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Human Rights Watch chides Australia over asylum seekers

Agency warns of damage to international reputation

Human Rights Watch chides Australia over asylum seekers

Protesters carry placards at a 'Welcome Refugees' rally in Sydney last year (AFP/William West)

Published: January 23, 2014 08:28 AM GMT

Updated: January 22, 2014 09:23 PM GMT

Human Rights watch on Wednesday castigated Australia for undermining its leadership role on human rights in the Asia-Pacific region by failing to maintain international standards for the protection of asylum seekers.

The criticism came a day after the release of HRW’s annual World Report, the first to include a distinct chapter on Australia, where the New York-based group opened a new office in August last year.

“Last year Australia’s two major political parties were hell-bent on using cruel policies to deter asylum seekers, even at the expense of the country’s international reputation,” said Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Australian director.

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The World Report noted the introduction of mandatory offshore detention of asylum seekers, fast-track deportations and the denial of government-provided legal assistance. 

HRW’s criticism also coincided with a growing war of words between Australia and Indonesia. 

Speaking to reporters in Davos on Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott emphasized Australia’s right to protect its national sovereignty by turning back asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia illegally. 

Djoko Suyanto, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, fired back in an email to reporters.

“The Australian government, under the leadership of PM Tony Abbott, must also understand the meaning of the Republic of Indonesia’s sovereignty, which has been easily violated by the Australian navy,” he wrote in the email, as reported by the Jakarta Globe.

Suyanto added that Indonesia would step up maritime patrols to ensure the integrity of its territorial waters. 

Father Frank Brennan SJ, professor of law at Australian Catholic University, acknowledged Australia’s early commitment to international protections for refugees, noting that Wednesday marked 60 years to the day that the country signed the UN convention relating to the status of refugees.

“There was a time when we Australians, in a bipartisan way, would have rejoiced at our increasing commitment to such international instruments to help us keep a true course,” Fr Brennan said.

“The [HRW] report is rightly critical of the new Abbott government as well as the previous Labor governments led by Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd,” he said.

Fr Brennan further acknowledged the report’s contention that Australia had prioritized domestic politics over international legal obligations.

“We stand guilty as charged and meanwhile our relationship with Indonesia is strained, it being a key country with which we need to negotiate if we are to ensure more orderly dealing with asylum seekers in this part of the world.”


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