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PoliticsNovember 11, 2015

Politics: Australia’s detention policy condemned at UN from all sides. But what did NZ say?

In Geneva this week, Australian delegates appeared in a grey convention room as the UN Human Rights Council conducted its official Universal Periodic Review of the country’s human rights record.

You can watch the whole thing, as it unfolded in the Palais des Nations, below, though it’s only fair to warn that it’s mostly tedious, and clocks in at over three hours.

Nick Miller, Fairfax Australia’s Europe correspondent, summarises like this: “There were certain themes that came up again and again. The dominant recurring theme was Australia’s treatment of refugees, its boat turn-back policy and its offshore mandatory detention centres. I would say over half the countries that made these statements addressed Australia’s treatment of refugees and migrants.”

Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, told Fairfax: “About 75% of recommendations were about detention centres, mandatory detention especially in relation to children and the stop-the-boats policy that failed to recognise the rights of asylum seekers … There is real international concern about Australia’s asylum-seeker policies … a disappointment that we have strayed from our international obligations.”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 17:  Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key answer questions during a press confrence at Government House on October 17, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand. Turnbull is in New Zealand to discuss bilateral talks with John Key. It is also his first visit to New Zealand as Prime Minister.  (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and NZ PM John Key. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Australia’s minister for immigration, Peter Dutton, called the UNHRC process as a “farce”; this despite, notes Miller “the fact that Australia is bidding for a place on the same council that undertook the review”.

Here is a selection of remarks by countries appearing before the Human Rights Council in Geneva relating to Australia’s asylum seeker and detention policy.


“The response of Australia to migrant arrivals has set a poor benchmark … We recommend that Australia repeals the provisions established in the mandatory detention of persons entering its territory irregularly.”


A recommendation “to treat appropriately all the refugees and asylum seekers who have reached the Australian shores, to effectively safeguard their human rights.”


Noted “the precarious situation of refugees”, urged Australia to “develop alternative solutions to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, especially when dealing with children”.


Urged Australia to halt the detention of children and “critically review the policy of offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus islands”.


“We encourage Australia to repeal provisions which require compulsory detention for people who enter the country illegally.”


“We urge the government to review the policy of mandatory immigration detention.”


“Deep concern about the mandatory immigration detention regime.”


“We are concerned that the special rapporteur on the rights of migrants had to postpone indefinitely his official visit to Australia due to protection concerns and access to offshore detention centres. The continued detention of children in these centres is of particular concern.”


A recommendation to “review current immigration policies so to improve the rights of refugees and asylum seekers”.


“We are concerned by reports that asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat have been transferred to other countries. Japan recommends that Australia continue to ensure transparency and accountability in all procedures relating to its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.”


Urged Australia “to review the current offshore regional processing arrangement and policy of mandatory detention of refugees, stateless persons and migrants, and to uphold all human rights obligations towards refugees, stateless persons and migrants.”


“Immediately close the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres, immediately halt the detention of children … Allow international organisations full access to detention centres.”


“Norway remains concerned about the reported conditions for asylum seekers detained in offshore processing centres. Norway recommends that asylum seekers’ claims are processed in accordance with the UN refugee convention, and detention only occurs when necessary, for a minimal period and access to judicial oversight is ensured.”


“We note with concern the continued operations at sea, against refugees and asylum seekers, and their detention and alleged ill-treatment.”


A recommendation that asylum processing be reformed, noting: “According to the UNHCR, Australia is the only country in the world that uses offshore processing and mandatory detention of asylum seekers.”


“We remain concerned about Australia’s record on the protection of migrants, and especially women and children at offshore facilities.” Australia urged to “install a transparent human rights approach related to the treatment of asylum seekers, including the cessation of transfers to third countries.”

United States

The US urged Canberra to “ensure humane treatment and respect for the human rights of asylum seekers, including those processed offshore”.

And …

New Zealand

New Zealand urged Australia to ratify OPCAT, the international convention against torture which would require greater oversight of detention centres, but unlike most made no direct mention of the detention policy, let alone the New Zealand citizens being held in detention centres including on Christmas Island.


Why did New Zealand not raise detention centres or the New Zealand citizens being held? “Because we do not need to go to Geneva to do that; we do it in person with the Prime Minister of Australia,” said John Key in parliament yesterday.

And yet they did raise a number of issues in Geneva (see below), so it is unclear why this particular matter should be overlooked in the report to the human rights review



  1. New Zealand recommends that Australia continue to address inequalities affecting human rights in the areas of health, education, employment and income that disproportionately affect indigenous peoples and other minority groups.
  2. New Zealand recommends that Australia ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) and implement a National Preventative Mechanism.
  3. New Zealand recommends that Australia introduce measures to address issues related to the treatment of persons with disabilities, including considering the implementation of recommendations from both the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report on Equality, Capacity and Disability in Commonwealth Laws, and the Senate inquiry into high levels of violence and abuse of persons with disabilities in institutional and residential settings.


In an interview with the Spinoff this morning, New Zealand’s Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford said his organisation was not involved in the UN periodic review process as far as it relates to other states. “We have no role in the review of Australia. That’s a matter for the New Zealand governmnent and MFAT and organisations like that.”

Rutherford said the NZ Human Rights Commission “essentially doesn’t have one” when asked if they have any position on New Zealand citizens being detained in Australia.

He said: “National human rights institutions are responsible only for holding the state that they’re part of to account. It would get very complicated if the national human rights institutions of the world began acting extra-territorially.”

Were they to return to New Zealand, then “those people’s human rights would become our responsibility, once they were back in our territory.”

What about John Key’s remarks in parliament, in accusing MPs raising concerns about NZ citizen detainees human rights of “backing the rapists” – does he have a view on that?

“Not in relation to the context in Australia,” he said. “But one of the realities of human rights is they’re called human rights because everybody has them. There aren’t different rights between people in detention or people not in detention. Certainly in the context of New Zealand, the Commmission is concerned about the human rights of everyone, including people in detention or people charged with criminal offences.”

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