Australia is losing credibility to protect human rights abroad

By Max Walden
Julie Bishop

April 29 marked one year since Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by Indonesia.

The death penalty is always a violation of human rights, but this felt like an even greater injustice. These men – young and stupid when they committed a very serious crime – were testament to the ability of the Indonesian prison system to reform wrongdoers.

Inside Bali’s notorious Kerobokan gaol, Sukumaran spent almost 10 years running an art studio for fellow inmates. A long-serving prison guard has said that Sukumaran was “like my own son.” Chan was studying a bachelor’s degree in theology and had intended to become a minister.

They went to their deaths singing “Amazing Grace”.

Indonesia faces a series of major human rights issues of which the death penalty is but one. These include systemic and sometimes violent religious persecution, chaining and physical abuse of people with mental illness, and suppression of the LGBTQI community.

Bolstering human rights protection will require strengthening democratic institutions, promoting media freedom and capacity building for good governance – some of the stated aims of Australia’s aid.  As one of the largest recipients of Australian aid, and a democracy of 250 million people, the promotion of human rights and democratisation in Indonesia is undoubtedly an aim of the Australian government.

But Australia will never be able to effectively criticise and prevent human rights abuses such as the death penalty, in Indonesia or elsewhere, while it remains a serious violator itself.

Throughout the 20th century, Australia punched above its weight as a respected international citizen and enthusiastic promoter of human rights. The Australian delegation was instrumental in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, as one of only eight drafting nations. An Australian, Doc Evatt, was elected President of the UN General Assembly that same year. For the remainder of the 20th century, Australia remained at the forefront of pushing for the expansion and ratification of international human rights conventions to protect vulnerable peoples.

Abuses in offshore detention are a blight on this proud history. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s assertion that this nation is “sick of being lectured by the United Nations” shows how far we’ve regressed.

The United Nations has regularly criticised Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers since 2011. In 2012, Australia flagrantly disregarded the UN Committee Against Torture’s call for it to not return refugees to their persecutors, a legal principle called non-refoulement. It ignored this plea, returning a boatload of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka where they were met with detention and interrogation.

In March 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture found that multiple aspects of Australia’s asylum seeker policies, including indefinite detention and harsh conditions, are in breach of the Torture Convention. This puts us in grave violation of international law.

By November, more than 100 countries were lining up to criticise Australia’s detention regime at the UN in Geneva including the US, UK, Canada, France and Germany. Sweden observed that Australia is the only country in the world that employs offshore, mandatory detention and processing of people seeking asylum. Moreover, serious concerns were raised about the high rate of Indigenous incarceration.

To point out human rights abuses is not to say that Australia is to blame (perhaps with the exception of the Australian Federal Police), for the execution of Chan and Sukumaran. Our politicians, civil society and media gave the issue a lot of attention and relentlessly campaigned for their lives to be spared.

Tony Abbott made a serious gaffe in calling for Chan and Sukumaran to be pardoned because Australia provided aid to Aceh in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. So incensed were Indonesians by this suggestion, that the local population in Aceh began a fundraising campaign – #KoinUntukAustralia (coins for Australia) – to give back Australia’s aid money.

Nevertheless, Abbott genuinely did his best to prevent their execution. Foreign minister Julie Bishop undertook admirable diplomacy as well, to no avail. Neither can be blamed for the deaths of Chan and Sukumaran.

Within the complexities of Indonesian politics, with a nascent president seeking to prove himself to a hostile right-wing and widespread perception of a drug epidemic, it seems unlikely that their lives would ever have been spared. Indonesia has already announced a new round of executions, although no Australians will be among those killed.

But going forward this could change. The Department of Foreign Affairs says at least 250 Australians are imprisoned overseas at any given time. At least 10 Australians still face the death penalty abroad. Our government’s refusal to acknowledge criticism of its asylum policy and implement reform means its leverage to promote human rights elsewhere is waning.

It cannot be denied that Australia abuses the universal human rights of people seeking asylum. If it hopes to protect the human rights of its own citizens overseas, this must end.