Thursday, 4 February 2016
Answers to Questions on Notice
Question Nos 2626, 2794 and 2795
Pursuant to standing order 74(5), I ask the Attorney-General and the minister representing the Minister for Justice, Senator Brandis, for an explanation as to why answers have not yet been provided to questions on notice Nos 2626, 2794 and 2795.
These questions have been overdue now for quite a period of time. I understand my office was in contact with your advisers, Senator Brandis, forewarning you that I would be raising this issue now.
That is a little breakdown in communication which actually feels identical to what happened yesterday. I move:
That the Senate take note of the minister's response.
I have a number of very troubling and very important questions that are now long overdue. A couple of them were raised in November—on 20 November—and some of them were raised in the middle of December. It is now early February and we are into the first sitting week of the 2016 parliamentary year.
Very, very serious allegations are raised in these questions, and I do not bring them up lightly. They are so serious—and I will step through some of them in brief in a moment—that you would think that the foreign minister, or the Minister for Justice or the Attorney-General, for that matter, would have sought to have shut them down immediately if the allegations that are raised in these questions are not true. But instead of taking the opportunity to rebut these allegations and provide some evidence to back those rebuttals I am forced to raise this issue now, because in some instances answers are several weeks overdue. Why is it taking so long?
I want to go through a couple of instances of why I think this is incredibly important and why it appears there is a pattern here—that the domestic politics of asylum seekers is warping our foreign policy and causing us, as the Australian government and the Australian people, to support violent human rights abuses in some of our neighbouring countries if it is seen to support the domestic ambition of vilifying people seeking asylum and safe harbour here in Australia.
Sri Lanka is one particularly chilling example. I put questions in now 2½ months ago, in mid-November, relating to documents that were released under freedom of information to the ABC's 7:30 program last August. They revealed that the Australian government has been providing support to the Sri Lankan government's Criminal Investigation Department, known as the CID. That equipment includes military equipment, white vans and other equipment. The white vans are particularly resonant. In fact, they are synonymous in Sri Lanka with enforced disappearances, torture, murder and kidnapping.
Mr Bruce Haigh, the former Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, has said the following:
It's become part and parcel of the operations of CID in Colombo in Sri Lanka and it's got a reputation worldwide for doing this sort of thing, the so-called white van syndrome, where they use white vans to pick people up off the street and then relatives and family would never see those people again.
Sonya Sceats, representing Freedom from Torture, put it the following way:
There are a number of torture methods associated with the CID, including beatings to many parts of the body; sexual torture, including rape both of men and women; burning, including with cigarettes and increasingly with hot metal implements; as well as asphyxiation and suspension methods of torture.
She also said:
… Freedom From Torture can say categorically that torture has continued in Sri Lanka. It is perpetrated by the CID and by other arms of the state in Sri Lanka. It is deeply entrenched in the operating procedures of the CID.
The United Nations, the British government and human rights organisations here in Australia and around the world affirm the continuing nature of these human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. In documented and exhaustive processes these have been set at the foot of this entity, the CID, which the Australian government is now accused of directly and materially supporting.
That the Australian government would so directly support this unit when it is so clearly associated with these abuses and criminal acts is of enormous concern. I do not think that anybody in this chamber—and I would not impute these motives to a single individual in this chamber—would support in any way at all the kinds of horrors and abuses that are carried out by this unit. And yet, the Australian government stands accused of supplying direct material support to this unit. So why has the government not sought to simply shut these allegations down and provide direct evidence that those allegations were wrong?
We can only guess, because the minister at the table, who I acknowledge is here in a representative capacity, does not know, and the Australian government, which could have shut this down the day after I lodged these questions, has provided nothing.
Questions 2794 and 2795 go to the Australian government's relationship with Detachment 88, a counter-terrorism unit within the Indonesian National Police. We see the same pattern here again. Reports out of Indonesia—and this particularly applies to West Papua—raise concerns about the role of Det. 88. This is a country on our doorstep. This building where we are holding this debate this afternoon is closer to West Papua than it is to my home city of Perth. Human rights groups have been reporting for years—in fact, for as long as I have been following this issue in this place—that Det. 88 personnel continue harassment, torture, abuse and extrajudicial killings of West Papuans, including children. Not only has the Australian government failed to outright, in black and white, condemn the activities of this unit; but what if we were in fact deliberately and systematically materially supporting them in that work?
On 29 September 2015, two high school students were shot by operatives of Detachment 88 in Timika. On 8 October 2015, West Papuan students, monks and a local journalist were beaten and arrested while conducting a peaceful demonstration. Human Rights Watch puts it this way:
New incidents of security force violence also continue to be reported. Two allegedly drunken soldiers opened fire on a crowd in Koperapoka, Mimika regency, on August 27, killing two people and wounding two others.
These are just a couple of very recent examples, but these go back as far as the documentary record goes.
In December 2014, security forces allegedly shot and killed five peaceful protesters in the town of Enarotali; a year later, the government had still not released the results of official investigations into the shootings …
The Australian government is on the record as supporting Detachment 88 and other Indonesia military and paramilitary units, and I presume the response will come back that we find their role in counter-terrorism work across the Indonesian archipelago valuable. But what happens when these very same units are documented as perpetrating human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and torture against pro-democracy campaigners in West Papua, right on Australia's doorstep? Can we simply wash our hands and look away when the evidence is so strong? I believe we cannot.
The pattern is immensely disturbing. In the instance of Cambodia, my colleague, Senator Hanson-Young, who has been fervently following these issues and supporting the cause of people seeking safe harbour as is their right under international law here in Australia, travelled to Cambodia over the $55 million asylum seeker deal Cambodia is ruled by an authoritarian government that was formerly returning refugees to their countries of origin, which is illegal under international law, despite their acknowledged refugee status. In recent years the government has sent vulnerable people back to countries, including China and Vietnam, where they faced abuse. One infamous example was in December 2009, when Cambodia handed over 20 ethnic Uyghurs, whom the UNHCR regarded as persons of concern, to Chinese authorities, who then returned them to China. Rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented how Hun Sen's regime crushes dissent in the country through extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, summary trials, censorship and widespread bans on assembly and association. Does Australia step up in the various international forums in which we have a seat at the table or take our place, as we have done under previous governments, as an active middle power and condemn these human rights abuses? No. We write them out a cheque for $55 million in order to take asylum seeker that the Australian government has decided it cannot accommodate.
Perhaps most notoriously, on Nauru Australia pre-emptively gave $6.6 million worth of aid to Nauru to develop its police force. New Zealand has withdrawn aid funding to Nauru's justice sector because of grave concerns about the abuses of the rule of law. As Senator Hanson-Young has documented extensively in this place, people continue to be raped and abused—
That is actually correct. For once, I will take your interjection, because it is quite correct.
As revealed in the Senate inquiry, a tiny fraction—two—of over 50 matters reported to police since 2012 have resulted in a conviction. Human rights abuse is rampant in that tiny country, not condemned by the Australian government but actively supported, aided and abetted.
The final example I bring forward is in Papua New Guinea. Investigative journalist Rory Callinan revealed in 2013 that Australia's immigration department funded, as he puts it, their 'most thuggish paramilitary police unit—allegedly responsible for rapes, murders and other serious human rights abuses' to secure the detention centre on Manus Island. The allegations here are utterly chilling. He revealed that officers of the mobile squad beat a local man to death on the island in July 2013, then received a special living away allowance of about $100 a day out of funding provided by the department.
Again we see this pattern of behaviour where the foreign policy of the Australian government appears to be guided by there not being a regime so authoritarian that we will not hand over resources or equipment, whether it be military or other forms, to enable them to carry out these human rights abuses if it is all in service of the domestic political agenda around asylum seekers. I wonder what has happened to this country's soul.
These are, I acknowledge, serious allegations. Not all of them are canvassed in the questions on notice that I presume are on Senator Brandis's table now. Nonetheless, if this is not a pattern of behaviour, of conscious and premeditated foreign policy decisions by the Australian government, let's see some evidence that that is the case These questions should not have remained on the Notice Paper as long as they have. We would like to see some evidence that it is not in fact the foreign policy of this very government to support and perpetuate human rights abuses, no matter how dark the record of the military units or secret police units that we support. It is unforgiveable if that is the case, and it is incumbent on the government to provide evidence to the contrary—if such evidence even exists.
Of course it is not the policy of the Australian government, nor has it been the policy of any Australian government, to countenance human rights abuses. I do have a little more information than I had a moment ago in relation to the three questions on which you inquire. The answer to question 2626 is available. The answers to questions 2794 and 2795, which were directed to the area of the portfolio within the responsibility of Mr Keenan, are not available, because a full answer to your question requires input from a number of agencies, including the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AUSTRAC. That information will be available to you when all of the relevant stakeholder agencies have been fully consulted. Given the gravity of the things you say, I would have thought that you would have been more interested in a thorough response in which all relevant government instrumentalities and agencies who may be able to contribute to the answer have been thoroughly consulted.