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On July 20 2015, over two years after veteran nurse Marianne Evers went public with allegations of concentration camp-like conditions in Australia’s asylum seeker detention centre in Nauru, an Australian Senate inquiry into the allegations of abuse at the centre conducted a final, chilling round of public hearings. Staff contracted by the Australian Government to run the centre were amongst those who presented some of the most disturbing evidence heard by the inquiry so far, along with Nauru’s former Chief Justice, Hon. Geoffrey Eames AM QC, two former Nauru-based Save The Children workers, and staff from the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
The facility, and a similar one in Papua New Guinea, has been used by the Australian Government since 2001 to hold asylum seekers intercepted at sea, save for a period between 2008 and 2012 when the camps were closed. Those who are unable to be immediately returned, one way or another, to where they came from are detained indefinitely until they can be settled somewhere deemed appropriate—i.e., anywhere but Australia. This heavy-handed approach enjoys bipartisan political support and is popular with voters, but has been strongly condemned by legal experts, various NGOs, and the Australian Government’s own Human Rights Commission.
Senators at the inquiry were told of mass suicide pacts amongst asylum seekers, along with the sexual and physical abuse of children of detainees, a lack of suitable clothing, and detention centre staff on the island joking about trading drugs for sexual favours. Children of asylum seekers were witnessed fainting from heat exhaustion during school lessons in tents, and one policy required menstruating women to request sanitary products from male guards on an “as-needed” basis, purportedly to maintain security at the centre.
Interviews conducted by The Guardian earlier this year with former residents of the Nauru detention centre now settled on the island reveal the human cost of the governmental posturing. 19-year-old Benjamin said he reported experiencing suicidal thoughts to staff at the centre, and was told that nobody would stop him from killing himself. Hawo, a Somali woman who now lives in Anibare, one of four open camps on Nauru for those granted asylum, said she was a victim of “direct and indirect sexual assault” from locals and security staff contracted by the Australian Government whilst living in the detention facility. Despite this, she reported feeling safer inside the centre than living in Anibare, a sentiment shared by other former detainees.
The processing centre is just the latest hell to be imposed on Nauru—a tiny, isolated island nation of little more than 10,000 people—following a desperate history of exploitation ranging from the devastation of the island’s landscape by phosphate mining to the laundering of billions in Russian mafia funds through its banks. As the Senate inquiry draws to a close—still a long way off securing any commitment to reform—the new tragedy of a gradual descent into authoritarianism on Nauru is attracting increased attention beyond the island nation’s borders.
You might have seen it coming. A 2004 Transparency International report co-authored by Roland Kun, a now-suspended Nauruan opposition MP facing charges for speaking to foreign media, identified multiple issues regarding corruption on the island as well as flaws within its governance and legal structures. The report also made a number of recommendations for how Nauru could resolve these issues, clearly viewing Nauru’s constitution as more than a lost cause.
It seems the report held little weight among Nauru’s elite. The start of 2014 saw Nauru inexplicably sack and deport its only magistrate, Peter Law, and cancel the visa of Chief Justice Eames—both Australian citizens—and increase visa costs for visiting journalists from $200 to $8000, ostensibly for “revenue purposes”. Since then, its government has further undermined democracy and the rule of law on the island through banning access to Facebook, restricting freedom of speech, and prosecuting opposition MPs.
One might think the Australian Government would be extremely concerned about this series of events. It has a legal obligation under the 1951 Refugee Convention to ensure that the 655 asylum seekers in the Nauru centre, many of whom are fleeing failed states and despotic regimes, have their human rights protected, especially given that some will now be settled there for up to five years.
But despite long playing an active diplomatic role in South Pacific—intervening, for example, by applying sanctions on Fiji during the 2006 coup d’état that were only lifted last year—it has repeatedly stated that the attacks on democracy and the rule of law in Nauru are a domestic matter for the Nauruan Government to handle.
Clearly a serious conflict of interest exists between Australia’s role as a diplomatic partner and provider of aid to Nauru and the asylum processing agreement between the two countries. The Abbott administration has demonstrated an aversion to scrutiny of its policy in this area—as demonstrated by its moves to ban staff on Nauru from discussing their work publicly, Abbott’s extraordinary claim that Australians are ‘sick of being lectured to by the United Nations’ after it claimed his Government’s border control policy violated the international convention against torture, and the sustained campaign to publicly undermine Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs. To then expect Australia to actively move to protect Nauru’s constitutional checks and balances, potentially exposing itself to all manner of legal and political challenges, is simply not realistic.
New Zealand, one of Nauru’s other main diplomatic partners, has gone some way towards filling the void in the meantime. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully talked directly with Nauru Prime Minister Baron Waqa after a group of lawyers and legal academics released a public letter urging action, and Parliament passed a motion from Green Party MP Kennedy Graham expressing concern about the situation on the island. McCully’s response, including a threat to cut some US$790k in funding for Nauru’s justice system, drew praise from some quarters and certainly looks proactive compared to Australia. But his rhetoric differs little from his comments after Eames and Law were done away with in early 2014; his confidence of “good faith” on the side of Nauru’s Government at the time has been proven categorically wrong in retrospect.
The case for escalating the matter to a body such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which currently counts New Zealand as a temporary member, may not immediately be apparent. But dismissing it as an option ignores the wider implications of Nauru’s situation, such as its potential impact on the wider geopolitics of the Pacific region, or the precedent it sets for dealing with the current refugee crises in Europe and the Middle East. It also neglects the underpinnings of New Zealand’s successful campaign for a seat on the Council, which include a call for a greater focus on the rights of small states by the UNSC and our record of diplomatic work in the South Pacific.
The Government has so far dismissed the prospect of taking a multilateral approach through raising the matter at the UNSC, with a politically wounded McCully curiously suggesting New Zealand would work towards fresh peace talks between Palestine and Israel whilst chairing the Council in July. But escalating our concerns could also go some to way to dismissing speculation that New Zealand is caving to pressure from Australia to not rock the boat. University of Sydney Professor of International Law Ben Saul has claimed that the Australian Government “does not miss the absence of judges in Nauru… it simply allows both governments to have their way, and makes offshore processing easier”. Any such capitulation from a country with a supposedly independent foreign policy stance would be inexcusable.
UNSC involvement could yet prove unnecessary. Kennedy Graham told me he was satisfied with New Zealand’s response so far, but refused to comment on whether it would be appropriate to raise the matter at the UNSC should Nauru not pursue appropriate reform, instead claiming its Government should be given time to consider its position. McCully is also justifiably reluctant to cut aid for Nauru’s justice system, presumably recognising it would be difficult for another country to gain support for funding a broken justice system in an increasingly authoritarian country. But he should be equally reluctant to let Australia get away with neglecting its legal responsibilities towards refugees and asylum seekers.
New Zealand could take the easy option, let both Nauru and Australia off the hook, and probably not suffer any great consequences, at least not within the short term. This would certainly appease Tony Abbott, who much prefers to let any discussion about asylum seeker policy start and end with his Government’s success in “stopping the boats”. But not only would it make a mockery of our self-proclaimed role in the international sphere and push the island’s refugee and asylum seeker population further into harm’s way, it would also display a shameful level of historical blindness towards a country we permanently scarred for the sake of crop yields and export profits. It is not unreasonable to expect better.