As you would expect of the new Attorney-General in a recently elected federal government, Senator George Brandis has been brushing up on his knowledge of international law.
We discovered this when he quoted this week from a United Nations document known as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Of course, it is important for Brandis to know the detail of such weighty documents, not least because Australia, as a signatory, is expected to abide by its provisions.
So, when announcing his controversial appointment of right-wing Institute of Public Affairs policy director Tim Wilson as the new Human Rights Commissioner, it was no surprise to see Brandis invoke, with the impressive authority of a learned QC, article 19 of the ICCPR.
“I have asked Mr Wilson to focus on the protection of the traditional liberal democratic and common law rights, including, in particular, the rights recognised by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Brandis said in a statement.
This has been widely viewed as part of the Coalition’s campaign against racial vilification laws, which was energised two years ago after right-wing News Corp commentator Andrew Bolt was found guilty of serious breaches of the Racial Discrimination Act, which forbids anyone to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate”.
What is bemusing, though, is that Brandis, in his reading of the ICCPR, appears to have completely overlooked articles two, seven and nine as he headed down to article 19.
The Attorney-General, of course, would know precisely what’s in these sections of the document, because Australia has been accused by the United Nations of close to 150 breaches of these articles through its indefinite detention of 46 refugees who have been given secret negative security assessments by ASIO.
Most have been detained for between three and four years, while some are in their fifth year of detention. All are Tamils from Sri Lanka, except for three Rohingyas from Burma and one Kuwaiti man. Several have attempted suicide, the most recent attempt being in late October by a 40-year-old Tamil man imprisoned since March 2010.
In August, the UN Human Rights Committee found that Australia was guilty, under article seven, of inflicting “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” on the refugees, and under article nine, for arbitrarily detaining them. It also said that, under article two, Australia was obliged to release, compensate and rehabilitate them.
Australia was granted 180 days to address the charges, a job which has fallen to Brandis. He has until mid-February to do so.
Already, though, the Coalition has signalled its intention to thumb its nose at the UN, and continue to enhance Australia’s reputation as an international law-breaker whenever it suits a political purpose. In opposition, Brandis said the ASIO-rejected refugees had “no-one to blame but themselves” because they had come to Australia unlawfully.
In August, when he was the shadow Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison said the Coalition would reject the UN demand. “They are entitled to their view and Australia is entitled to protect its national security,” he said.
The idea that Australia should abide by its signature on international treaties cuts no ice with this government, or the previous one.
The enhanced screening process, under which Tamil asylum seekers have been sent back to persecution for more than a year, is also widely viewed by many legal scholars as a breach of our obligations under the Refugee Convention.
The man who brought the case against Australia before the UN Human Rights Committee, Professor Ben Saul, from the Sydney Centre for International Law, has described Australia’s refugee policies as “grave lawlessness”. He also said the UN finding was “a major embarrassment for Australia”.
There was no hint of embarrassment, though, about the fact that, as the UN delivered its stinging assessment of the Australian government’s treatment of refugees, Australia was about to take over the revolving presidency of the UN Security Council. The Labor government simply turned a blind eye, continued to preen itself over the appointment and promised to use its influence to address international peace and security.
Three months later, as the new Attorney-General cherry-picks his way through the UN treaties Australia has signed, it is obvious that hypocrisy has made a seamless transition from one government to another.
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