If politicians re-learn the principles which dignified the rule-based order, launched in 1948 with passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this should affect the chances that 2021 will not see a repeat of the cruelties of 2020.
In the judgement of its architects, that most significant document of the twentieth century represented the ‘highest aspirations of the common man’, yet in the past several years, political leaders have shown disdain for or ignorance of such rules and ideals.
Australia has good reasons for re-learning. It was one of eight nations involved in drafting this document, and the civil liberties champion, Dr. Herb Evatt was President of the UN General Assembly which oversaw the adoption of the Universal Declaration. Recent Australian governments’ indifference to human rights has been a demeaning response to the Evatt legacy.
The Universal Declaration was followed by the 1951 Refugee Convention to protect refugees from ever being returned to a country where they face serious threats to life and freedom, goals further bolstered by the passage of the 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment.
At least in democracies, these conventions have been acknowledged as representing the framework to craft cultures of non-violence, civility and respect for universal human rights.
In the US, UK and Australia, the mouthing of respect for human rights is usually accompanied by a recitation of cultural platitudes about liberty, inclusiveness, mateship and Christianity plus criticism of countries and religions which allegedly do not care about international law.
These three English speaking countries stereotype themselves as leaders among human rights respecting nations but treat refugees cruelly.
In the USA, a national self-image clashes with cruel practice. The Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886, proclaims ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless tempest tossed to me.’
The Trump administration’s cruelty to refugees is notorious for a zero-tolerance immigration policy which resulted, in 2018, in the removal of 1,030 children from their parents. The children were housed in cages and according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 66% of the children’s parents were deported back to Central America.
In pursuit of an efficient, racially influenced system, the Trump administration lied and lost track of the children. Jeff Sessions the Attorney General at the time insisted, ‘We should take away the children.’ The Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein complied, ‘Children should be pulled away from their parents, no matter how young they are.’
At the end of 2020, after three years of the Trump separation policy, parents of 545 children had still not been found.
Campaigners in the UK complain about a toxic environment inside Scottish hotels used to house asylum seekers. By late 2020, as many as three people per month were dying in hotel rooms, including a 30-year-old Syrian man and Ugandan refugee, Mercy Baguma, found dead with her toddler by her side.
Usually no one knows what happens to these pursued, vulnerable people who are locked up, isolated, depressed and under constant threat of deportation.
The Guardian reports that in the last six months of this year, 29 asylum seekers died in UK Home Office accommodation, five times as many as had lost their lives in the dangerous small boat crossing of the English Channel over the same period.
The voices of the vulnerable are seldom heard, but when they speak, their appeals for humanity are compelling. An asylum seeker who was on a boat from Calais fleeing war torn Yemen said, ‘All of us on these journeys, we have lost our country, lost our family, lost our future. When we got into the boat in Calais, we felt the sea was the only place left for us to go.”
Commenting on the deaths in hotels, Clare Morley from the charity Care4Calais, said, ‘Many refugees have crossed the Sahara Desert and made it through the hell of Libya, facing unimaginable hardship to get this far. But the way we treat them in this country is cruel.’
In their attitude towards stigmatized refugees, the Australian government is in lockstep imitation of UK policies. In Preston Victoria, admirable campaigners for the human rights of refugees have been protesting on behalf of 60 young men held in a virtual prison for over eight months before their transfer to another hotel.
Although these victims of hotel imprisonment had been classified as refugees, Morrison, Dutton and their senior public servants treat the Refugee Convention as though it does not exist. In an age of amoral pragmatism who cares about the Renaissance qualities of those 1948 goals.
The Preston hotel refugees were brought to the mainland for medical treatment under the terms of the 2019 Medevac Bill, passed to allow sick refugees and asylum seekers to be transferred from offshore detention for urgent medical treatment. Later in the year, in July 2019, the government repealed the legislation.
Not content with repeal as an act of revenge against the promoters of Medevac legislation to benefit refugees, the government stigmatizes and punishes the Preston hotel group.
What could be more reprehensible than seeking revenge against parliamentary opponents by punishing refugees? The revenge seekers include the moralistic Morrison, the empathy absent Dutton and an ambitious Attorney General not hindered by ethics let alone international law.
The cruelties of Trump, Johnson and Morrison have been cultivated in cultures which fostered cruel practices, the practitioners comfortable in the belief that they would not be held accountable. They also believe the public will support their cruelty, be indifferent or distracted by other concerns.
To re-learn and practice the 1948 principles, the contemporary political culture which encourages disdain for that rules-based order should be identified. Three features stand out.
A banality of evil encourages punishment of refugees. In retrospect it looks like an evil of banality, so taken for granted is this shameful period of history, so easily silenced are the populations in whose name these policies are pursued.
Secondly, large bureaucracies, the US Department of Justice, Home Affairs in Australia, and the UK Home Office, facilitate cruel policies even if many of their staff are reluctant to do so. Cruelty needs administrative records and processing.
A third feature of this pragmatism-rules-culture concerns sadism, a pleasure in exerting control by hurting a person or animal. This refers not to psychological traits but to the convergence of national culture and specific contexts which make sadism toward the weak, such as asylum seekers, look like a mission.
The chances that the new year will see an end to cruelty as policy, at least in democracies, will require politicians to re-learn those invaluable 1948 aspirations. Those goals included demands for an end to torture and recognition of the rights of refugees.
Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and author (2020) of Cruelty or Humanity, Challenges, Opportunities, Responsibilities. Bristol: Policy Press