From Vietnam to Nauru, history repeats

04 March 2016 4:20 pm

The shadow of the children overboard affair hangs over the Turnbull government

Peter Dutton's statement in Parliament in relation to baby Asha, implying her parents harmed her to be resettled in Australia should have chilled the nation. His words were: “I’m not going to conduct a situation, not going to preside over a situation where we have people self-harming to come to hospitals in this country because they believe that is the route out into the Australian community for Australian citizenship.”

He said the Government would "not be held to ransom" on the issue.

This is not only racist (would he be saying the same about white people fleeing Zimbabwe?) but also reminiscent of the "children overboard" affair. It's exactly the same allegations.

Who can forget Philip Ruddock, back in October 2001, when the navy intercepted a board carrying asylum seekers toAustralia and many of them ended up in the water?

Ruddock, John Howard’s Minister for Immigration who was subsequently appointed by the Turnbull government - and they did it without a shade of irony - a UN human right envoy; knew exactly how to spin it at the time.

Answering questions about the SIEV 4, Ruddock said the passengers were wearing life jackets and had thrown their children overboard. He told reporters these were “some of the most disturbing practices” he had ever come across. “People would not come in wearing life jackets unless they planned action of this sort.”

As an angry John Howard later told the Herald Sun: “I don’t want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don’t do that…They hang on to their children.” He left it for voters to determine what kind of people he was talking about.

And now we learn that if history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes.

Dutton’s allegations that the parents had harmed Asha to get into Australia are echoes of the children overboard claims.

Significantly, police and medical records subsequently refuted claims that baby Asha had been harmed by her mother. Lady Cilento Hospital records stated the child spilt hot water on her chest and that there was "no evidence that the burn injury is non-accidental". Just as a Senate Select Committee subsequently found that no children had been thrown overboard.

But in both cases, the damage had been done and politicians had conflated the truth for their political agendas.

The point is Dutton, a former Queensland police officer, and his department would have been in possession of medical reports clearly stating that Baby Asha's injuries were accidental. Significantly, Dutton’s office confirmed that the minister’s own bureaucrats had made the police referral.

Having grown up in a refugee family, I watched both political developments with a mix of horror and disgust. Some people never learn, some political parties never change

The good news is there is clear evidence of a shift going on. There are signs the public’s mood about asylum seekers is changing.

And again, history rhymes.

The Vietnam War had two turning points, both of them were photos. The first was the famous shot of South Vietnamese officer Nguyen Ngoc Loan raising his sidearm and shooting Vietcong operative Nguyen Van Lem in the head. The photo, taken by AP photographer Eddie Adams on 1 February 1968, was flashed around the world, capturing the brutality of that war. The second shot was of the little girl, running down the street. Kim Phuc, was seen naked, after a napalm attack on her village. Her skin was melting off in strips. The photo showed her home burning in the background. It was June 8, 1972.
The public response to both photos was overwhelming. People took to the streets in protest and the US eventually pulled out of Vietnam.

In the last few weeks we have seen the same dynamic happening here in Australia with Baby Asha, sparking mass demonstrations and civil disobedience by doctors. And the doctors have been put in an impossible position by the government. The doctors can’t really treat patients like Baby Asha. Dutton has made it clear that as soon as any asylum seeker “gets better”, they are sent back to Manus Island or Nauru. And that creates a dilemma for medical staff. They have to give them treatment, but know they can’t make them better because they are being denied freedom.
What is happening now has had a profound impact on society. Suddenly, people are dedicating their time and energy to find a place for those who have been forced to flee for their lives. They are dedicating their hearts, and some cases their homes, to the asylum seeker. It’s having a huge impact as Australia comes to terms with its tradition of xenophobia.

Dutton and for that matter the Labor Party have failed to pick up this shift in mood. People are not only angry about the treatment of asylum seekers but with the way the politicians have handled this scandal.

These actions have to be in breach of international law but who will bring the action?

Again, we turn to history. History of any sort has always been my passion and I have always believed we can learn from it.

During the Vietnam War, Bertrand Russell created an International War Crimes Tribunal in 1966. The tribunal, which included well-known opponents of US policy such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Isaac Deutscher and Stokely Carmichael held its hearings in Stockholm. The tribunal had 25 notable members including Nobel Prize winners. The Russell hearings received wide attention in Europe, even if they were largely ignored by the American media. Nonetheless, they encouraged Americans to set up similar commissions of inquiry, giving the anti-war movement its impetus.

The Russell Tribunal was conducted in two sessions in 1967 in Sweden and Denmark. It took in evidence from 30 people including US military personnel and the different sides in Vietnam. Russell used the evidence for his book War Crimes in Vietnam (1967).

While the tribunal was, quelle surprise, ignored in America, it had a global impact. Not only to creating public awareness that helped end the war. The Russell model was subsequently used for other tribunals investigating human rights violations in Argentina and Brazil, Chile’s military coup d’etat, human rights in psychiatry, Iraq and Palestine.

What’s needed now is a Russell style international tribunal to investigate human rights abuses of refugees around the world, including Australia. And we need it now. In its latest annual report, Amnesty International has identified massive breaches of human rights as countries move to restrict the massive inflow of migrants and adopt sweeping anti-terrorism measures.

There is no shortage of prominent legal identities who could run and participate in an international tribunal, from Geoffrey Robinson to Julian Burnside. The tribunal would take evidence from around the world, from activists, politicians, people smugglers and of course the refugees. It is only by doing that we will be able to understand the enormity of the crisis where one in every 122 humans living on the planet is either a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum-seeker.

It is estimated we now have a total of close to 60 million refugees worldwide, and the problem is getting worse. An international tribunal might find a way to address this problem. We have to act now.

These are the themes I am now exploring in my book on asylum seekers, looking at the historical parallels for a story that stretches way back in history. The reality is we are suspended in history and history lies suspended in us. We can only understand today by looking back into the past.