AHRC president Rosalind Croucher. Image credit: Lukas Coch/AAP

The unfolding humanitarian crisis on Manus Island, where around 400 asylum seekers remain in Australia and PNG’s abandoned detention centre, attracts UN and NGO attention as well as daily global and domestic media. Given the human rights issues at stake in this battle – the latest being the involvement of the Australian Federal Police in an aggressive and violent attempt to remove the men from the centre, and the outrageous indifference of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to Australian Medical Association requests seeking access to Manus Island so it might dispense urgent medical care – one would have thought the Australian Human Rights Commission, the national human rights watchdog, would be front and centre of a public campaign to remind the Turnbull government that it has human rights obligations.

The gross inhumanity of the federal government’s refusal to act urgently on the AMA request was made clear by AMA President Michael Gannon in an interview with the ABC RN Drive program on Wednesday night. Dr Gannon said that there is an extreme risk of cholera at Manus because there is no access to “clean water to prepare food in, to drink. If you’ve got unsafe toilet facilities or no facilities at all, then infections like this will take hold.” 

Despite all this, Mr Dutton will not meet with the AMA until next week.

Manus needs the Human Rights Commission more than ever

The reality of the situation facing those men still at the detention centre is one crying out for the strong and unwavering advocacy of the AHRC, particularly after this AMA intervention and lack of response from the federal government.

Up until now the AHRC, chaired since July 30 this year by Professor Rosalind Croucher after her vocal predecessor Gillian Triggs finished her term, has been keeping a relatively low profile on the Manus crisis. Under Professor Triggs the AHRC was a strong, courageous and articulate voice for better treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. In April last year it publicly welcomed the decision by the PNG Supreme Court to declare the detention of over 800 detainees at Manus Island unlawful.

It is in fact core business for the AHRC to have a strong and public voice on the Manus issue. The Australian Human Rights Commission Act, a 1986 law passed by the Hawke government, sets out the roles of the AHRC. Under section 11 of the act, the commission is to “promote an understanding and acceptance, and the public discussion, of human rights in Australia”. This aspect of the AHRC’s work was something Professor Triggs took very seriously as she routinely challenged the federal government over its appalling human rights abuses at immigration detention centres. For doing such an effective job Professor Triggs was subjected to harassment, bullying and vilification from conservative media outlets and politicians, particularly in the Coalition. That mistreatment simply enhanced her reputation and that of the AHRC in the eyes of those in the community who take human rights seriously.

How Croucher eschews media

Professor Triggs and the AHRC used social media and the traditional media effectively to voice concerns and educate Australians about human rights and their application to asylum seekers. But under Professor Croucher this seems not to be the case. Professor Croucher’s own Twitter account has no discussion of  Manus Island or asylum seekers, since closure of the camp on October 31, or even prior to it. The Twitter accounts of the AHRC , and Ed Santow, who is the AHRC’S commissioner for human rights, have been a little more active, with a diplomatic media release of November 8 by Santow urging Australia and PNG to find a durable and humane solution for the Manus Island asylum seekers and former detainees. It might be said however, in the context of the callous indifference shown by Mr Dutton and his colleagues, the AHRC’s message should have been much more forceful.

A search of the AHRC website shows that the Manus Island crisis has taken a back seat to the NT Royal Commission on youth detention and same sex marriage survey. While both these issues are of great importance in the human rights agenda of this nation, it is puzzling why Professor Croucher is not using the considerable cache that her office now holds courtesy of the powerful Professor Triggs, to say and do more to end the suffering of those on Manus.

Peter Fray

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