29 May 2003

Amnesty International Annual Report
The treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees, and other immigration and border control issues, generated vigorous public debate on human rights. Government statements linked asylum-seekers with criminals, economic opportunists and "terrorists". Former Chief Justice Gerard Brennan commented: "The wretched isolation of the asylum-seekers in Woomera, in Nauru and in Manus Island, has left this country divided, many Australians accepting the necessity for inhuman treatment as the price to be paid for maintaining our immigration policies and our boundaries."

The Australian navy and coast watch continued operations off the coast to monitor and intercept vessels carrying asylum-seekers. A Senate inquiry found evidence, contrary to government claims, that in 2001 an overcrowded boat carrying Middle Eastern asylum-seekers had sunk inside waters patrolled by Australian military and coast watch forces, killing 353 people.

I've made it clear that I think we could maintain our policies and protect our borders without abandoning the national commitment to human rights. Expect lots of exceptionalist spin from the government.

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have called for a rapid reaction force to be sent to the DR Congo.

The United Nations Observation Mission in Congo (MONUC) with some 700 troops in Bunia has been completely overwhelmed and has been unable to adequately protect civilians and help restore calm to this volatile region. On 12 May, the Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Mr. Guehenno warned that "without decisive action there could be a bloodbath in the region." The troop reinforcements from Bangladesh are not due to arrive for a couple of months, which means that MONUC will be unable to respond adequately to events in the short term.

We are aware that intensive efforts are underway internationally to mobilize a rapid reaction force. The UN Security Council is currently discussing the characteristics and mandate of a possible force to be sent by one or more UN member states to the DRC to help calm the fighting and to protect civilians, as requested by the UN Secretary-General. Given the urgency of the situation, we urge you to ensure a rapid reaction force is deployed immediately in Bunia, pending an agreement by the Security Council on the expansion and strengthening of MONUC's mandate, and the respective deployment of its reinforced troops.

It is of utmost importance that any military action should be undertaken with full respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. The rapid reaction force should have a robust mandate to: 1) ensure the maintenance of law and order to protect civilians in Bunia, and to try to locate and protect those civilians who have fled outside the town, progressively establishing a presence beyond Bunia to ensure civilians are protected throughout the region; and 2) to help ensure that humanitarian assistance can reach civilian populations in need.

Australia's breaches, as reported by Four Corners, are grave. The government's exceptionalist claims should not stop us opposing those breaches in our country. That should never stop us paying attention to graver crises in human rights elsewhere in the world.

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