FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2001, file photo, men shave, brush their teeth and prepare for the day at a refugee camp on the Island of Nauru. U.S. officials had stopped screening refugees for potential resettlement in the United States but would return to the Pacific atoll of Nauru to continue working toward a deal that President Donald Trump has condemned as
Refugees at a camp in Nauru © AP

A coalition of human rights lawyers is petitioning the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged crimes against humanity perpetrated by Australian officials and private contractors on refugees held on remote South Pacific islands. 

Stanford International Human Rights Clinic and the Global Legal Action Network are urging accountability for the system of privatised offshore detention set up on Nauru and Manus Island, which has led to thousands of allegations of physical and sexual abuse and several deaths. 

The refugees held on the islands — many for up to four years — were at the centre of a tense phone call last week between Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Turnbull is pressing the US president to honour a deal made with his predecessor, Barack Obama, to resettle some of them in the US.

“At a time when global powers including the US are shutting their doors to refugees, it is crucial for international legal institutions to protect them,” said Diala Shamas, attorney at the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Centre Clinic. 

The human rights lawyers’ submission to the ICC argues legal action is critical to prevent other countries — such as the US and Denmark — from implementing Australian-style offshore detention schemes in a bid to deter asylum seekers from seeking international protection amid a global refugee crisis. 

It notes that Danish members of parliament recently described Australia’s offshore detention policy as “interesting” following a visit to Nauru and introduced a bill authorising the government to seize refugees’ valuables to pay for their detention. This bill was remarkably similar to the Australian policy of charging asylum seekers for their own detention, it says. 

The submission says Mr Trump has attempted to put in place a policy of systematised deportation, in violation of “non-refoulement”, by making an executive order banning the entrance of certain categories of refugees. 

“The Australian situation will result in the normalisation of criminality; the perception that a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population may be seen as normal, banal, and potentially acceptable,” it says. 

“Australia is no pariah state. It is a relatively wealthy, ‘western’, democracy. Its actions and policies have an added effect in terms of being influential and being replicated elsewhere, specifically in other states that are receiving refugee flows.” 

A team from Stanford Law School has collected first-hand accounts of conditions at the camps, which feature in a 107-page submission that highlights the case of Reza Barati, a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who was kicked to death on Manus Island, among other cases of alleged abuse. 

The Australian government declined to comment on the petition.

If the ICC decides to investigate the offshore detention regime and determines that a case against Australian officials and private contractors is merited, that would open the way for politicians and officials who established and oversaw the system and corporate executives to face criminal litigation, say legal experts. 

Successive Australian governments have overseen a “Pacific solution” for the offshore processing of asylum seekers in a policy that dates back to the administration of former prime minister John Howard, who ordered the set-up of processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island in 2001. 

Spanish infrastructure company Ferrovial and Wilson Security are contractors at the camps. In statements to the FT both companies confirmed they would not provide services beyond October 2017 when their current contracts expire. Ferrovial said its Australian subsidiary operated with “a strict code of business conduct”.

The ICC was established in 2002 as an international tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the event that national jurisdictions fail. 

The Global Legal Action Network said the submission presented the ICC with an opportunity to address the widespread criticism that it is biased because of its almost exclusive focus on African states. 

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