Human Rights

In late August, it took only a few days for the Taliban to secure control of Kabul in the wake of the final withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan. The breakneck speed of the takeover was accompanied by images of mass terror, alongside a profound sense of betrayal. As in the closing days of the Vietnam War in 1975, the international airport quickly became the epicentre of scenes of chaos and collective panic, as thousands rushed onto the tarmac in desperate attempts to board the last planes out of the country. Queues stretched for kilometres outside the country’s only passport office. It is still too early to tell whether the Taliban’s promises of a more ‘inclusive’ government and amnesty for former collaborators of the Western forces will be met. What is certain is that Western governments owe them safe passage, though, from the announcements coming from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office in late August, it seems unlikely this will be properly honoured.

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After surviving two perilous boat journeys when he thought he would die, Jaivet Ealom is taken into the control of Australian authorities and given the designation EML019 on an identification card that manages to misspell his name. He will be referred as EML019 for the next three years, having arrived in Australian waters just five days after 19 July 2013, when a policy change meant that asylum seekers coming by boat would be transferred to the Manus Island or Nauru ‘regional processing centres’ to face indefinite detention and with no hope of resettlement in Australia.

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Confessions of a People-Smuggler by Dawood Amiri & The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs

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October 2014, no. 365

After an explosion that killed five asylum seekers and injured dozens more on a boat moored at Ashmore Reef in 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described people smugglers as ‘the absolute scum of the earth’ and ‘the vilest form of human life’. Further tragedies at sea during the ‘fifth wave’ of boat arrivals to Australia provoked similar outbursts from politicians across the political spectrum.

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Do you remember them on the television news? Stumbling down gangplanks onto our shores, with flickering cubes of light instead of heads. Wearing strange clothes and eating stranger food. They harboured terror and disease. They were said to sacrifice their children. How did it come to this?

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Frontier Justice by Andy Lamey & Contesting Citizenship by Anne McNevin

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April 2012, no. 340

Australian advocates of a harsh line against asylum seekers arriving by boat often base their arguments on a concern for the protection of human life. Unless we deter boat people, so the reasoning goes, ever greater numbers will set out on the dangerous voyage from Indonesia, and more and more lives will be lost at sea. This may sound like a novel position, but, as Andy Lamey makes clear in Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What to Do about It, the argument is well worn. In the early 1990s, Presidents Bush Sr and Clinton used similar justifications to defend a policy of intercepting boats from Haiti and returning them directly to Port au Prince, without making any assessment as to whether those on board might have claims to protection from Haiti’s dictatorial régime.

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Think of Syria today and you have East Timor in 1975–78, the main difference being that the story of Indonesia’s brutal invasion was totally hidden from the world. It was in this framework of pain, trauma, and confusion that an estimated three to four thousand Timorese children were carried off to Indonesia without informed parental consent.

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Martha Nussbaum has been attracting attention in the Australian press recently for her views on the importance of the humanities in university education. As the British government prepares to cut all public funding for the teaching of the humanities, social sciences, and much else besides, Nussbaum’s last book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), has been widely cited by those espousing the public benefit attached to the teaching of the humanities.

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It is hard to imagine that any reader of the text of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be unmoved by the nobility of its aspirations. Born of the determination that human beings would never again have to suffer the oppressions and indignities that reached so hideous a climax in the events of World War II, it promises a world in which all people can enjoy a range of fundamental freedoms in peace and harmony. To observe that the promise has not been kept is a patent under-statement. Even in the most advanced democracies, where notions of universal human rights are foundational, there is a sense of crisis. Here in Australia, as the Victorian government moves to institute a bill of rights, people of responsibility and integrity are forced to confront what appears to be a systemic disregard for human rights by the federal government in its treatment of asylum seekers.

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