Manus Victims 'Treated Better Than Australians': Cornall


Robert Cornall, the man who last year investigated rape allegations on Manus Island, has said that sexually abused detainees at the Australian-run detention centre on the island receive better treatment than Australian rape victims, and has questioned whether rape isn’t just a part of Iranian culture.

Cornall has now been commissioned by the Department of Immigration to review last week’s violence at the camp that left a young Iranian man dead.

New Matilda has obtained a transcript of an interview with Manus Island whistleblower Rod St George that Cornall conducted as part of a previous review for the department into allegations of rape and torture at the centre.

St George, a former occupational health and safety manager at the Manus detention centre, blew the whistle about rape and torture between detainees at the camp to SBS Dateline in July last year. At the time he alleged that young men were being raped at the camp and then sent back to the compound to live among their attackers, and that Immigration Department staff failed to remove the victims, despite knowing that the abuse was ongoing.

According to the transcript, St George told Cornall during the interview that a guard and a social worker at the centre had taken it upon themselves to offer emotional support to a young Iranian man who had been raped by fellow detainees at the centre in March and April last year.

Cornall responded by asking whether an Australian victim would have received as much attention.

“Okay. It’s interesting though. I mean… in Australia today, people are no doubt being sexually assaulted and there would be rapes occurring in Australia today, and what sort of support do they get? And what sort of assistance do they get," he asked.

“And a lot of those would, and I’m not saying that this justifies anything, it’s just an observation, I don’t think any of them would get that amount of attention in Australia."

Cornall also questioned whether rape was simply part of Iranian culture.

“…well people have said to me that in Iranian culture, male rape or male sexual intercourse is more culturally acceptable… And also that it is a way of more mature males dominating young men. Is that in accordance to your understanding,” he asked.

When St George replied “But we are not in Iran”, Cornall said, “No, is it just Iranians or is it Middle Eastern?”. He then changed the topic.

There is very little other discussion of the circumstances leading up to rape in the hours-long interview, despite the fact that one of Cornall’s tasks was to assess “the adequacy of arrangements for … preventing incidents of sexual and other serious assaults at the centre”.

Cornall, a former secretary of the Attorney General’s department, was asked by the Immigration Department to investigate St George’s claims after they were aired on SBS, and was paid $94,200 to conduct the review. He will now be carrying out a similar review into the violence that led to the death of Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Barati, last week. Cornall has reportedly received $1.49 million for government reviews and services in the last three years.

According to the interview transcript, St George told Cornall about the conditions facing detainees at the centre, including water and power shortages, leaky tents and their inability to cool themselves in the hot humid weather, to which Cornall replied:

“One of the interesting things about Manus is that everybody is in the same boat, aren’t they? The departmental people, the consultants, the contract service providers.”

When St George countered, “Oh no, the department never went without water”, Cornall said:

“I’m not talking about water shortages, I’m just talking about the overall environment. Everyone is pretty much in the same circumstances. I mean I know the transferees are being held there and the other people come on their own volition and go of their own volition but when you are actually there, the facilities are very much the same.”

St George replied: “Yes, they were very much mediocre. I suppose the fact that the rest of us were free did [count]for a lot.”

Throughout the interview Cornall also repeatedly questioned the reliability of St George’s account and defended the Australian government’s offshore processing regime.

As I reported for Guardian Australia, St George was outraged by the Cornall review’s findings when they were released in October last year. "I look at this report and I think there's just a blatant refusal on the part of the Department of Immigration to address these things," he told me at the time.

Another former staff member at the centre who also gave testimony to Cornall — a Salvation Army welfare worker who offered support to the rape victim during his ordeal — spoke to me of her disgust that the review did nothing to address the ongoing issues of rape and abuse at the centre.

Apart from my reports and a story by Oliver Laughland and Paul Farrell at Guardian Australia, there was very little media coverage of Cornall’s review, which St George claims is not an accurate account of what was really going on at the Manus camp.

In his interview with Dateline last year, St George predicted conditions at the camp were so dire that it was “just a matter of time” before the tinderbox exploded.

He was not asked by Cornall what he meant by this.

St George also told Cornall that there had been problems with PNG nationals employed by G4S as staff within the centre. PNG G4S staff have now been implicated in the violence that led to Barati’s death.

The terms of reference for Cornall’s latest review, “into the events of 16-18 February 2014 at the Manus Regional Processing Centre”, were released on Wednesday night. As Farrell reports today, the key focus will be on management of security at the centre.

St George told New Matilda today that he is disappointed with the narrow focus of the inquiry, and that while he has no doubt the security personnel have a lot to answer for, there was a danger that the review would ignore the underlying causes of last week’s violence.

“What the government is doing here is making the inferred statement that [the Department of]Immigration is not to blame, the policy itself is not the issue, the government has no fault in this — it is all security's fault and the contractor needs to pay the price,” he said.

“Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott know that a truly independent review would lay bare the real causes for trouble on Manus — human beings will all react in the same way if they are treated the way those men were treated by the Department of Immigration.”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.