ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 47
Columns - Inside the glass house

Bush, Howard swapping refugees like commodities

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

Asylum seekers being detained by Australia at a high security camp in Nauru

NEW YORK - The Bush administration, which has been consistently accused of human rights abuses in the mistreatment of prisoners of war and terror suspects, finds itself in the centre of another raging controversy — this time over swapping refugees. The controversy, smacking of human rights violations, also hits home because it involves political (or is it economic?) refugees from Sri Lanka.

According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), about 90 Sri Lankan and Burmese refugees being held at an Australian-run detention centre on the Pacific island nation of Nauru would be sent into political asylum in the US. Australia, in turn, would reciprocate by taking up to 200 Cuban and Haitian refugees held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The deal may be designed to prevent refugees joining relatives and migrant communities. If this was the ulterior motive behind the deal, it also violates principles in refugee law relating to family re-unification. According to Human Rights Watch, the Haitians and Cubans, identified as refugees at Guantanamo Bay, have family members already inside the US.

The bilateral deal between Australia and the US, two Iraq-war allies, "is a real low point in the protection of fundamental human rights," says Michael Ratner, president of the Centre for Constitutional Rights. Refugees are human beings, he rightly points out, they are not commodities and items of trade. This is absolutely outrageous, he added.

To play it safe by international law and Geneva conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs), the Bush administration last year pursued its infamous policy of "rendition" under which some of the terror suspects were surreptitiously flown to countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Egypt where they were beaten and tortured.

Technically, the Bush administration kept its hands clean. Or so it thought, until human rights organisations and legal experts came down heavily on the practice of rendition accusing the US of complicity in the torture in violation of international conventions. In the current deal involving the swapping of refugees, both the US and Australia may not be technically violating either the 1951 Refugee Convention or international law.

By housing refugees on the island of Nauru and at Guantanamo Bay, both Australia and the US are trying to avoid their legal obligations under the Refugee Convention. Article 32 of the Convention prohibits states from expelling refugees living lawfully in their territory, but Guantanamo and Nauru are not part of the US and Australia's sovereign territories, respectively, argues Professor Tai-Heng Cheng, associate director at the Centre for International Law at the New York Law School.

Bill Frelick, Refugee Policy director at Human Rights Watch, says the two countries have signed a deal that bargains with lives and flouts international law. He points out that the only conceivable reason for this refugee swap is to deter future asylum seekers from trying to reach the US or Australia by boat.

"The trade deal violates the spirit of the legal obligation not to expel a refugee, except for national security reasons and only after a decision in accordance with due process standards," he added. Ratner, whose Centre for Constitutional Rights is challenging the legality of unlawfully detaining terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, said: "There is no place in a just world for Guantanamos or Naurus — and certainly no place for trading human beings, as was done in the days of the slave trader."

Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy, says treating human beings as commodities is "unfortunately", in keeping with the policies of US President George W. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard. "Apparently the sanctity of the family, so apt to be invoked in their rhetoric, is a highly selective concern for the leaders of the US and Australian governments."

The concept of human rights for refugees, Solomon said, "seems to be foreign to the very leaders who have been eager to cite human rights as a purported justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq." Perhaps this is an extension of the Bush-Howard vision of globalisation, he noted. "Trade becomes debased into the exercise of elite conveniences at the expense of unfortunate human beings." In material terms, he argued, Bush and Howard can hardly be called unfortunate.

"But their willingness to move refugees across the Earth, in a geopolitical chess game, speaks to a depravity in their leadership that makes a mockery of their rhetoric about democracy, compassion and freedom," said Solomon, author of 'War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.'

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.