Seeking Asylum: The U.N. Convention (or part two)

On December the 10th,1948 the United Nations publicly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the General Assembly, it was two years in the making. The draftees were one from Canada, China, Lebanon and France, and Eleanor Roosevelt was its champion for adoption by the U.N.

Article 14 was the Article stating the world’s agreement that a refugee fleeing persecution had the right to seek, and the right to be provided with refuge.

The Convention in general, and article 14 in particular, came out of the experience of World War Two. And it came at a time when the world was changing (again) and facing new anxiety over communism and nuclear war. It also came amidst demanding post-war recovery programs for many nations with many devastated structurally and economically, and some in long term debt. So it was no trivial matter to expect that Article 14 was going to be a high demand on any nation given that people movement continued, and then grew post war with such economic devastation to contend with.

In 1951 the U.N. adopted the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, thereby expanding Article 14 into a full convention in its own right. it was put into force on April 22nd, 1954. but because the framing of the convention had been done with the recent World War in mind, it was limited in scope and geographical reference. So in 1967 the U.N. passed an amendment – the 1967 Protocol (which is the only amendment to date) which gave unrestricted universal application to the 1951 Convention.

The Convention and Protocol consolidated existing positive practices with regard to refugees such as the idea of a ‘Nansen Passport’ (Fridtjof Nansen the first Commissioner for Refugees – League of Nations 1922) which was to enable freedom of movement and gave identity to refugees. 

The Convention is status and rights based, and parallel to is has been the development of the International Human Rights Law.

There are some key points that should be noted about the Convention as I see it: 

  • The Convention was framed at a time when there was great upheaval and change.
  • The Convention was framed with the knowledge that the world was economically struggling.
  • The Convention was framed with cooperation from nations with diverse needs and views and often mutual antagonisms, but yet who rose above it all to make the Convention possible.
  • Arguably, the Convention came at a time, that because it was a different era, might be considered to be ‘primitive’ in  historical terms and development. Thus, if we live in a more enlightened and developed time, surely the Convention should not only stand inviolable, but if necessary, should be strengthened in favour of refugees rather than weakened by shallow political arguments! My contention is that if we consider ourselves to have progressed then surely we will have moved on from tribalism and selfish needs to global needs and reconciliation?
  • Australia was a proud and major contributor to the framing of the Convention and an avid supporter of its proclamation and adoption.
  • Australia was a positive sponsor of the 1967 Protocol.

The Convention also provides for protection of refugees by:

  • Requiring signatory states to provide asylum subject to the Convention.
  • Requiring signatory states to protect and provide basic life needs for refugees.
  • Requiring that signatory states do not expel or send refugees back to state they came from, this is one of the main principles of International Law – non-refoulment – which safeguards refugees from being returned to places of risk and danger. 

It seems to me that Australia has entered a time of psychological and cultural redoubt. 

Since the Howard Coalition Government came to power in 1996 there has been a desire to limit and prevent asylum seekers from directly entering Australia by the Coalition and by Labor. This was thought to be achievable by processing asylum seekers off-shore at Christmas Island, Manus Island and Nauru. This gets around the Convention because we are only obligated to accept asylum seekers who either (a) apply from within their own country to be given asylum in Australia or, (b) can enter by whatever means of their own or (c) are part of a U.N. negotiated quota. So that off-shore processing prevents direct entry, there are few places asylum seekers can apply to in any country, and therefore the number of asylum seekers is successfully diminished. However, while this may be ‘good politics’ (sic) it is a diminishment of our international role through the U.N.,  and it is an abrogation of our responsibility to the Convention in the spirit of the law. 

Since 1996 it has been politically expedient for politicians to play with the issue of Asylum as if it were an inanimate thing, rather than the lives of real people. A number of red-herrrings have been used to support the prevention of asylum seekers, economic (there have been no real (reviewed) costings of direct acceptance of asylum seekers in the public sphere), unemployment (a fickle topic to promote as definitive in any argument), population explosion (we are almost static). I can’t help but think that beyond these arguments, which are poorly argued in Parliament and in public, we are actually dealing with the issue of race, religion and culture. Which is ironic, because those are some of the very reasons the asylum seekers come in the first place. This is clearly in contravention of the Convention and International Law, to which we are proud signatories, this, I believe, is a classic example of hypocrisy and political cowardice.

I can only conclude through my own reading and my direct experience with refugee families that we are as a nation playing to the idea of Australia as the White redoubt. Epic moral failure and an inability to explore positive humanitarian options onshore (as most other nations do).

Basically, if we cannot abide by the Convention, then perhaps we should withdraw from it, rather than pretend, at least then we could be seen for what we really are and believe – at least politically – a race conscious, religiously intolerant, culturally narrow nation(?).

And yet in spite of that, I still hold to a hope that we might yet see the light and think more globally and live a less insular life and open up fortress Australia.

Paul

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