Torture is a difficult issue for Tony Abbott. It does not seem to concern him the way it might an ordinary person. In the right circumstances, he has a strange peace with it.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Sri Lanka in 2013 – a meeting boycotted by India and Canada because of Sri Lanka’s human rights record – he was criticised for excusing the country’s use of torture. Sri Lanka’s co-operation with his border protection program was more important than the condemnation of violence and mistreatment.
“Obviously the Australian government deplores any use of torture. We deplore that, wherever it might take place, we deplore that,” he said. “But we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen.”
Soon after, then immigration minister Scott Morrison defended giving military hardware to a regime accused of significant human rights violations. “I make no apologies for the fact that we are endeavouring to work with the Sri Lankan government to stop boats coming to Australia. That’s the point.”
This week a United Nations report found Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in detention constituted various violations of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The report raised two specific cases of mistreatment, and broad concern about the imprisonment of children and the government’s practice of refoulement.
The current minister, Peter Dutton, immediately dismissed the report. All international obligations were being met, he said.
Abbott went further, a trend now in dealing with critics: “I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations, particularly, particularly given that we have stopped the boats, and by stopping the boats, we have ended the deaths at sea.”
He continued: “I think the UN’s representatives would have a lot more credibility if they were to give some credit to the Australian government for what we’ve been able to achieve in this area.”
The comment mirrors a similar line, from Abbott’s attack on the credibility of the president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, last month: “I reckon that the Human Rights Commission ought to be sending a note of congratulations to Scott Morrison saying, ‘Well done, mate. Because your actions have been very good for the human rights and the human flourishing of thousands of people.’ ”
It is alarming that a country might respond this way when its practices might constitute torture, but it is no longer surprising. Ends justify means. Votes justify all.
Nor is it surprising that the government refuses to provide substantive responses to the findings of this report. In it, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, noted that the Abbott government “fails to fully and expeditiously co-operate” with the mandate of the Human Rights Council.
Speaking after Abbott’s attack on the report, Méndez said: “I’m sorry that the prime minister believes that we lecture. We don’t believe so. We try to treat all governments the same way and deal with specific obligations and standards in international law as objectively as we can.”
This brief statement must be almost anathema to the Abbott government: an apology, obligations, standards, objectivity. None of these things stops the boats. Nor, apparently, do they win elections.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Difficult things". Subscribe here.