Making Government Accountable: An Interview With Human Right Watch’s Elaine Pearson

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Human Right Watch’s Elaine Pearson

In a tragic of sign of just how much a part of Australia today the 500-odd men still being held in transit centres on Manus Island actually are, at least six detainees have attempted suicide since they learnt that the Coalition government was returned to office last Saturday.

Indeed, seeing the Liberal Nationals government voted back in has left the population of the three transit centres now operating on the island in a state of devastation. But, it’s hardly surprising, as reigning PM Scott Morrison is the man that put them there in the first place.

Operation Sovereign Borders still involves about 850 asylum seekers being held on Nauru and Manus, who were taken to the impoverished islands more than five years ago and left there to slowly lose their minds and their health, so as to act like real life scarecrows to warn off others.

And the current government of the country that was once spruiked as a world leader in human rights has now succeeded in proving that as far as its concerned, the seven major international rights treaties the nation has ratified, aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

In our own backyard

Australia gained a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in October 2017. And as part of its bid to secure the seat, it pledged to “work with other states to support the implementation of their human rights obligations”. And there’s certainly a few in the Asia-Pacific that could do with a helping hand.

One of the most militarised regions in the Pacific is West Papua. It’s been occupied by the Indonesian government since the early 60s. And at the end of last year, a crackdown by Jakarta led to the displacement of around 1,500 villagers in the highlands.

While the results of mid-term elections in the Philippines have been seen as an endorsement of president Rodrigo Duterte’s three year long war on drugs. A local human right commission reported last December that the resulting death toll of this lawless operation could be as high as 27,000 lives.

And in the north-western China province of Xinjiang, the government has detained around one million Uyghur people in re-education camps on the pretext that they’re posing a threat to the heavily restrictive rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

An independent eye

Human Rights Watch keeps a heavily scrutinising eye on rights abuses occurring throughout the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. It’s also produces detailed documentation of these violations. And the global non-government organisation started its mission back in 1978.

Since opening its Sydney office in August 2013, Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson has been working to keep foreign and domestic policies honest by influencing governments to consider them through a human rights lens.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Elaine Pearson about how it’s important for the public to mobilise in support of the offshore detainees, what the government should be doing to address the plight of the West Papuan people and the emerging dark side of new technologies.

Firstly, the Coalition government was returned to office last weekend. It instigated Operation Sovereign Borders back in 2013, which still sees over 800 refugees and asylum seekers being detained on Manus Island and Nauru.

Elaine, what do you expect to see happen to these people now that the Coalition has been returned to office?

It’s a humanitarian crisis. There is a health crisis that’s going on in Manus right now. According to the UN, more than 80 percent of people on Manus and Nauru have severe mental health issues, including depression, PTSD and anxiety.

So, the right thing to do would be to immediately bring all of those people to Australia. For that to happen, it will require quite a lot of mobilising by people to make the government understand that this is a very important issue.

But, there can be progress on these issues. All of the children were removed from Nauru last year. So, certainly, it is possible. But, it’s going to require people to make this an issue front and centre for the government.

Many of those being held by the Australian government in offshore detention have been there for over five years. In your opinion, what does the treatment of these people, who’ve fled their homelands, amount to?

People have been really traumatised over the last five years. They’ve had their human rights severely violated. They’ve been held in limbo. Many went to Manus and Nauru fit and healthy and are now suffering from mental health conditions.

So, repeatedly, they’ve had their human rights violated, where they’ve been exposed to violence, detention and other problems.

The UN has repeatedly called for an end to offshore processing. It’s well overdue for the Australian government to listen to the advice coming from the UN, medical bodies and others. And really take a hard look at the human impact of these policies and do the right thing by the people who remain in those centres.

In December, Indonesian authorities began cracking down on villagers in the Nduga region of West Papua, which led to around 1,500 people being displaced.

West Papua is on our country’s doorstep. And yet, Canberra remained silent about these atrocities, as well as many more that came before them. How do you think the Australian government should go about addressing what’s happening in West Papua?

I’ve travelled to West Papua myself. I’ve seen first-hand the problems and the discrimination suffered by the West Papuans, particularly given the high military presence and the isolation of the region.

What Australia and other governments really need to do is keep up the pressure on the Indonesian government to open up access to the West Papuan region. Foreign journalists and UN monitors are not permitted to visit West Papua. That really needs to change.

When things like the killings in Nduga happen, a big part of the problem is the lack of access to foreign journalists and UN monitors. It’s very difficult to know exactly what happens on the ground.

So, a first way to resolving these problems is by improving access to the region. And that’s something that Canberra should be pushing for.

One report puts the death toll in the Philippines due to president Duterte’s war on drugs at as high as 27,000 people. Most of the world has remained silent on these escalating atrocities that began in June 2016.

Why do you believe foreign nations are simply standing by as Duterte carries out this reign of terror?

It’s terrible. But, unfortunately, right now, there’s a lot of horrific atrocities happening around the world from Syria to Yemen to Myanmar.

So, it’s absolutely awful that the killings of tens of thousands of people are not generating sufficient international outrage. But, the reality is, the world has probably been distracted by other events.

Also, certainly the Australian government has been wanting to work with the Philippine government on counterterrorism, with concerns about ISIS getting a stronghold in the region of Mindanao, in the southern Philippines.

I don’t think that’s any excuse not to push for concerted action to address the killing in the war on drugs. And one way that Australia could concretely do that is by pushing for a resolution to set up a UN factfinding mission to examine these killings at the Human Rights Council.

Australia has supported two joint statements on the Philippines at the Human Rights Council. But, really, it’s time for the UN to have a mandate to examine exactly what is going on. And that will be the first step towards accountability for all of those killings in the war on drugs.

A similar international silence is occurring in regard to what’s happening in the north-western province of Xinjiang in China.

Right now, around one million Uyghur people are being held in internment camps. In your understanding, what’s going on out there?

As you said, it’s a million Uyghur and Turkic Muslims that we know of that are being detained in these camps. They are political re-education camps, where people are not free to leave. They are held their arbitrarily, so they don’t go through any legal process or court.

These camps are highly militarised. The people are taught Mandarin. They’re forced to sing songs and pledge allegiance to the Communist Party. So, we have a lot of concerns about what’s going on in these camps. And we’ve also heard numerous accounts of abuses, violence and torture.

But, because Xinjiang is such a remote part of China, it’s been absolutely impossible for the UN and human rights organisations to access these camps directly and observe what’s going on there.

Again, this is a situation that the Human Rights Council absolutely needs to address. And since Australia has a seat on the council, it’s really important that countries, like China, don’t avoid scrutiny just because they’re big powerful countries.

This is really a test case. And one where Australia could work with other countries that are concerned about what’s happening in China and take the first step in holding the Chinese government to account.

The suppression of the Uyghur people in western China goes further than the huge numbers who’ve been imprisoned.

It includes a mass surveillance system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which can aggregate data from a vast web of different sources about a person and flag any behaviour that it detects as suspect.

What are the human rights implications of using technology in such an all-pervasive manner as this? And are we seeing this type of use of new technologies reflected elsewhere?

The worrying thing is that even for people living outside of the camps in Xinjiang, they’re subjected to extreme amounts of monitoring, control and surveillance by the Chinese state.

They go through regular checkpoints where their phones are scanned and anything from things like being in contact with people overseas via WhatsApp is immediately grounds for suspicion.

The Chinese state is able to use these surveillance technologies to acquire a huge amount of information about people and to make decisions about whether to detain them, purely based on their movements, when they’re leaving the house, what they purchased, and who they’re meeting with.

This is extremely concerning. And it’s really setting a trend not just in China, but also in other authoritarian states, where we’re continually seeing technology used to repress basic rights.

Saudi Arabia is another example. Apparently, there’s an app that’s able to track the movements of women by their male guardians.

Every woman is effectively treated like a child. They have to have a male guardian and the app will actually send notices to the guardian if they do things like travel abroad.

So, while technology has in some ways been quite liberating with people’s ability to organise and connect with one another through social media, more recently we’ve certainly become more attuned to the negative impacts of technology and the way in which the surveillance state really has been able to broaden immensely by harnessing the power of tech.

And lastly, Elaine, in October 2017, Australia won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. One of the pledges Australia based its bid on for the seat was to strengthen human rights institutions in the local region.

In your opinion, how do you rate Australia’s performance on the council so far?

Australia has done OK. They’re about halfway through their candidacy. Australia has generally voted the right way on a number of country resolutions.

However, Australia has failed to show any leadership on any country’s situation. And that’s where the council is really important, because there are so few seats set aside for Western European and other similar governments.

We know there are a lot of rights abusers sitting on the council, like China, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. So, it’s actually really important that other countries sitting on the council use those seats effectively to hold to account those who are responsible for gross human rights violations.

Certainly, we hope that Australia will step it up in the remaining time that it has left. And the way in which it could do that is by supporting some country resolutions on urgent situations that haven’t gotten sufficient attention at the council.

So, China and the Philippines are two examples. And there’s other examples, such as Egypt and Turkey. They’ve all evaded scrutiny at the council.

So, we would certainly be hoping to work with the Australian government to press for that in the coming months.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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