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Amnesty slams Australia over human rights

Amnesty Secretary General Irene Khan says Australia must live up to its international obligations  

CNN's Grant Holloway

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Amnesty International has accused Australia of failing to "practise what it preaches" on human rights, and says it is worried by a sharp turnaround in the nation's approach to humanitarian issues.

In particular, the policy of mandatory detention for all asylum-seekers is causing considerable concern for the million-strong movement.

Australia's recent treatment of asylum-seekers has prompted the first-ever visit to Australia by an Amnesty International Secretary General.

The movement's recently appointed leader, Irene Khan, told CNN Wednesday her five-day visit to Australia was the culmination of a long period of concern about the situation there.

She said Australia had a good record of positive action on human rights in the past, supporting treaties and responding in a very humanitarian way to Indo-Chinese refugee problem of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Khan said Australia also had a very important role to play in promoting human rights in the Asia-Pacific region.

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"That's why we are concerned to see this sort of retrenchment of this positive human rights approach," she said.

Australia has a policy of mandatory detention for all illegal immigrants arriving on its shores.

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Asylum seekers are kept in detention camps, often in harsh desert locations, sometimes for periods of more than a year.

These conditions have prompted a series of riots and protests actions, particularly at the largest camp - Woomera - in the South Australian desert.

A recent protest at Woomera involved more than 200 inmates going on a two-week hunger strike and about 50 detainees sewing their lips together with cotton.

Others, including some teenagers, attempted suicide and other forms of self-mutilation.

And since August last year, Australia has adopted a zero-tolerance approach to asylum-seekers, using the navy to intercept their boats and transferring those on board to detention camps on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea's remote Manus Island.

Khan said the Australian government's recent refusal to accept the recommendations of United Nations' human rights groups, the treatment of refugees and the latest harsh and restrictive polices were worrying developments.

Amnesty was focussing on the situation Australia had international treaty and convention obligations "that it has willingly accepted" and therefore had to be held accountable to those standards.

Refugee protection

"We feel Australia has a very important role to play in the region, but it cannot do that if it doesn't practise what it preaches in its own territory," Khan said.

Khan, who is meeting with Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock as part of her trip, said the Australian government had so far maintained a position that they needed these policies to combat people smuggling.

So far there has been no official government response to Amnesty's criticisms.

But Amnesty's position was that the greater concern should be the protection of refugees.

She said she would be asking the Australian government to review its administration of its mandatory detention policy, because it "clearly isn't working".


Nauru detainee
Amnesty is concerned about the physical and mental health of detainees on Nauru and in PNG  

The immigration minister needed to look at alternative arrangements, particularly for families and for women and children

Ruddock also needed to review the conditions in the detention centers, and in particular address the lack of independent, systematic scrutiny of the camps.

She said the lack of access to the centers, partly because of their remote locations, and the lack of supervision increases the possibility of mismanagement in them.

"They need to know that they are being scrutinized.

"These people have committed no crime, but there is no supervision of the way they are being held," Khan said.


The secretary general also suggested the government's so-called "Pacific Solution" for the problem of asylum seekers was unsustainable.

She said she had fears for the mental and physical health of detainees still being held on Nauru and in PNG.

"What is really disturbing is that no-one really knows what is going to happen to them at the end of it. The uncertainty is very dangerous."

Khan said Australians were generally very humanitarian people, who responded with sympathy and understanding to the plight of others when they were told the truth about what was happening.


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