Australia is becoming a rouge state – Greg Barns
This is John Robles, I’m speaking with Mr. Greg Barns. He is a regular Voice of Russia contributor, the former campaign director of the WikiLeaks Party in Australia and the official spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance. He is also the founder and the former president of that alliance.
Robles: Hello Greg! How are you this fine morning? Morning for you and middle of the night for me…
Barns: It is a fine, it’s a beautiful morning in Tasmania, Australia, John. So, I’m sorry you are not here.
Robles: It is minus 23 here in downtown Moscow.
Barns: It is about plus 23 degrees Celsius here.
Robles: That’s great! So, what is going on in Australia right now as far as Indonesia, refugees, AISO etc? If you could, give our listeners an on the ground Australia update?
Barns: Yes, the newly-elected conservative government headed by Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, had a policy of turning back boats.
What had happened was that there were a number of asylum seekers, seeking to come to Australia on boats which were organized by people smugglers out of Indonesia.
People were simply coming because the queues, the so-called official queue that the UN runs, simply doesn’t work. People just wait for years and years in refugee camps.
What’s happened is that the Australian Navy has made incursions into the Indonesian territorial waters in a bid to turn back boats.
Now, what is extraordinary is that the Australian navy and the Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison have both said that these incursions into the Indonesian waters were in fact a “mistake”.
Now it just seems extraordinary that highly trained members of the Australian Navy on highly sophisticated ships, would on a number of occasions, go into the Indonesian waters and not know about it.
One of the other issues is the great secrecy with which this exercise has been conducted. The minister and the military are refusing to allow journalists any real access to the program.
We don’t know whether, for example, the Navy is abusing asylum seekers. There have been some unconfirmed reports about that. But it’s been conducted in such secrecy that, really, one has to wonder what the Australian Navy and what the Abbott Government have to hide.
Robles: What kinds of abuse have been reported? Have there been any clashes or contacts with Indonesian security forces or naval forces?
Barns: There have been no clashes at this point, but the Indonesians have indicated that they will be patrolling their waters very-very strongly.
It comes on the back of the Edward Snowden leaks, which have confirmed that Australia spied on the Indonesian President Yudhoyono and members of his family. And that really I think has been catastrophic for Australian-Indonesian relations, in the same way that US spying on Angela Merkel has been for German-US relations.
The second point is that the Indonesians, you know, it is a developing world country and just believe that Australia is being extraordinarily selfish and xenophobic in the way in which it is dealing with this issue of asylum seekers.
Indonesia is a country teeming with people who’ve come from other countries. Australia should be doing more to support asylum seekers, but it is instead running, for its own domestic political purposes, a very nasty campaign.
In terms of abuse, the allegations were that some asylum seekers were forced to put their hands on hot engines on the boats by Australian Navy personnel.
Those allegations have not been confirmed, I should say, but nor have they been able to be explicitly put to bed as not being correct. There is also an allegation of some physical abuse. There is also an allegation about a pepper-spray and mace incident. Now again one of the difficulties is that you’ll never know the truth of this because the Minister and the Navy, and the military are simply in complete denial and there is no way of knowing whether those allegations are true or not.
Robles: I see. A couple of things here: Why would they be putting people’s hands on hot engines? Is that some sort of torture or punishment? What is it?
Barns: That’s right, and that was the allegation that was made. Certainly, as I say, at this point in time I think it would be fair to say that that allegation is being vigorously denied by the Australian Navy, but because of the secrecy with which this exercise has been conducted, there is no real accountability on the part of the military and/or the government for what is happening in relation to interactions between the Australian Navy and people on these asylum seeker boats.
Robles: So, you’re saying this was like torture, is that what you are saying?
Barns: The allegation was that people have got burns, had their hands badly burnt as a result of being forced to hold hot engines on the boats by the Australian Navy. Now, as I said, the Australian navy is vehemently denying it and the Australian Navy is being backed up by the conservative elements in the Australian media.
Robles: You know yourself, I mean, that sounds so bizarre, that I don’t think it is made up. Who would make up something like that? I don’t know.
Barns: I think the problem is, John, that the Government … in fact, what the minister said was that people shouldn’t sledge the Australian navy or shouldn’t criticize the Australian navy. An extraordinary comment to make.
You know, in a democratic society the military is not above reproach and the people are entitled to put allegations to the military, and they should answer them, they should answer in a way that is respectful rather than simply getting into a huff like a small kid. And that’s what has been happening with the Minister for Immigration and with the Australian navy.
Robles: Sounds like the same thing that is going on in the UK, I mean, as far as the security services and stuff go, where illegality is not questionable, right?
Regarding immigration and the refugees trying to get to Australia, I thought it had a pretty liberal immigration policy. But a lot of it was based on economic means. I mean, basically, if you have a lot of money…
Barns: It used to.
Robles: That no longer exists?
Barns: What no longer exists is generosity in Australia. In the late 1970s Australia took in vast numbers of Vietnamese who, again, came on boats from Indonesia fleeing Vietnam’s Communist Regime. But in the last 12 years Australia has shown an extraordinary mean-spiritedness in relation to asylum seekers coming from Iraq, Afghanistan – places where Australia has caused displaced persons, because we’ve participated in those wars.
And what we’ve done in Australia is – children and women in particular have been detained in hellish detention centers in places such as Nauru, which is effectively a client state of Australia, and also Papua New Guinea. People are being held in terrible conditions.
There has been widespread condemnation from Human Rights Watch, from UNHCR and from Amnesty International. And both sides of politics in Australia – the previous Government and the current Government – effectively say “We don’t care!”. Australia is becoming a rouge state when it comes to the human rights of asylum seekers.
Robles: Very serious statement to make. How many people are we talking here, Greg, in these camps?
Barns: In any stage we are talking anywhere from between 5, 10 to 15,000 it just depends on how many. We did have a number of people coming on boats over the last couple of years. The reason for that happening was effectively because of deterioration of conditions in Afghanistan.
I mean, it is a bit rich for countries like Australia and the US, which caused this displacement in those countries, to then turn around and say – “Well, we are not going to look out for desperate people.”
I should say, as a lawyer, I’ve acted for a number of people who have sought asylum and the stories are just horrific. And it is just difficult to believe that Australia can’t find a way for these people coming into our community.
Asylum seekers, generally speaking, are extremely law-abiding, hard-working, and they are terrific members of the Australian community. And with some really good positive leadership Australians could, again I think, become more generous towards asylum seekers, but we are living here through a horrific period in this country’s history. As I say, Australia is becoming a rogue state when it comes to the freedom of asylum seekers.
Robles: That’s horrible! Up to 15 000, that’s a very large quantity of people. That’s a huge amount of people, I think! I think what you are talking about is something that is a problem in the world in general, as far as the callousness and the uncaring. That seems to have become the norm rather than the abomination. I’m sure you remember the 1970s and the 1980s, we tried to be kinder, right?
Barns: Yes, I think you are absolutely right.
The other issue that has emerged, that we should talk about is the visit by some members of the WikiLeaks Party to President Bashar Assad in late December.
John Shipton, Julian Assange’s father, went on that trip with some other members of the party. It was widely condemned by the conservative elements media.
The issue of course is – Australians seem to see Syria in very black and white terms. That is that the opposition is thwarting Assad and he bad.
The complexity of Syria is such, that there are as many nefarious forces on the side of the opposition, as there are within the Government.
And the trip I think was blown out of all proportions by the conservative elements in Australia, but also some on the left, who see Syria in very black and white terms. And it was made clear by the WikiLeaks Party that it was a fact-finding mission.
Certainly, I had nothing to do with the trip, but I didn’t see any endorsement of Assad by those who were on the trip. And as I say, I think it was blown out of proportion given that the Syrian situation is a complex situation.
Robles: What did they see? Can you tell us about that? You said they didn’t endorse Assad, but did they condemn him or did they see anything damning against the government?
Barns: I think the trip was very much around fact-finding. I wasn’t on the trip, I had no involvement. My involvement with the party has been sort of unofficial, since the election campaign. But I think it was organized by a guy called Tim Anderson who is an academic in Australia. It should be said that Andersen has been fairly pro-Assad in the past.
My understanding is that they met with the members of the Syrian opposition. It was a short trip and I think John Shipton made a point that Assad was glad to see them go because they were certainly meeting with members of the opposition.
Robles: That’s the problem in Damascus and in Syria. I mean, the opposition controls or tries to control who human rights workers talk to, who, I’m sure, you guys talk to, and they try to make sure you only hear what they want you to hear. So, I mean, it is almost impossible… that’s why I’m really interested in hearing….
Barns: I think the point John is that there are no angels in Syria at the moment. It is a complex situation and there is a lot of hypocrisy in the West. At the same time, that the West condemns Assad, you’ve got back channel discussion going on with Assad because there is a recognition that he might still be around in any talks. So, I think from that perspective, it is silly to see it in purely black and white terms.
Robles: I personally believe it was the terrorist elements and the Western-backed elements, and I think this is a big point and nobody wants it to come out, about those 426 children that were murdered as a pretext to cause that invasion. And I’m sure that is something the West does not want to come out, because this was really their own homicidal maniacal Al-Qaeda lunatics who did it.
Barns: But certainly there are some serious human rights abuses on both sides of this conflict.
Robles: Can you tell us anything about Julian on the record?
Barns: I don’t have any great update on Julian at the moment. He is still in the embassy and there is no sign that the new Australian Government will assist him. And that is because they are in the thrall of the US, in the same way as the previous government. But Julian is continuing his work and WikiLeaks is continuing to put out some very important material.
Robles: Okay, but there is no movement within Australia.
Barns: No movement that I know of, John.
Robles: I saw Julian, he grew a beard and he looks a little worse for wear, I mean it looks like he is being under, extremely, a lot of pressure and it is showing.
Barns: It is a very-very tough gig and it is extraordinary the inhumanity of the British Government, the Australian Government and the US Government that they would leave someone in that situation.
Robles: Yes, it is. I mean, that’s a human rights abuse in itself. It is an abomination I think, that he is still there.
Barns: Absolutely, it is a human rights abuse, there is no doubt that.
Robles: Thank you Greg, I really appreciate it. And thanks for letting us know what is going on with Indonesia.
You were listening to an interview with Greg Barns – the former campaign director of the WikiLeaks Party in Australia, the official spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance and the founder and the former President for that alliance. He is also a regular contributor to the Voice of Russia.