Internal Security Vs. Human Rights: Australia in Turmoil?
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Internal Security Vs. Human Rights: Australia in Turmoil?


February 2015 may go down in history as the month that launched a resurgence of ethics as a higher priority in Australia’s internal security policy. Never has there been so much questioning in the country of the ethical choices of its security agencies, whether that be the armed forces, the police, or the intelligence organizations – and their political masters on both sides of government.

There is little public consensus but there are rising calls for resolution of the key dilemmas as Australians of all political persuasion become more hostile to what they see as the cold-hearted posturing of some public leaders. The country that abducted aboriginal children from their parents over decades, but was later able to apologize, appears once again to be losing its moral compass. And all this comes at a time when the country, like others, faces grave threats from terrorism and illegal immigration.

The list of recent ethical controversies around internal security in Australia is not short, and the challenges are far from trivial.

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On February 12, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a report on the impacts of mandatory detention on child asylum seekers. The children in camps are  in Australia and in Nauru, most with family but some without. The Commission’s report found fault with successive Australian governments (both under Labor and Liberal-National administrations) for systemic abuse of the human rights of children in the detention camps, resulting in their exposure to sexual abuse, other physical assault, and mental health problems while in the care of the government. Australian security agencies, including its armed forces, have been responsible for implementing different parts of the policy of mandatory detention as an intended deterrent to large scale people-smuggling operations through Indonesia of refugees and economic migrants. Both major political parties supported the deterrent intent but have been slow to adjust to the changing situation. Even though the boats have stopped coming, largely because of a tow-back policy on the high seas by the Australian Navy, there is still a large number of people, including unaccompanied minors, in internment camps. The Australian government has been negotiating with Cambodia, a well-known abuser of human rights, to take up at least part of the camp population as immigrants. Australia began releasing children from the camps, and the number is now down from just under 2,000 to around 300, according to statements made on February 12.

On January 29, a disbelieving country saw the spectacle of two deputy commissioners of the police force of New South Wales (the country’s largest state) clash in public testimony at a parliamentary hearing over a long running scandal that involved warrants improperly obtained through the state’s judges for surveillance of one of the deputy commissioners and up to 100 other colleagues. The leader of the state government, Premier Mike Baird, has seemingly been paralyzed in the face of this continuing public dispute, even though one of the deputy commissioners holds an operational role in counter-terrorism defense of the state. This high level public row over police ethics came only six weeks after a quasi-terrorist siege in Sydney resulted in the death of two people, and just two weeks before two men were arrested in Sydney and charged with preparing for a terrorist attack in the name of Islamic State.

At the same time, Australia (like all Western democracies) is struggling to come to terms with the ethics in balancing between electronic surveillance for national security and personal rights. Each few months seems to bring a new call for a further extension of the powers of intelligence agencies, courts or the government to impose new restrictions on pre-existing liberties. Each few months brings a new dilemma about the ethics of one or another of the country’s security agencies or its military forces.

Public ethics in general have been under assault. There have been recent hearings in Royal Commissions into the institutional response to child sexual abuse and into corruption in the trade unions. And on the streets of Sydney, police this week shot and killed a young woman with a large knife, in circumstances that suggest both a lack of training and a lack of clear ethical guidelines about how to deal with people in such circumstances.

In January, the news broke that David Hicks, an Australian arrested in Afghanistan in 2001, detained at Guantanamo until convicted in 2007 by a U.S. military commission and widely reviled in the Australian community as a terrorist, had his conviction abdicated by a U.S. authority on the basis that it was unsound and obtained under duress. The U.S. authorities have yet to confirm the precise details, though Hicks is now in Australia, where he was imprisoned for a number of months after his transfer from Guantanamo to serve out in Australia the short sentence he obtained under a plea bargain. It appears that the U.S. legal system is yet to make a firm ruling on the Hicks case but the news only adds to confusion in Australia about the public ethics for handling terrorism cases. As Australian are near unanimous in opposing Islamic State, its government is facing a possible apology to a person they claimed was a fighting member of Al Qaeda.

There is one moral dilemma in the security domain where the Australian community is almost unanimous: their opposition to the imminent execution of two Australians convicted for attempted drug smuggling. Australia abandoned capital punishment half a century ago and since then has regularly campaigned for clemency for any of its citizens condemned to death overseas. In 2005, its federal police provided information to Indonesian authorities that led to the arrest and conviction of the pair, who were condemned to death. In the intervening years, the two were able to benefit from a moratorium on the death penalty under Indonesia’s former President Yudhoyono. New President Joko Widodo, elected in November 2014, has reinstated the death penalty, giving rise to months of vigorous campaigning from Australia for clemency for the pair. The ethical issues around the involvement of Australian police in tipping off the Indonesians and thereby exposing the pair to the death penalty for drug offenses, seemingly in contradiction of Australia government policy on the death penalty, has now been put on the table by human rights activists, and even a former foreign minister.

Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, and many of his party colleagues, allege that the Human Rights Commission is politicized and stands discredited because of its report on child detainees. This exposes a larger dilemma. With no Bill of Rights, and only implied rights based on court precedents and common law, Australia now seems to have few formal mechanisms to help restore balance in the debate about the ethics of national security. This will have operational impacts for all security agencies in Australia until a much stronger consensus on basic values can be established. The country needs to institutionalize a formal and legally protected regime of human rights in which the ethics of national security can be more fully grounded.

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