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Issue #1689      June 17, 2015

Professor Triggs and the attack on human rights

In March the Abbott government attacked Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), for having published a critical report on the presence and treatment of children in Australian immigration detention centres.

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Professor Gillian Triggs.

Abbott called the report “blatantly partisan,” even though it also criticised the former Labor government and acknowledged that the number of children held in detention fell after the Coalition took office.

Attorney-General George Brandis then got a Canberra bureaucrat to offer her a nice job overseas if she decided to retire from AHRC. Labor and the Greens asked the Australian Federal Police to investigate whether this constituted bribery, but Professor Triggs refused to make a formal complaint.

Last week Immigration Minister Peter Dutton claimed she had linked the government’s asylum seeker policies with Indonesia’s execution of two convicted Australian drug smugglers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, i.e. that the policies had somehow influenced the Indonesian government’s decision to execute the two young men.

But Professor Triggs made no reference to Chan or Sukumaran at all, only suggesting that because of the asylum seeker policies Asian countries “will not engage with us on other issues that we care about, like the death penalty” and that the government should “work diplomatically … to reach agreement with Indonesia on ending the death penalty in the region.”

Minister for Social Security Scott Morrison then attacked a recommendation made by the AHRC last year that Indonesian asylum seeker John Basikbasik, who had served seven years in jail for killing his wife, should be released to community detention and compensated for having been held in immigration detention for a further eight years.

Morrison was clearly attempting to distract public attention from the real issue highlighted by the AHRC, i.e. that the human rights of asylum seekers are violated when they are held in detention for long periods, and that they are entitled to compensation for what is, in effect, unjustified imprisonment.

The policy of imposing an extra sentence may also violate the constitutional separation of powers of the executive and the judiciary. The decision to detain asylum seekers indefinitely is already being made by the Minister, as in the case of the Nauru detainees who refuse to go to Cambodia, and who are subject to immigration policies which Professor Triggs has described as “essentially punitive”.

Loss of citizenship

The government’s proposal to strip Australian citizenship from people who have dual nationalities, but are accused by the government of being involved in terrorist activities, is loaded with potential for the violation of human rights.

People with both British and Australian nationalities, for example, could find themselves stripped of both nationalities and rendered stateless, because Britain already has legislation in place similar to that proposed by the Abbott government.

For someone born here the loss of Australian citizenship would constitute a denial of their birthright. The government has already decreed that children of asylum seekers who are born here will no longer be entitled to Australian citizenship.

Last Monday marked the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, the historic legal document that enshrined the principal of equality under the law and the right of persons to be free from arbitrary arrest.

As Professor Triggs has commented, that principal is now under threat in Australia, because the decision to strip Australian citizenship from people accused of terrorist crimes would be made by the government, not by the courts.

Again, the constitutional separation of powers would surely be violated if this proposal is implemented.

Attacks, resistance and counter-attacks

Professor Triggs’ comments regarding the impact of federal policies on foreign relations are very important, because Indonesia and other Asian neighbours see many of Australia’s policies as hypocritical and self-serving.

The government took Indonesia to task over the execution of Chan and Suikumaran, but the Howard government demanded the death penalty for the Bali bombers. The depth of Dutton’s concern for human rights was indicated when he walked out of parliament during Labor leader Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology over the Stolen Generations.

Successive Australian governments have railed against the people smugglers, but last year the Abbott government put intercepted asylum seekers into lifeboats and forced them to return to Indonesia, and is now paying the crews of asylum seeker boats to return their passengers to Indonesia.

By taking these actions the government is in effect engaging in people smuggling itself. Paying the crews to return their passengers to Indonesia also makes people-smuggling far more financially attractive.

Moreover, if the Indonesian government also refuses to permit asylum seeker boats to return, the passengers could find themselves repeatedly forced back to the open sea, abandoned and in danger of drowning, starvation, or dying from thirst, as demonstrated recently by the case of asylum seekers fleeing from Myanmar.

The government has launched attacks on many public organisations, including the Climate Commission, the ABC and the AHRC, all of which have questioned government policies as part of their mandated role. It has even canvassed the idea of eliminating the AHRC.

Earlier this year the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders questioned the government concerning its treatment of Professor Triggs.

With breathtaking hypocrisy and in complete contrast to its brutal verbal assaults on Professor Triggs, the government replied that it is deeply concerned about human rights, and fully accepts that the AHCR may make statements critical of the government.

Nevertheless, it continued to attack Professor Triggs, describing her conclusions as “a stitch up”, “lacking credibility”, “biased” and “hopelessly untenable”.

What a picture! A dignified, highly intelligent woman capably and courageously defends human rights, while a pack of barking, male chauvinist political “attack dogs” surround her, trying to browbeat her into submission!

But they won’t succeed. The AHRC enjoys wide support from organisations and individuals concerned about human rights, and opposition to the citizenship proposal is even coming from former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, arch-conservative Liberal Senator Cori Bernadi and neo-liberal Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson.

So stand fast, Professor Triggs, you have many supporters, and you’re doing a great job for human rights and the nation.

Next article – Housing crisis and “good jobs”

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