UNHCR accuses government of breaching undertaking over refugee cases



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Filippo Grandi urged an immediate end to Australia’s offshore processing of refugees.
Martial Trezzini/EPA

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, has accused Australia of breaking its word by refusing to allow refugees on Manus Island and Nauru with family in Australia to settle here – a claim denied by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

In a strongly worded statement on Monday, Grandi said that last November the UNHCR “exceptionally” had agreed to help with the relocation of refugees to the US, when the Turnbull government struck a deal with the outgoing Obama administration.

“We agreed to do so on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there,” Grandi said.

But “UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees, and that they, along with the others on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, have been informed that their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or the United States,” Grandi said.

This meant some people with serious medical conditions or who had had traumatic experiences such as sexual violence could not receive the support of close family members who are living in Australia, he said.

“To avoid prolonging their ordeal, UNHCR has no other choice but to endorse the relocation of all refugees on Papua New Guinea and Nauru to the United States, even those with close family members in Australia.”

A spokesperson for Dutton responded to Grandi’s statement by saying the government’s position “has been clear and consistent” – people transferred to regional processing centres “will never settle in Australia”.

On the ABC’s 7.30, Volker Turk, the UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, elaborated on the claim.

He said the UNHCR went into its facilitation role “after long discussions with Australian government officials”.

“We had a lot of meetings with the government, including myself with the minister of immigration in November,” he said.

“There was no doubt in our mind – and this is what we put forward to the minister at the time – that we would present to him cases that are compelling humanitarian, with close family links to Australia. We were hoping that, indeed, Australia would consider them favourably within the discretion that the minister has at his disposal.”

Pressed on whether Dutton gave any assurance that he would actually allow those people to resettle in Australia, Turk said: “He didn’t give us assurances because we didn’t present cases yet. But he did agree that we would be able to present such cases.”

“Of course we went into this agreement on the understanding that, indeed, Australia would be part of the solution for a handful of compelling humanitarian cases with strong family links in Australia.”

Only 36 people had so far been identified with such links, he said.

On the basis of the understanding that it had the UNHCR “presented these compelling cases”, Turk said.

Grandi said these vulnerable people who had already had four years in “punishing conditions” should be reunited with their families in Australia. This would be the “humane and reasonable” course.

“The Australian government’s decision to deny them this possibility is contrary to the fundamental principles of family unity and refugee protection, and to common decency,” he said.

Grandi said Australia’s offshore processing policy “has caused extensive, avoidable suffering for far too long”.

“Four years on, more than 2,000 people are still languishing in unacceptable circumstances. Families have been separated and many have suffered physical and psychological harm,” he said.

The UNHCR has referred more than 1,000 refugees to the US over the past eight months. A further 500 people are waiting for the outcome of their refugee claims, being processed by authorities in PNG and Nauru. The American deal provided for the US to take up to 1,250.

US President Donald Trump made it clear in his much-publicised phone conversation with Malcolm Turnbull that he hated the deal, though he has said he will honour it.

But so far no-one has been settled. The US, which is doing its own assessments, has been slow, and now America has filled its much-reduced refugee program for the year ending September. This has stalled any prospect of departures until the new year starts in October.

Meanwhile the Manus centre is due to close on October 31, and authorities there are trying to push people out of it.

Asked on Sky on Sunday whether there was any circumstance under which the government would allow some people to come to Australia, Dutton said: “People will not be coming to Australia … the government has said it consistently”.

He said this consistent position had been part of the reason for the success in stopping the boats. “We’ve taken the people-smuggling model away from the people smugglers. People don’t believe that they can get to Australia by paying their money and if that fails then we will see a recommencement of boats.”

Pointing to the earlier 1,200 drownings at sea, Dutton said that under the Coalition’s “Operation Sovereign Borders we’ve not seen a single death at sea”.

Grandi said the UNHCR fully endorsed the need to save lives and prevent exploitation by people smugglers.

“But the practice of offshore processing has had a hugely detrimental impact. There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land.”

He urged an immediate end to Australia’s offshore processing and for it to offer solutions to its victims “for whom it retains full responsibility”.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie tweeted:

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The ConversationLabor called on the government to release the details of the US-Australia resettlement agreement, including any side deal made with the UNHCR.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australia’s bid for the UN Human Rights Council


Sarah Joseph, Monash University

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has announced that Australia is running for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council for the period of 2018 to 2020. The bid was originally made by the previous government, and has now been officially endorsed by this one.

What is the Human Rights Council?

The UN Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which had run from 1947 to 2006. In that time, the commission had some impressive accomplishments, including its early drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, and most of the core UN human rights treaties. The commission played a role in promoting and developing human rights norms, and investigating and highlighting human rights issues and crises.

However, by the time of its demise, its reputation was so clouded that its official name seemed to have become “the Discredited” Human Rights Commission. The West felt that too many countries with terrible human rights records, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, were joining the commission (it had 53 member nations) to protect themselves from censure. In contrast, developing nations felt that the commission had become too antagonistic in its dealings with them.

A revamp was needed, so the commission was replaced by the council, which has the same normative and investigative functions and has 47 member nations. It has one major new function, the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”), whereby the human rights record of every UN member is reviewed by the council (as well as all other “observer” nations) every four-and-a-half years.

The 47 seats are divided between the five official UN regions in the following way: Africa (13); Asia (13); Latin America and the Caribbean (8); Western Europe and Other (7); Eastern Europe (6). Australia is in the Western Europe and Other Group, known as WEOG. One-third of the council is elected every year by the UN General Assembly, and members serve three-year terms. No member may serve more than two consecutive terms. A member can also be suspended from the council upon a vote of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly: Libya was so suspended in 2011 after Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters and armed dissidents.

As the council’s members are representatives of their governments rather than independent human rights experts, it is hardly surprising that the council, like the commission before it, is a highly politicised body. So is the council an improvement upon the “discredited” commission? While the UPR is capable of improvement, it has generally been praised as a jewel in the council’s crown, which clearly distinguishes it from the commission.

Nevertheless, many of the same criticisms arise as were levelled at the commission. Some of its members, now and in the past, have terrible human rights records. After all, while Libya was suspended in 2011, one may fairly ask why it was elected in the first place?

Saudi Arabia’s leadership role is currently attracting much adverse media attention. Russia, China and Cuba are routinely elected, as was the case with the commission, though they all had to sit out 2013 as they had all served two consecutive terms. It is no coincidence that 2013 was a comparatively productive year for the council. **

Human rights criteria were mooted as prerequisites for membership back when the council was created. However, the UN’s nearly 200 members could not agree on substantive criteria, as they have different views on human rights. The US, for example, wanted only “democratic nations” to be eligible, whereas a focus on the implementation of economic and social rights might have led to the exclusion of the US itself.

Procedural criteria, such as a nation’s record on ratification of human rights treaties, would have been more objective. However, such criteria may have led to the exclusion of the two most powerful countries in the world – the US and China. As it stands, members commit to the highest standards of human rights, and countries should take into account a nominee’s human rights record when voting. But both of these rules are basically unenforceable.

Nevertheless, I believe that the membership of the council has generally been better than was the case with the later years of the Commission on Human Rights. It is notable that notorious abusers such as Sri Lanka and Belarus have sought and failed to gain election, while Syria was sensibly talked out of running in 2011. The secret ballot for council elections may be a key here, as there is a chance that a UN region will lose a seat for a year if an insufficient number of its nominees are deemed acceptable enough to be elected by a majority of the UN General Assembly.

The council is also criticised for running hard against human rights abuses in some contexts, while being notably soft in others. For example, inconsistency arose in 2009 when Israel was heavily condemned over Operation Cast Lead in Gaza while Sri Lanka was effectively praised a few months later for the end of its long-running civil war despite thousands of civilian deaths.

To be fair, the 2009 Sri Lanka resolution was possibly a nadir in the council’s operations, and it has been more proactive in responding to major human crises since, such as those in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Syria, Mali and the Central African Republic. It has also now adopted resolutions condemning Sri Lanka and calling for war crimes investigations. However, Australia did not support the 2014 resolution, presumably as it sought continued political favour with Sri Lanka to ensure its ongoing co-operation to stop asylum seeker boats.

A global intergovernmental body focusing on human rights is important. Such a body will always be dogged by politics, but it is important to have such a forum as countries care more about what other countries think than they do about the statements of human rights experts and NGOs. The council is that global intergovernmental body, and its evolving membership represents the world of today, warts and all.

It is doubtful that the battle for universal human rights observance will be won by adopting an “us and them” mentality which excludes significant numbers of countries even running for election for the “human rights club”. It could lead to balkanised human rights discussions, and possible competing institutions within the UN. The council must be a forum where non-like-minded countries can talk to each other and cross divides (as does happen on occasion) to make important human rights decisions.

Australia and the council

Australia is seeking a three-year term from 2018. It is competing with France and Spain for two WEOG seats. Will Australia be elected?

It is impossible to predict; much water will flow under the bridge before the election in 2017. Widespread praise for the role Australia ultimately played as a Security Council member indicates a reasonable amount of goodwill towards us. Clearly, France and Spain have the advantage of being members of the European Union, meaning they likely have a solid bloc of votes locked in.

On the other hand, Australia benefits from being seen to represent a different region than the always-well-represented Europe. Australia could for example try to position itself as a champion of the Pacific nations, and we will no doubt use the eternal narrative that “we punch above our weight”. Furthermore, the EU has frankly been dysfunctional in its lobbying efforts on the council, due to its slowness in being able to pin down a position among its own members.

Australia’s own human rights record will be of relevance to nations in deciding how to vote. Australia’s upcoming second UPR on November 9 will enable us to see what their major concerns are.

Australia has significant and well-known human rights problems, for example concerning asylum seekers, onshore and offshore detention, Indigenous people, violence against women and counter-terrorism laws. Here, I will focus on issues which have the capacity to undermine Australia’s reputation for cooperation with the UN.

One concern will be the Abbott government’s hounding of Gillian Triggs, the president of Australia’s Human Rights Commission, as those attacks do not sit well with the single resolution that Australia routinely co-sponsors before the council – that concerning the importance and independence of National Human Rights Institutions. However, it is likely that the government’s open hostility towards Triggs will soften under new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Of great concern will be Australia’s attitude to its direct engagements with UN human rights bodies. We do not have a good record of implementing the findings of the UN treaty bodies, which have found Australia to be in breach of international human rights law more than 40 times.

In March, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, an independent human rights expert who is appointed by and reports to the council, found that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers contravened anti-torture standards. Then-prime minister Tony Abbott petulantly responded that Australia was “sick of being lectured to” by the UN.

Only this week, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants postponed his official trip to Australia as the government could not guarantee that he could receive information from people about the offshore detention centres without those people suffering legal reprisals under the Border Force Act.

If Australia’s reputation for non-co-operation with the UN continues to grow, its council bid could and should suffer.

Conclusion

Australia has a long and proud history with regard to human rights and the UN. Herbert Vere Evatt oversaw the adoption of the UDHR in 1948 as the president of the UN General Assembly. Distinguished Australians have served on the UN treaty bodies (for example, Elizabeth Evatt, Ivan Shearer and Ron McCallum) and as Special Rapporteurs (for example Philip Alston is the current Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights).

It is appropriate for Australia to continue that history of leadership and engagement by running for the Human Rights Council. It is a flawed body, but a necessary one.

Australia’s road to election in 2018 will however be tough. A good faith attitude to our upcoming UPR and the resultant recommendations, as well as efforts to redress our considerable human rights failings, will help in that regard.


**The sentence on Saudi Arabia was added a few minutes after posting, due to the topicality of that issue.

The Conversation

Sarah Joseph, Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.