This week the Australian public has had to swallow the news that a violent protest at the Manus Island detention centre resulted in the death of one detainee and serious injury to a number of others. Depending on who you believe, the death and injuries were the fault of the asylum seekers themselves (who were rioting in frustration over their conditions), of heavy handed response by security guards at the centre, or of local police or residents breaking into the camp and assaulting the protesting detainees. The various accounts of the event are irreconcilable. At this point, given that neither staff of the centre nor detainees are allowed to talk to the media and we can't trust anything the government says on the subject, we have no way of knowing what happened.
One thing is agreed by all those telling the story. The detainees were protesting, with some violence, about conditions in the camp. They had, in fact, been protesting for weeks before their protests became violent this week. Nor is it difficult to find out why. In November 2013 Amnesty International visited the Manus Island Detention Centre, inspected facilities and spoke to detainees. They presented their report to the Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison, complete with a detailed set of recommendations for how to improve life in the centre. . Morrison thanked them, said he would look into it and get back to them, and of course has yet to do so.
Unlike the Australian Government, though, they made their report public and it is not pretty reading. Many of the detainees (single men and boys) live in large dormitories with no personal space, almost no natural light and little ventilation despite the tropical location. There are not enough dining or toilet facilities so they have to queue for hours in the sun or rain to use either. The latrines do not have soap and water. The detainees have nothing to do all day. In some parts of the centre they are limited to 500 ml of water per day, risking dehydration in the heat. Many arrive without clothes and are assigned minimal clothing - a pair of trousers, one or two t-shirts and thongs but no shoes. There are limited medical facilities, and the advice of on-site medical staff is routinely ignored by centre management. Detainees have no information about the timetable for processing their refugee applications, and between November 2012 and November 2013 none had their applications determined. No wonder they were protesting.
The government, however, seems to have done little to relieve their suffering. Even in the aftermath of the violence, their main concern has been to increase security at the centre. Tony Abbott is talking tough.
“We will not succumb to pressure, to moral blackmail,’’ Mr Abbott said.
“We will ensure these camps are run fairly, if necessary firmly.’’
Perhaps Waleed Aly is right and this situation has been deliberately created and maintained by the government to ensure an appropriate level of deterrence necessary to "stop the boats". They certainly seem pleased with themselves.
This would also go a long way to explaining the previous horror story about asylum seekers, the allegations that passengers in a boat forcibly escorted back to Indonesian waters by the Australian Navy were assaulted by naval personnel, including being forced to hold their hands against scalding engine pipes resulting in serious burns. Once again Abbott talked tough, claiming the allegations were baseless and attacking the ABC for reporting them, suggesting that the ABC should show "some basic affection for the home team".
Here is a little extract from one of the ABC's stories on the issue.
"These are just claims without any apparent facts to back them up," he (Mr Abbott) said.
"I have complete confidence in the decency, the humanity and the professionalism of Australia's naval and customs personnel who I commend for a magnificent job."
Earlier on Wednesday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said people smugglers had a strong motivation for fabricating stories to discredit Australia's border protection policies.
Mr Abbott told reporters that people making allegations "should be able to produce some evidence".
"Who do you believe? Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who were attempting to break Australian law?" Mr Abbott said.
"I trust Australia's naval personnel."
The defence minister went even further, expressing a good deal of righteous anger that the media could question the integrity of the defence force.
If this sounds a little like the government taking the word of the accused officers at face value rather than properly investigating the complaints, that impression was backed up a few days later by further interviews with one of the boat's passengers. He reiterated the accusations, provided further details, and claimed that neither he nor the other injured passengers had been asked for their stories by Australian investigators. If the claims were investigated at all, the investigation seems to have been fairly slapdash. The word "cover-up" comes to mind.
Abbot seems to think his "who do you believe?" is a rhetorical question. However my dear readers will hardly be unaware that over the last few years the defence forces have been plagued by allegations of physical and sexual abuse within their ranks, including high profile cases at the Australian Defence Force Academy and on the HMAS Success and Leeuwin. As a result, the then Minister for Defence Stephen Smith announced an independent review of the allegations in April 2011.
Following the recommendations of this review, in late 2012 Minister Smith established the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce to investigate allegations of past abuse. By its extended closing date in November 2013 the Taskforce had received approximately 2,300 separate complaints from current and former defence personnel. Investigations are ongoing, with the closing date for this mammoth task recently extended until November 2014.
In the meantime, the Australian Defence Force committed itself to a process of cultural change. In November 2012 the Chief of Defence Force, General David Hurley, delivered an official apology to those who had been abused, although this since appears to have been removed from the defence force website. Defence also has a 50-page strategy document called Pathway to Change. It acknowledges that there have been various failures to meet acceptable standards, and that Defence has shown "an inability to address them quickly" which points to "gaps in Defence's processes". Here's what they say about "corrective processes".
However, we should anticipate that some of our people will stray outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. For these people, we will have simpler and more effective processes with clearer consequences for their behaviour, which will both return them to within the accepted boundaries and signal that Defence people are fully accountable for their behaviours. We will also improve our processes through which we respond to and handle incidents of unacceptable behaviour. Our response will focus on the interests of individuals, work collaboratively with Groups and Services and have the capacity to resolve individual cases fairly, quickly and consistently." (page 6)
There's a whole section, from p21, on complaint and disciplinary processes, to "make corrective processes faster and more transparent".
All this rather begs the question: If over 2,000 of the ADF's own personnel believe they have been subject to abuse, and the force itself just over a year ago was sufficiently convinced of the problem to issue a formal apology and commence a process of change, why should we now believe abuse of those outside the force - particularly those our leaders have been working so hard to demonise - is unlikely or even impossible? If in 2012 they believed it was prudent to "anticipate that some of our people will stray outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour" why do they now believe it is prudent to attempt to silence those who report allegations of such straying? If their avowed policy is to "make corrective processes faster and more transparent", why are they so resistant to an independent inquiry in this case? In the face of photographic evidence and adamant testimony from the alleged victims, surely a failure to speak to the complainants is evidence of further "gaps in Defence's processes"!
We should be concerned at the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in Australia's offshore detention centres. We should be alarmed that our government appears to be happy about this, and to condone and even tacitly encourage cruelty, physical abuse and psychological torment in order to prevent people seeking refuge here.
These worries are nothing new, but now we have another to add to the list. The good work that Steven Smith and the leaders of the defence force began in 2012 is being rapidly undone. Less than 18 months into a long and difficult change process we have gone from a commitment to ethical behaviour and transparency to a focus on secrecy and protection of abusers. The message to ADF officers is that if they want to misbehave, the government will protect them. 2,300 former defence personnel would tell us that given such a license, many current defence force members will be only too willing to use it. So who do you believe?