by Julian Burnside
A speech at Parliament House, Victoria on World Refugee Day 2003
The universal declaration of human rights is the most widely accepted international convention in human history. Most countries in the world are parties to it. Article 14 of the universal declaration of human rights provides that every person has a right to seek asylum in any territory to which they can gain access. Despite that almost universally accepted norm, when a person arrives in Australia and seeks asylum, we lock them up. We lock them up indefinitely and in conditions of the utmost harshness.
The Migration Act provides for the detention of such people until they are either given a visa or removed from Australia. In practice, this means that human beings men, women and children innocent of any crime are locked up for months, and in many cases years.
They are held in conditions of shocking harshness. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has described conditions in Australia's detention centres as "offensive to human dignity". The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has described Australia's detention centres as "worse than prisons" and observed "alarming levels of self-harm". Furthermore, they have found that the detention of asylum seekers in Australia contravenes Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which bans arbitrary detention.
The Delegate of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner who visited Woomera in 2002 described it as "a great human tragedy". Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly criticised Australia's policy of mandatory detention and the conditions in which people are held in detention.
In short, every responsible human rights organisation in the world has condemned Australia's treatment of asylum seekers. Only the Australian government and the Australian public are untroubled by our treatment of innocent, traumatised people who seek our help.
Just for the record, the text of Article 14 reads:
Read the whole speech. And weep.
(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.