Facing the monsters


Understandably there has been an outraged public response to the Federal Government’s arbitrary detention policy since two Australian women have been identified as victims of policy and practice which routinely bypasses individual human rights. That official government policy could lead to the long-term detention of Cornelia Rau and deportation of Vivian Alvarez Solon is indeed reprehensible. Clearly these revelations demand public apology, compensation and major policy reform.

However, in calling for the recognition of these two women’s suffering, we must remember so many others whose names have not been highlighted in the national media. Hundreds of people remain in detention or have been deported to uncertain futures. Many others live with the trauma of the Australian detention experience and their insecurity as holders of temporary protection visas.

Is it just coincidental that, as debate rages about two individuals, there is silence about the inhumane treatment accorded hundreds of people who believed Australia would provide sanctuary from human rights abuse?

Over the past four years many organisations and individuals have been calling for a Royal Commission of Enquiry into arbitrary detention. In 2003 the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) made unsuccessful efforts to have the Australian Federal Police investigate documented allegations of violence and intimidation, but at the time was advised that such an enquiry was not a priority of government. It has taken another two years for the Federal Government to be obliged to appoint Mick Palmer to fully consider the circumstances of Cornelia Rau’s detention. Yet is it obvious that this enquiry should be widened to focus on the overall culture of abuse and mental torture within Australian detention centres.

The Australian Government’s reluctance to face the monster it has created is revealed in its recent report to the United Nations Committee responsible for monitoring countries’ compliance with the Convention on Torture. Presented in April, this report is long on rhetoric and short on detailing any criticism of the detention experience. The report has not been made public but Australians have not missed any fresh insights because the government has avoided any mention of specific cases or allegations of abuse.

In an independent report submitted to question the government’s inadequate response, the UNAA has highlighted its members’ concerns that the Federal Government appears to have little understanding about the implications of its failure to comply with reporting obligations under the Convention Against Torture.

In November 2000 when the United Nations last considered Australia’s commitment to the Convention Against Torture, the Committee identified five key issues and reported that:

a. There remains no independent review of ministerial decision-making
b. Prison authorities continue to use various instruments of physical restraint
c. There are ongoing allegations that police and prison staff resort to physical abuse and degrading treatment of citizens and prisoners
d. There are no national training programs to assist state obligations in complying with international human rights standards
e. We believe there is inadequate knowledge of the role of the inspector of Custodial Services and no detail about the independent role of that office

(Concluding Observations of the Committee Against Torture 21/11/2000)

Five years later not one of these issues has been addressed and indeed there has been an alarming increase in reports of breaches of the Convention Against Torture in Australian detention camps both in isolated regions onshore as well as offshore islands.

The location of these places of detention and the privatisation of management has contributed to a culture of humiliation and abuse, which many human rights advocates have consistently argued amounts to cruel and degrading treatment as defined by the Convention against Torture.

The Australian Government’s Fourth Report to the Committee Against Torture has studiously avoided coming to terms with the real policy issues for which the Federal Government has responsibility. The fifty-one page document fails to address the harsh reality that some individuals HAVE experienced cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as a result of their being within the jurisdiction of State or Federal institutions.

Yet this report fails to document the number of allegations of torture in detention centres and prisons nor the action taken to prevent instances of cruel and degrading treatment within Federal and State administrations. Furthermore, there is no acknowledgement of the various types of professional advice the Federal Government has received that its long-term mandatory detention policy contributes to mental illness. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has thoroughly investigated numerous cases of physical and mental harm to children in detention, as well as other individual adult cases. Yet its reports are ignored or strongly criticised by the Federal Government. Medical, legal and psychological member associations as well as individuals, organisations and the media have been documenting individual cases of abuse for at least the last four years, but this great volume of work has not been acknowledged as relevant to the government’s report.

There is no doubt that this period of national public policy administration will continue to reveal gross breaches of fiduciary duty for which the Australian Government will be held accountable . Surely it is in the best interests of everyone concerned that a Royal Commission of Enquiry fully identifies the scale of injustice that bipartisan commitment to arbitrary detention has caused so that a reform agenda can be set and accepted unanimously by the Parliament for the future.

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