Saturday, August 03, 2002


Last week, former Indian High Court Judge, and now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Justice Prafullachandra Bhagwati released his report into the detention of people who arrive in Australia without authorisation. We are no longer able to call them “illegal immigrants”. They are not refugees, since there are no refugees in detention in Australia. Some are asylum seekers, but most have exhausted all avenues of appeal, and are awaiting deportation.

I’ll go out on a limb here, and venture that the good Judge is a volunteer in his current occupation, and he gets a reasonable amount of autonomy in his choice of assignment. That is, I’m confident he chose this task over any others that might have been brought to his attention, and it’s safe to assume he thought his time was better spent pursuing the Australian Government, ahead of any other country he could have chosen.

Justice Bhagwati spent 12 days “in country”, although he only managed to spend about four or five hours in contact with actual detainees. The rest of his time was occupied in speaking with activist groups, pressure groups, church groups, and the occasional Minister of the Crown. Taking into account travel time, report writing, initial research and meetings, we would not be far wrong to assume this matter has taken him a good working month to complete.

So here’s my question: might there have been a better use of his time? If he is concerned about child welfare, he might have looked at Child slavery in Togo. Or he could have spent a month helping theInternational Labour Organisation, who could have used his help, since they believe 250, 000, 000 children in the world are forced to work to survive. (for those without a calculator handy, that’s 2,500,000 times as many children in detention centres in Australia, none of whom are forced to work)

With a bit of a stretch, the Judge might have switched his trip to Cambodia Cambodia, to investigate child prostitution or to South Africa for ritual child murders (possible up to 300 so far, that’s about three times the number of children in detention here, none of whom have been murdered).

A month’s work in South Africa might have been appreciated, where a combination of ignorance and cultural misogyny has led to over 21,000 child rapes per year, as HIV-infected men attempt to cure themselves (that’s 210 times … you get the picture). Head north a few hundred miles, he might have dropped in on Malawi, where corruption has exacerbated the famine, and caused donor countries to cut aid. With a bit of help from his staff, I’m sure Justice Bhagwati would have been able to find some children there who could have been helped.

One phone call and he might have gotten directions to one of the thirty countries currently using an estimated 300,000 child soldiers.

Instead, Bhagwati thought his time was better spent here, telling a democratic country what it can and can’t do in pursuit of its border protection. A country with an acknowledged leadership in human rights, where race or religious crime is a virtual unknown, despite over one quarter of the population being born overseas.

I can’t imagine the local Australian Refugee Liberation Army keeping quiet if an Australian judge went to, say, France, and ripped into them for their detention policies. So why should we listen to a judge from a country where 5000 women die each year because their parents didn’t stump up enough dowry, where child marriage is common, and where Human Rights Watch estimate child labour at between 65,000,000 and 115,000,000. My calculator is starting to smoke, but I think you get my point.

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