John Howard warned over human rights issues


The Howard government was warned it was teetering on the edge of the minimum human rights standards as it pushed for powers to strip search refugee detainees.

The National Archive has released the 2000 cabinet papers, revealing the government’s response to a growing crisis in Australia’s immigration system.

Unauthorised arrivals had exploded by 450 per cent over the preceding year, as detention capacity struggled to keep up.

Riots were also rife in detention centres, as detainees discovered promises made by people smugglers would not be fulfilled.

The Pacific Solution and Tampa Affair were still a year away, but an expected surge of arrivals at the end of 2000 and mass breakouts at three detention centres added to the sense the government needed a circuit breaker.

Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock responded by proposing a suite of powers to sanction detainees, telling cabinet “action needs to be taken on several fronts to ensure that such inappropriate behaviour is curbed”.

The proposal included the power to conduct strip searches on detainees, including children, without a warrant, and five-year jail terms for those who escaped.

While Mr Ruddock argued strip searches were necessary to search for makeshift weapons, he conceded the proposal would likely be criticised as an “over-reaction” by refugee rights advocates.

But the papers also reveal a backlash from government departments.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) rejected the proposal outright, warning Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers had already “taken us close to the minimum standards of treatment the Refugee Convention, international and domestic law, and human rights standards will bear”.

The Attorney-General’s Department warned strip searches would be counter-productive in lowering violence in detention centres.

“The wider search powers may actually operate to undermine the government’s intention by leaving open scope for abuses of power and exacerbate the security situation,” it told cabinet.

It called for warrants to require judicial approval, arguing “authorisation by those in the enforcement chain of command can lead to a conflict of interest and abuse”.

“Independent authorisation is particularly desirable given that strip searches are intrusive procedures and will extend to children.”

Despite the departmental objections, cabinet rubber-stamped Mr Ruddock’s proposal on the condition Mr Ruddock and Attorney-General Daryl Williams develop a protocol for conducting strip searches.

Historian Dr Chris Wallace said the approval was a “key moment when the Coalition might have paused, reflected upon and improved the implementation of its deterrent strategy”.

She argued the 2000 papers showed early signs the government was already on a path to offshore processing.

“They show a government under increasing pressure moving quickly down a particular path, which co-ordination comments show rang increasingly loud alarm bells in the major federal departments even as they broadly supported the ‘deterrent’ approach,” she said.

In August the following year, the government prevented the MV Tampa, carrying more than 400 refugees rescued at sea, from entering Australian waters.

The incident sparked a diplomatic stoush with Norway but was widely credited with propelling John Howard to victory in the 2001 election two months later.

In September of that year, the government passed the so-called Pacific Solution, beginning Australia’s practice of shipping boat arrivals to offshore detention centres.

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