzies' signature put it into action, about three in four of the world's nation-states.

Over that time, Australia has gone on to give some form of protection to more than 620,000 refugees.

Most have been processed as refugees through other countries, then accepted, but about 64,000 have expressly been granted their asylum in Australia.

Yet, just last year, amid the call to stop the boats of asylum seekers arriving, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke of revisiting Australia's obligations under the Convention.

The talk has not gone away, although Paul Power says he finds it unlikely to ever amount to more.

"It's very difficult to imagine what it would be replaced with. I mean, you know, a lot of the debate in Australia seems to assume that the Convention makes provisions for people to be economic refugees and (refugees) because of climate change and all sorts of other scenarios, but the Convention itself is very narrow, linked specifically to particular types of persecution."

But Monash University refugee-law researcher Azadeh Dastyari suggests changes in treatment of refugees may not involve the Convention.

She says there are other ways.

"I don't think now's necessarily the time that they're going to restrict rights at an international level. What we're more likely to see is that people will stay signed on to the Refugee Convention but, domestically, they will ignore the rights that are kind of outlined in the Refugee Convention. And we definitely see that in Australia, where refugees have certain rights but those rights aren't being respected by our government."

Azadeh Dastyari says she sees a sad irony in the Australian government's mood today, compared with 60 years ago.

"I think it is very ironic that Australia would be moving away from the Refugee Convention. I think a lot of Australians are also very aware of the fact that the world turned its back to Jewish refugees and see that as a dark past and would not want that to happen again. So, for a country like Australia to be so involved in getting the Refugee Convention up and going, and for so many Australians to be so ashamed of the fact that so many Jewish refugees were turned back at a time when they needed safety and they needed protection from persecution -- which, you know, led to the finding of the Refugee Convention and the support for the Refugee Convention globally -- is a sad, sad indication of where we've come."