A United Nations report says Australia is in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture because of aspects of its treatment of refugees held in detention on Nauru and Manus Island.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has attacked the UN for that criticism. It is true to his form.

Asylum seekers inside the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea.
Asylum seekers inside the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea.
In the past weeks we have watched Abbott and his senior colleagues attack Professor Gillian Triggs for her report about the mistreatment of children in immigration detention.

Mr Abbott is a bully. He knows he cannot contradict the contents of Professor Triggs’ report or the UN report, so instead of denying the message, he attacks the messenger.

Bullying is an ugly thing. It is regrettable in the schoolyard; it is despicable in a national leader. We have seen it before, in leaders whose names are reviled in history.

The UN was set up after World War II. It was a brave experiment to see whether universal norms of behaviour could be agreed and maintained among the nations of the world. It promoted widely accepted human rights conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Refugees Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Torture Convention.

Australia has signed all these international instruments, including the Torture Convention. It signed the Torture Convention nearly 30 years ago, on 10 December 1985. The convention begins with the words:

“… Having regard to article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights … which provide(s) that no one may be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment …

Desiring to make more effective the struggle against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment throughout the world … the parties to the Convention agree …”

As the UN report notes, Australia did not respond to the UN request for its version of the facts. There is no suggestion that the matters in the latest report are factually wrong.

It is important to understand what is happening: a UN representative considers that various aspects of Australia’s treatment of refugees in Nauru and Manus amount to torture, in breach of the convention which Australia has signed. Mr Abbott does not deny the facts but says Australians are “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations”.

The parallel with the attack on Professor Triggs is uncanny: Professor Triggs reported the appalling effects of the mistreatment of children in immigration detention, and Mr Abbott’s government launched a full-scale attack on her without casting doubt on any of the facts she reported.

In responding as he did, Mr Abbott did not speak for all Australians. Indeed, I think he did not speak for most Australians. Most Australians value this country’s reputation for decency and fairness. Most Australians do not think this is a country of bullies and child-abusers. Most Australians would be shocked to think that, as a country, we are behaving in ways that betray our standards of conduct and our image of ourselves.

But Mr Abbott’s bullying response was even worse than it appeared, because it was coupled with dishonesty. He said: “I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations, particularly, particularly given that we have stopped the boats, and by stopping the boats, we have ended the deaths at sea.”

“Stop the boats” originally meant: stop boats from leaving Indonesia with refugees on board, because the voyage is dangerous. Mr Abbott has not stopped the boats from setting out for Australia. He knows that. To say “we have stopped the boats” is a lie. The Australian navy has breached Indonesian territorial waters a number of times as it pushes refugee boats back. We have bought large numbers of life boats in which to send asylum seekers back to Indonesia after their boats have been intercepted. Just last week, we were told that boats will be bought in Vietnam and asylum seekers will be put on those boats in order to send them back to Indonesia.

We are not told how many people have drowned in the boats that have set out, presumably because that is an “on-water” matter.

But apart from Mr Abbott’s lies and bullying, there is another point about his “Stop the boats” rhetoric. The harsh treatment of people in offshore detention amounts simply to this: Because we are concerned about people drowning, we punish the survivors. And now the UN has pointed out that our treatment of the survivors constitutes torture, contrary to our solemn promise made when we signed the Torture Convention 30 years ago.

It is a matter of profound regret that Mr Abbott is so careless of Australian values and Australia’s image that he thinks it appropriate to respond like a bully when an impartial international observer politely draws attention to the fact that our conduct falls way below the standards we set for the international community and ourselves.

It is a matter of profound regret to see where the country is being taken by a man whose defining characteristics are bullying and dishonesty.