UN report says Australia may breach Convention Against Torture

Lawyer Julian Burnside

A UN report says Australia's asylum-seeker policies and may breach the international Convention Against Torture.

(Transcript from World News Radio)


A United Nations report has criticised Australia's asylum-seeker policies and says they may breach the international Convention Against Torture, which Australia has signed.


The global report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture cites, in particular, Australia's use of indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island.


It also points to what it calls poor conditions in Australia's detention centres and the failure to protect vulnerable people within the centres.


Will Mumford reports.


The United Nations has put Australia on notice for its treatment of asylum seekers.


It comes only a month after the Australian Human Rights Commission's damning Forgotten Children report on children in detention.


The United Nations says in a new report, Australia may be breaching international law by detaining children and not ending violence and tension at its regional processing centre.


It says recent changes to Australia's maritime and migration laws may violate the rights of migrants and asylum seekers through the Convention Against Torture.


The report has been compiled by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.


The Human Rights Law Centre's director of legal advocacy, Daniel Webb, says it shows Australia is behind countries of similar prosperity and stability in meeting its human rights obligations.


"What's particularly concerning about the findings against Australia is that they relate to systemic policy. So, we've breached the Convention Against Torture, not in respect of one person on Manus, but in respect of each and every asylum seeker we continue to detain there."


The UN report specifies two recent legislative amendments to Australian migration and maritime law which it says put Australia at risk of breaching the Convention Against Torture.


They give the government the power to detain refugees at sea without access to lawyers and tighten controls on issuing visas on the basis of character and risk assessments.


Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has rejected the findings in the report.


He has released a statement saying Australia is meeting all of its human-rights obligations and providing a range of services to people it says are trying to enter Australia illegally.


But human-rights advocate and barrister Julian Burnside argues those laws, passed late last year, are alarming and should concern all Australians.


"It makes it possible for the government to send a person back to the place they came from, even if that would involve a breach of the Refugees Convention. Now, this is an astounding development in Australia's position. We were one of the first countries who signed up to the Refugees Convention, and now we are, in substance, legislating to allow us to break the obligations in the Refugees Convention."


Mr Burnside says the report should be an international embarrassment for Australia.


He says findings in the report support findings in Gillian Triggs' Forgotten Children report regarding the treatment of children in Australia's refugee detention centres.


"The report of the UN Special Rapporteur is clearly consistent with what Gillian Triggs' report told the Government. And none of these things are new to the Government, and the fact that we are being criticised by international bodies is also not new. It seems that we are willing to engage in cruel mistreatment of people and we'll attack anyone who exposes the fact that we're doing it."


Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre executive director David Manne says the report shows the cruelty of Australia's approach toward those fleeing persecution.


"This is a matter of not only profound concern in relation to the rights and the wellbeing of those people who are subjected to cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment under Australia's care but, also, in relation to Australia's standing internationally, because these types of reports raise serious questions about Australia's standing as a human-rights defender and also damage Australia's credibility when seeking to make the case internationally about upholding and defending the human rights of people around the world."


Daniel Webb, at the Human Rights Law Centre, says he hopes the report will serve as a wake-up call to Australian politicians despite having no direct legal implications.


"Findings like this from the UN aren't enforceable in a court in the way that domestic law is. But I mean, you've got to remember Australia signed this treaty, signed the Convention Against Torture, 30 years ago. So we voluntarily assumed these responsibilities. Yet, here we are 30 years later, flagrantly and systemically violating those safeguards."



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