World UN hits back at Australian response on torture report

UN hits back at Australian response on torture report

Juan Mendez
UN’s special rapporteur Juan Mendez

(AA) – The UN’s representative on torture responded Tuesday to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “intemperate” attack over criticism of Australia’s policy on asylum seekers.

The UN’s special rapporteur Juan Mendez denied “lecturing” Australia on human rights after a report found some of the country’s policies towards those seeking refuge had breached the international convention against torture.

In an interview on ABC News, he said: “I do give credit to Australia for having a very robust, democratic system with guarantees of human rights for everybody. But it is my mission, my duty, to point out when any country, including Australia, falls short of its obligations under international law.”

His comments came after Abbott said Australians were “sick of being lectured to by the UN.”

On Monday, the UN published a report from Mendez that found Australia had violated the rights of asylum seekers, highlighting the detention of children, violence in offshore detention centers and recent amendments to Australia’s maritime laws.

“I’m sorry that he considers what we do lecturing, we don’t, we think it’s our role,” Mendez, a lawyer who was tortured under Argentina’s military junta in the 1970s, said.

“We treat every country the same way. We just try to uphold international standards as we understand them.”

Asked if he was disappointed by Abbott’s reaction, Mendez added: “In many other cases we get governments that either brush us off or don’t respond at all, so I’d rather get an intemperate response than no response.”

Abbott has defended his policy of turning back boatloads of asylum seekers at sea or detaining them in offshore centers, claiming the policy saves lives by dissuading refugees from putting to sea in unseaworthy boats.

Mendez said he recognized the Australian navy and coast guard behaved “in a humanitarian way” but that it did no excuse arbitrary detention “when in fact there could and should be better alternatives, including appropriate screening with a fair opportunity to state a claim why they should not be returned to a country where they face torture.”

The four Australian cases in the UN report, out of 200 cases involving 68 different countries, focus on claims of torture or cruel or degrading treatment in immigration detention centers.

Spiraling violence on Manus Island, an offshore facility in Papua New Guinea, and the “intimidation and ill-treatment” of asylum seekers who gave statements about last year’s violent clashes at the center breached the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the report found.

Changes to the Maritime Powers Act that allow the detention of asylum seekers at sea also violated the convention, the report said.

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