Our Border Protection Spin Isn’t Fooling The World, UN Docs Reveal


The international community is not fooled by Australia’s human rights offending immigration policies, writes Kellie Tranter.

In January this year, Treasurer and former immigration minister Scott Morrison told Australians: “We are the envy of the world when it comes to strong border protection policies that protect the integrity of our immigration system.”

Yet heavily redacted documents released under Freedom of Information laws relating to our bid for the United Nations Human Rights Council suggest that in diplomatic circles, the view is that our border protection policies create a reputational vulnerability resulting in a defensive position against the increasing pressure of the world.


Consecutive immigration ministers and prime ministers confidently assert that Australia has found the solution to border protection issues, and proudly spruik this glorious news to all those parts of the world struggling with similar issues.

Few take this seriously.

Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison.
Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison.

In a cable dated 23 November 2016 titled ‘UN: Ireland and our HRC candidacy – strategy from Dublin’ it notes ‘Public misunderstanding of our approaches on asylum seekers, indigenous issues and [redacted]is a potential vulnerability we will be continuing to seek ways to address.’

Another cable dated 15 December 2016 and headed ‘UN: Human Rights Council Membership: Why it matters – Geneva’s take to Canberra from Geneva UN’ points out that “Australia’s human rights record will come under more intense scrutiny as we campaign for a seat on the Council… Over the last few years, our asylum seeker policies have been the focus of [redacted]civil society human rights criticism of Australia in Geneva [redacted]… ”

Even the Permanent Representative of Djibouti, a country located in the Horn of Africa, raised concerns which are detailed in a cable dated 21 February 2017 ‘UN: Australia’s Human Rights Council candidacy: Djibouti from New York.’

It notes that the “HOM called on the Permanent Representative of Djibouti on 13 February to discuss Australia’s candidacy for the HRC. [redacted]raised Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers. We provided a detailed briefing on the background to Australia’s policies [redacted]and a broader picture of Australia’s Immigration policy. [redacted]was satisfied with the response, but said we needed to make sure we had good information available on these issues.”

A screencap from an ABC News story, showing Manus Island detainees this week.
A screencap from an ABC News story, showing Manus Island detainees this week.

With the plight of the men on Manus Island receiving international media attention, there’s increasing domestic discomfort about, and international condemnation of, our border protection policies. The United Nations is fast losing patience with our position.

At the 14th Meeting 61st Session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in May, Maria Virginia Bras Gomes, Senior Social Policy Adviser in Portugal’s Ministry of Solidarity, Employment and Social Security, had this to say in response to our hostile response to the concerns raised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau:

“I just want to clarify a couple of issues. First of all I want to clarify that the role of the committee is not to be informative, it is to monitor the implementation of the Covenant.

Secondly, I’m reading from the End of Mission Statement from Mr Crépeau. I did not visit the State party, he did, and he had ample consultations and at the end of the consultation process and of the visits he issued a statement… And what Mr Crépeau says is ‘During my mission, I also observed that some of Australia’s migration policies have increasingly eroded the human rights of migrants in contravention of its international human rights and humanitarian obligations. For all the progress made by Australia in all other areas of life, several of Australia’s migration policies and laws are regressive and fall behind international standards….

‘The Australian authorities have put in place a very punitive approach to unauthorised maritime arrivals, with the explicit intention to deter other potential candidates. Unauthorised maritime arrivals are treated very differently from unauthorised air arrivals, especially when these arrivals result in protection claims.

This distinction is unjustifiable in international refugee and human rights law and amounts to discrimination based on a criterion – mode of arrival – which has no connection with the protection claim.

At all levels, unauthorised maritime arrivals face obstacles that other refugees do not face, including mandatory and prolonged detention periods, transfer to RPCs in foreign countries (Papua New Guinea and Nauru), indefinite separation from their family, restrictions in the social services and no access to citizenship.

This treatment is predicated on the idea that it sends a message to the smugglers and the potential candidates for maritime smuggling operation. However, it is a fundamental principle of human rights law that one person cannot be punished only for the reason of deterring another.

This is based on Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, at the root of the conception of human dignity which underlies the whole of the human rights regime: “Never treat another only as a means, but also always as an end”.’

Similarly at the 3418th Meeting of the 121st Session of the Human Rights Committee in October Madame Sarah Cleveland, American law professor and noted expert in international law, raised serious questions about our non-refoulement obligations, [at 26:00].

In a similar vein Professor Yuval Shany, Vice Chair of the UN Human Rights Committee, recently said Australia’s track record was “incredible” for a country that claims to be a leading voice on human rights and that Australia “has very little to be proud of.” He described Australia’s record as one of “chronic non-compliance” with the Committee’s findings, and said its compliance rate was so low it was “completely off the charts”.

Professor Yuval Shany has also raised the issue of ‘effective jurisdiction’ in the context of Australia’s constant obligation to assess the situation on the ground on Manus and Nauru.

The United Nations General Assembly. (IMAGE: Linh Do, Flickr)
The United Nations General Assembly. (IMAGE: Linh Do, Flickr)

Only days ago the United Nations issued a scathing report on racism in Australia, warning discrimination is “on the rise”, including in the political sphere and in the media and documented sixteen areas of concern including, including asylum seekers.


The international community has begun not just to take notice of the cruelty of Australia’s border protection policies but to speak out against them. And it is not just politicians and bureaucrats who are joining the fray.

The people of Europe have looked askance at Australia’s actions from time to time, and it can only be a matter of time before grassroots movements around the world, with support from many members of the United Nations, succeed in pressuring their governments into imposing economic and cultural sanctions on us, and pressuring their international companies into divesting themselves of any close political or economic involvement with Australia.

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Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist.