The 2015 Human Rights Report – Torture and Refoulement: the Shame of Liberal Democracies

By Sarah Joseph

This piece is featured in the 2015 Castan Centre Human Rights Report. We will be featuring the articles on the blog throughout the month of May. 

Gross human rights abuses happen all over the world. They are not confined to the barbaric acts of groups such as Islamic State. Indeed, even liberal democracies, such as the United States and Australia, have been all too readily prepared to sacrifice human rights principles for political expediency. Two recent examples show they have done so with impunity, partly because the media, which is crucial in shaping popular opinion, is a very fickle supporter of human rights principles.

Gitmo blog


In December 2014, the US Senate Intelligence Committee released an executive summary of its investigation of CIA interrogation techniques in the ‘war on terror’. This summary is one tenth of the full report, which remains classified.

The report has not incited mass outrage in the US. It should have. Gruesome ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are described, including ‘waterboarding’ ‘rectal rehydration’, mock executions and sleep deprivation. These methods must be called by their real name, ‘torture’, a word conspicuously missing from the US Senate Committee report.

Much was made in the report of how the CIA lied about the usefulness of torture, and that in fact the techniques yielded no useful information. But this commentary misses an important point. Torture is a gross human rights violation, and is forbidden in absolutely every instance.

Asylum seekers’ rights

Human rights law also protects the right of oppressed people to seek asylum. Yet Australia, a proud initiator of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, has in recent years intensified its abuse of asylum seekers’ rights.

In 2012 and 2013, the Gillard-Rudd Government re-established offshore camps in Nauru and Manus Island for asylum seekers arriving by boat, and deemed that no boat arrival would be permitted to resettle in Australia. Under the Abbott Government, events inside the offshore detention centres, as well as details of attempted and actual boat arrivals, have been shrouded in secrecy. These matters fall within a curious new realm of national security, even though asylum seekers arrive unarmed, seeking our help.

Boats have been intercepted, and people forced to return to Indonesia. Australian law has been changed to allow for ‘refoulement’ — the return of a refugee to his or her persecutor — a serious breach of international human rights law. Asylum seekers have been effectively ‘disappeared’ on the high seas and sent back to Sri Lanka without the knowledge of the Australian people.

Offshore detention is a policy of calculated cruelty designed to deter others and to force those caught within it to refoule themselves.One asylum seeker has been murdered on Manus, while another has died from an infection. People have been left in limbo with no hope, and unrest simmers below a despairing surface.

Most recently, the government has launched an unprecedented attack on the President of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, diverting attention away from the disturbing findings and recommendations of the Commission’s report into children in immigration detention.

Abuses are wrong, even when popular

Citizens of democracies are able to demand that politicians and institutions prevent human rights violations in their name. Yet, somewhat depressingly, there has been significant popular support for CIA torture in the US. And Australia’s asylum seeker policy has been embraced even more emphatically.

However, breaches of international human rights law have a habit of coming back to haunt their perpetrators. By the end of the Bush administration, US ‘soft power’ was seriously weakened on the international stage, with a change of government needed to (partially) restore its standing. Worse still, appalling tactics have provoked barbaric responses. It is no coincidence that the iconography of Guantanamo Bay, the orange jumpsuits, has been mimicked by IS in its sickening execution videos.

Indeed, the torture report’s publication is a major victory for human rights, given the CIA’s desire to keep its practices under wraps. While the perpetrators seem unlikely to face prosecution at home, they can be tried in any other country, as torture is an international crime. Dick Cheney, for example, may find it unwise to travel abroad. Domestic civil suits from victims are also a possibility, and the CIA has been exposed as an institution which harbours brutal liars.

Australia’s asylum seeker policy will attract more and more global opprobrium. It was singled out for criticism by Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in his inaugural speech last September. Morale in the immigration department, and in the navy tasked with intercepting boats, is low. Future inquiries and lawsuits are inevitable, as the truth of cruelty inevitably seeps out. The government will suffer consequences from this.

The ‘popularity’ of certain gross human rights abuses is not a reason for human rights supporters and advocates to give up. Rather it is a reason to redouble efforts.

The Castan Centre’s 2015 Annual Appeal is on now. Can you choose to support us with a donation?

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