February 09, 2015 | the guardian
Human rights chief Gillian Triggs says writing her report has been a ‘life changing experience’ – but has attracted heavy fire from the critics.
Gillian Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, at the national inquiry into children in immigration detention last year. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP
The president of the Human Rights Commission (HRC), Prof Gillian Triggs, says her forthcoming report on children held in immigration detention is both “scientific and credible”.
Speaking at an international law conference at the University of Sydney, Triggs said preparation of the report was a “life-changing experience” for her.
She visited 11 detention centres, conducted 1,129 interviews, held five public hearings, received 239 submissions, and took evidence from nine medical experts.
Throughout her investigation she was subject to vituperative criticism from the government and its supporters in the Murdoch press.
It was even suggested that it was improper to commence the inquiry after the Coalition came into government.
Triggs said on Friday that the inquiry is part of a 10-year follow-up review of the HRC’s 2004 findings on children in immigration detention. When the new review was being planned there had been limited releases of children and the average time in detention had been 1.3 years.
She said that the report will “tell the stories that moved me … The findings are important … Nothing should take away our humanity and the need to respond to these concerns.”
The stories she heard and the evidence she received are harrowing. Lives ruined by incarceration, uncertainty and crushed hope. The public submissions can be read here.
Triggs’s report has been with the attorney general, George Brandis, since 11 November. He is obliged to table it within 15 parliamentary sitting days of receiving it. If Brandis is true to his form, he will grit his teeth and table it at the last possible moment on Wednesday, or more likely earlier this week when the nation’s media is focused on other things.
Triggs cannot reveal the details of her findings before the report is tabled, but from evidence to the HRC and information gleaned from the Department of Immigration and Border protection’s website certain conclusions can be drawn:
• Nearly a third of children in detention are diagnosed with serious mental illness, compared with 2% in the Australian community;
• Harsh, cramped conditions resultr in the spread of illness;
• Many children have been the victims of assaults;
• There are high levels of self-harm and suicide attempts by parents and children (highest among children);
• Indefinite detention, with no access to lawyers, exacerbates the mental illness of parents;
• There has been no access to regular education on Christmas Island for at least a year;
• here were 1,100 children in detention when the HRC started its inquiry – there are now 420.
There has also been evidence that detaining children does not stop asylum seekers or people smugglers, which raises the question – why have the children been held so long?
The president of the HRC said on Friday that attacks on her work published by News Corp were a “furphy and … inaccurate”. She said stories written by the Australian’s legal affairs editor had been misleading: “You’d expect accurate reporting from the law pages of the Australian.”
Last month the Australian reported Deakin University law professor Prof Mirko Bagaric’s claim that Triggs was “legally flawed” in her decision recommending community detention for a West Papuan refugee, John Basikbasik, who has been held at Villawood for seven years.
This was the HRC recommendation that Tony Abbott claimed was “bizarre”.
Bagaric said Basikbasik’s long-term detention without charge or trial should not have been classified as “arbitrary”. Further, it was wrong to apply the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to underpin the HRC’s recommendations.
The Australian described Bagaric as “one of the nation’s leading authorities of [sic] human rights”.
Bagaric is also on record as being an advocate for the legalisation of torture. In 2005 he wrote: “The belief that torture is always wrong is, however, misguided and symptomatic of the alarmist and reflexive responses typically emanating from social commentators.”
If he is opposed to the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, it is little wonder Bagaric is also not in favour of recognising the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Australia has agreed to be bound by the terms of both these international obligations. However, they are not enforceable in law unless embedded in Australian legislation.
Another recent story in the Australian reported that the government had written to the Triggs to advise her it “fundamentally disagrees” with the commission’s “expansive reading” of its own jurisdiction that “overlooks its legislative underpinnings”.
This unsourced leaked letter reportedly claims the government is particularly concerned about the commission’s “reliance on jurisprudence from other states’ domestic legal systems and other documents which are not binding on Australia”.
The article suggests that the ICCPR has no place in Australian law.
The Australian Human Rights Commission Act requires the commission to inquire into “any practice that may be insistent with or contrary” to any human rights and the ICCPR is a schedule to the Australian Human Rights Commission Act.
Section 11 of the HRC Act says quite plainly:
“… (k) on its own initiative or when requested by the minister, to report to the minister as to the action (if any) that, in the opinion of the commission, needs to be taken by Australia in order to comply with the provisions of the Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights], of the Declarations [of the rights of the child or the rights of the mentally impaired] or of any relevant international instrument.”
Triggs sees the attacks on her as an attempt to diminish the credibility of the commission’s work.
Brandis has also made public his displeasure with the forthcoming HRC report: “I am very sceptical of the establishment of an inquiry into children in [immigration] detention at a time when the recently elected Abbott government had the problem well and truly solved.”
The criticism of the commission is an echo of the attacks on Sir Ronald Wilson’s 1997 HRC report on the stolen generation.
Triggs was advised by colleagues to “play a straight bat” in the face of the spin and mullygrubbers.
Not being a cricket follower she has had to work out just what they meant.