September 11, 2014
A senior United Nations official has criticised Australia’s asylum seeker policy, saying it has lead to a “chain of human rights violations”.
The incoming UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordan’s Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, singled out human rights violations in Syria, Iraq and Gaza in his first speech to the UN Human Rights Council in Switzerland.
But he also went out of his way to criticise Australian policies of offshore processing and turning back the boats.
“Australia’s policy of offshore processing for asylum seekers arriving by sea, and its interception and turning back of vessels, is leading to a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries,” he said.
Mr Hussein said he did not support mandatory detention of asylum seekers in any country, including Australia.
“I must emphasise that the detention of asylum seekers and migrants should only be applied as a last resort, in exceptional circumstances, for the shortest possible duration and according to procedural safeguards,” he said.
He warned Australia’s policy of turning back the boats could lead to resettling migrants in countries not equipped to deal with them.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison rejected the allegations and said Australia was willing to discuss the matters with the UN’s refugee agency.
Daniel Webb from Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre said the speech “… really shows the seriousness with which Australia’s breeches of refugees rights are being regarded on the world stage”.
“Our Immigration Minister and our Prime Minister consistently front the media and say that everything they do is consistent with international human rights law,” he said.
“Well, they are wrong, and the UN’s most senior human rights expert has told them so in his maiden speech to the UN Human Rights Council.
Mr Webb said the message was that Australia could not dodge its responsibilities.
“Australia’s fundamental obligation under the Refugee Convention and under other human rights treaties is not to return people to a place where they will face human rights violations,” he said.
“The only way to make sure we comply with that obligation is to properly and fairly assess asylum seekers’ protection claims.
“We can’t do that if we just intercept a boat in the middle of the ocean and similarly return everyone on it back to the very place from which they fled.”