Tag Archives: human rights

Australia to send refugees to Cambodia

An extra post today, on a story that hasn’t made the news in a big way, but one that I just can’t get over. The Australian government has made an agreement with the Cambodian government to resettle refugees in Cambodia. These refugees are people who arrived in Australian waters by boat, were detained, and then found to have a genuine claim to asylum. Instead of being allowed to enter Australia, because they arrived by boat they are being sent to Cambodia. Let’s take a look at Cambodia.

The temples of Angkor Wat

The temples of Angkor Wat

Firstly, I have nothing against Cambodia. I spent some time there while backpacking, and loved it. It’s a great country with amazingly friendly and open people. However – it is a Third World country. It is poor, with one of the lowest annual incomes in the world. It is corrupt, ranked 15th worst in the world. It lacks freedom and struggles to feed its own population, being ranked as one of the worst in the world for HDI and hunger. Unemployment is high and many young Cambodians struggle to find jobs. Less than 40 years ago it suffered one of the worst genocides in history, one that was preceded and followed by years of horrific war. The country still bears the scars – on the landscape and on the culture – today.

It’s also a country that’s not known for treating refugees well. They have deported refugees numerous times, including Uighurs from China who were being protected by the UN’s refugee agency. Refugees are not wanted by the majority of the population either. The decision has been greeted with protests in Cambodia by people who don’t want even more competition for meagre resources and jobs. Note that this is the same argument some Australians will make – from a country 42 times larger and 16 times richer than Cambodia. Guess in which of these countries I’ve seen the bumper sticker “F**k off, we’re full”.

Australia will be responsible for the cost of health insurance that is “commensurate” with local community standards for five years. Most Cambodians do not have health insurance. (Lindsay Murdoch, SMH)

To sweeten the deal for the Cambodia government, Australia will pay them 40 million US dollars, on top of resettlement costs. In what is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, where exactly does the Australian government think this 40 million is going to go? It’s unlikely it will do much to benefit the people of the country who never agreed to the deal in the first place. To make the deal even dirtier, it has been carried out in secrecy with no room for debate.

UNICEF, Amnesty International and other groups have labelled the deal “inappropriate, immoral, and likely illegal” – and that describes it perfectly. As an Australian I am deeply ashamed that my country is doing this. It enrages me that no vote I cast can change this – as the opposition Labor party made similar plans. But that isn’t surprising when 60% of Australians polled said that they wanted refugees treated more harshly. We are one of the world’s richest countries handing some of the world’s most vulnerable people to one of the world’s poorest nations.

Oh, the refugees don’t have to go to Cambodia though – they could also remain in their detention camps on the tiny, hot, barren and bankrupt Pacific island of Nauru. They’ll be glad to hear it.

For more on Australia’s asylum seekers policy, see this post from earlier this year.


North Korea and crimes against humanity – Part 2

On Wednesday I wrote about the terrible crimes against humanity taking place in North Korea. The Supreme Leader and his father and grandfather have turned the country into a hell on earth where children are brainwashed from day one to believe in the North Korean system. No outside information is allowed in, and any independent thought is punished by time in a prison camp. Prisoners here are subjected to brutal torture, and many are worked to death.

The world knows all this. It isn’t up for debate, or just propaganda. The UN’s knowledgeable, neutral and respected investigators conducted a well-researched report. So what can be done?

Photo by David Eerdmans

The border between North and South Korea

What’s been done in the past?

There has been action taken in the past to try to convince the North Korean government to join the international community, as well as stopping their abuses and their nuclear program. This can be seen as two policies, sometimes pursued at the same time, ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’. Good cop in this case is for example the giving of foreign aid to the country, or South Korean participation in joint industrial projects along the border. The problem with this approach is that it seems to have zero effect on the North Korean leadership. When the US and South Korea gave food aid to North Korea during the famine in the 90s, the rice was put in new sacks and in unmarked trucks, to disguise where it was coming from. The population never knew the US was helping them. Even today the UN continues to give aid to North Korea, while the government brutalises its citizens. There is no ‘gratitude’ on the part of the Supreme Leader.

The ‘bad cop’ policy is sanctions. The problem with this approach is that North Korea is already buried in sanctions. The UN (with China’s vote) has already banned the import of weapons and certain types of technology, as well has freezing North Korean funds overseas. It’s hard to see how much more sanctions you can put on the country.

So what now?

The most productive step would probably be for the UN to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court. This does send a very powerful message to the leaders of North Korea, that they are being held personally responsible for the deaths of their people. Whether they will listen is another matter. Something else the UN could authorise would be the stepping up of other methods such as information warfare. One commenter suggested on Wednesday that smuggling in DVDs with information about the outside world would be effective. This would certainly help to break through some of the brainwashing, though people caught with any such DVDs would most likely be shot immediately. It would however keep up the pressure on North Korea to engage in some way with the outside world.

The major problem with all of this is China, and their veto in the UN. China is North Korea’s only ally, even if they have voted for sanctions on them. However they are inclined to vote against more far-reaching measures against North Korea. Firstly they’re afraid of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans flooding the border if the country suddenly collapses. Secondly, if North Korea joined the South it would be mean the almost 30000 US soldiers in South Korea would be on the Chinese border. The last time that happened was in the Korean War, and it didn’t end well. Thirdly, China always worries that if the UN goes after countries for their human rights, China itself will be next. Their record on the matter is not good, especially when it comes to Tibet.

However, I believe it’s possible to make a deal with China. North Korea is an embarrassment to them, and China has repeatedly shown that it doesn’t have unlimited patience with its ally. Firstly the US would need to assure China that it would not have any troops in a unified Korea. Another possibility would be secret agreements with China on other matters. For example, the US could agree to stop supporting Taiwanese and Tibetan efforts and organisations. However the most important thing that can be done is publicly putting pressure on China to stop returning North Korean refugees. This is one of the most important things this report has done – it puts pressure on China.

The other thing to consider is what will happen if the North Korean regime collapses. 25 million people who are living in a dystopian, brainwashed world will suddenly be confronted with the 21st century. It’s hard to imagine how South Korea and the international community will deal with this. The integration of Eastern Germany was hard enough, and North Korea is far, far worse off.

A third problem is that North Korea has nuclear weapons. Relatively small ones to be sure, but Seoul is barely 50 km from the border. The North Korean army could practically throw a missile and still cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. These nukes are a factor in every discussion on North Korea.

Thanks to these problems, for all the great powers it is simply easier if the situation stays as it is. But at some point the international community needs to take a stand on this moral issue. This is one of the most clear-cut cases of large-scale human rights abuses the world has ever seen. We cannot stand aside and wait while people suffer. We know what is happening. Hopefully, this will finally be the time the international community acts.

North Korea and crimes against humanity – Part 1

“In the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], international crimes appear to be intrinsic to the fabric of the state. The system is pitiless, pervasive and with few equivalents in modern international affairs.”

So reads the main conclusion of the UN’s report into human rights in North Korea. The 372 page long report was compiled through months of research and interviews with North Korean defectors, and is a horrific insight into the nature of a state built on utter domination of its citizens. So what does the report say about North Korea? How can such a system survive? And what will happen next?

(For a simple and interesting overview of the Korean War, and why there are two Koreas, please see this video!)

The two previous leaders of North Korea

While we often make fun of the delusions and eccentricities of North Korea’s leaders, reading this report makes it hard to keep laughing. It’s hard to sum up in any sort of way how monstrous the North Korean state is. It is the closest anyone has ever come to the Big Brother state of Orwell’s 1984. From birth children are raised in complete loyalty to the state, and near worship of the Supreme Leader. Every single aspect of education has to show the wisdom of the system. Children and students are taught that their life is to serve. This extends to taking part in the “Mass Games”. Foreigners watching don’t realise the people forced to take part are work 10 hours a day for 6 months, and mistakes are ruthlessly punished.

No sources of knowledge are allowed except what comes from the state. Religion, especially Christianity, is punished with torture and death. Even watching a South Korean soap opera can be punished with 5 years in a labour camp; anyone caught selling foreign DVDs is shot. North Korea has created a bubble where people are told they are living in a workers’ paradise. For the majority of people who don’t have access to an illegal radio, mobile or TV, truth becomes whatever the state says it is.

This system of lies and brainwashing is forced on the North Korean people by almost unbelievable brutality. Trying to flee the country, being Christian, or any manner of tiny mistakes such as “accidently breaking the glass on a portrait of Kim Il-sung” can get someone dragged into the massive prison system. There mistreatment is the norm. Prisoners are forced to work as slaves, as well as being starved, beaten, and subjected to obscene torture. Women are especially brutalised. Pregnant women are subjected to forced abortions; one was even forced to drown her newborn baby. Children, some of whom were born and grew up in the camps, are also forced to work. One man described dropping a sewing machine in a prison factory when he was 14, and having his middle finger cut off by a guard as punishment. He was grateful at the time it wasn’t his hand he lost. This callousness shows the complete disregard the government has towards its citizens.

This mistreatment of citizens by the government extends beyond prison camps. In the 90s North Korea suffered terrible famines due to flooding and mismanagement of agriculture. The government took no real steps to help victims of the famine. Food rations were cut, and people were reduced to eating grass. Most likely somewhere between 500 000 and 3 million people starved to death. As this was going on the government was taking food away from the peasants to feed the military, their guarantee against foreign invasion. North Korea even accepted food aid from its enemies, the US and South Korea. They then relabelled the aid so that no one would know it was from outside Korea. To disguise what was going on, the state called this famine the “Arduous March”, and said that even the Supreme Leader was suffering lack of food. The only ‘lack’ he was suffering was that some of his imported whiskey was confiscated by Italian customs.

The conclusion the report draws is that North Korea is a country unlike any other. It has committed almost every crime against humanity there is, and its entire system is based around committing these crimes. The world has known about what is going on for many years, but this is still an important report. The BBC called it the “most detailed and devastating ever published by the United Nations”. It is very unusual for the UN to criticise one country in such a way.

The recommendations of the report are also interesting. Obviously they call for North Korea to stop its abuses, but acknowledge that this is unlikely. They recommend that the situation be sent to the International Criminal Court for investigation, or that a separate tribunal be set up to try anyone accused of crimes against humanity, including the leaders of the country. They also say that the international community is responsible for seeing this take place.

The question now is what will the international community do? And what can we really do? On Sunday in Part 2 of my post about North Korea I will discuss different actions the world could take, as well as the problems involved. Hint: China is one of them.

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Australia and asylum-seekers – What’s the big issue?

In the last month the Australian government’s policy on asylum-seekers arriving by boat has hit international news. First they had to apologise when the Australian navy entered Indonesian waters. Then Prime Minister Abbott made the news by calling the Australian national broadcaster (ABC) ‘unpatriotic’ for its investigation into treatment of refugees. On Monday it came out that the Australian Human Rights Commission would conduct an inquiry into the mandatory detention of children of asylum-seekers when they arrive in Australia. This is obviously a big issue in Australia. So what exactly is this ‘issue’? What has changed in the last few months? And why is it of such importance to Australia?

Source: BBC

A typical boat used by people smugglers

Follow this link for a simple explanation of what it means to seek asylum.

These people arriving on boats are refugees, mainly from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or Sri Lanka. This article describes some of the reasons they had for leaving; a civil-rights activist in Kabul who faces death threats, a man who illegally converted to Christianity in Iran, another who received threats after standing for election in Sri Lanka.

These people, often with their families, head in any way they can towards Indonesia. Why Indonesia? It’s the closest country to Australia these people are able to fly to. Since Australia is an island, they can’t show up at the border and request asylum, as in most other countries. A visa is required to board a plane heading to Australia. This leaves the only option of heading to Australia on a boat, often one that is falling apart. The plan would then be to request asylum when they arrive or get intercepted by the navy and taken to Australian. Throughout this process they are not alone, but are dealt with by people smugglers, who make plenty of money off these refugees.

The way that the government responds to this has been controversial for a long time. Australia is the only country in the world that has a policy of mandatory detention for asylum-seekers and their families. This means that the people arriving by boat are locked in detention camps while their request for asylum is considered. In every other country these people are issued a temporary visa. To make matters worse, they are often left to sit for months and even years in these camps while bureaucracy fails to get anywhere on their asylum request. At the moment my family has spent 4 months waiting for the government to renew our residency in the Netherlands, leaving us in legal limbo. It’s been extremely stressful, but at least we didn’t have to live in a prison camp while waiting.

A detention camp on Nauru

Numerous Australian governments have tried to deal with the asylum-seekers by increasingly harsh methods. Under the Liberal (the more conservative party) government in the early 2000s asylum-seekers were sent to camps on the remote Pacific island of Nauru while their requests were considered. In 2007 the Labor (the less conservative party) closed the camps, but then reopened them in 2012 after the numbers of asylum-seekers increased. In 2013 the Labor Prime Minister announced plans to give the refugees asylum – in the third-world country of Papua New Guinea. Finally, after elections in 2013 the new Liberal Prime Minster Abbott announced that dealing with asylum-seekers was a military matter. The navy began towing boats back to Indonesia, and the government stopped releasing information on the subject. Since this new policy, no boats have arrived in Australia.

So why is this such an important issue in Australia? When you look at the numbers, Australia doesn’t actually receive a big proportion of asylum-seekers, only 3% of the world total. The problem is that the issue has become a political one. Both political parties use the issue to attack the other, and appeal to voters, turning into a bigger ‘problem’ than it is. This can be seen by the way the (Liberal) Immigration Minister responded to questions about children in detention:

“But the reason there are children in detention is because over 50,000 turned up on illegal boats on Labor’s watch so we’re dealing with Labor’s chaotic mess here,”

This shows that the real issue for the politicians is being able to show that the other party is ineffective. The refugees themselves aren’t so important.

Unfortunately, this sort of fear mongering by governments has happened again and again in Australia. It is a small (in population), mainly white nation in Asia, meaning it has always been easy for politicians to gain votes by appealing to people’s fear of being ‘swamped’. Talking about these people as ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘boat people’ is both incorrect, and dehumanising. However the actual numbers and nature of the asylum-seekers are made unimportant. Fear will win the votes every time. The country needs people, and especially politicians in government brave enough to stand up against the lies and fear. Given the state of Australian politics, that could take a long time.