Cooperating with a UN investigator should not carry the risk of jail

People should be free to meet with United Nations investigators without fear of being sent to prison.

That ought to be an uncontroversial statement in an established democracy like ours, but our government’s refusal to agree with it forced an expert UN team to cancel their scheduled visit to Australia.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of migrants, Mr Francois Crepeau, was supposed to arrive in Melbourne over the weekend and spend two weeks travelling the country meeting with NGO’s, academics, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and, of course, government representatives. Special Rapporteur visits are an important feedback and accountability mechanism within the international legal system – a system Australia benefits from and often relies on to protect its own national interest.

As part of its ordinary preparations the UN team asked the Australian government to make a simple but important promise - that it would not punish people for providing them with information. Although this is a standard request it assumed a heightened importance for the UN's Australia trip because the recently introduced Border Force Act exposes staff and service providers to two years jail if they disclose certain information about immigration detention centres.

The UN pursued the matter over seven months but the government refused to provide the assurance sought. The visit had to be cancelled - UN investigators can't do their job if the people they meet with might be sent to prison.

There's no doubt the cancellation is internationally embarrassing for Australia. We now join Gambia and Bahrain as States to have recent UN visits aborted due to a lack of government cooperation.

But even more concerning is what the government's actions confirm about the suffocating culture of secrecy surrounding our treatment of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

No one independent can get inside Australia's offshore detention centres.  No journalist has ever been allowed to visit the Nauru facility and the recent increase in visa application fees for foreign journalists from $200 to a non-refundable $8000 makes it unlikely that will change any time soon. Manus is similarly hidden from view.

There's also the ridiculous refusal of successive immigration ministers to talk about anything that happens “on-water”, as if our democracy somehow dissolves and basic principles of transparency and accountability only apply on land.

This formidable information iron curtain has also been reinforced by the government's swift and consistent retaliation against those individuals and institutions who have spoken out.

When the Australian Human Rights Commission did its job and investigated the harm being caused by the mandatory and indefinite detention of children the government slashed its funding and personally attacked its President.

When the UN found that Australia’s offshore detention policy systematically violated the Convention against torture and other forms of ill-treatment our then Prime Minister Tony Abbott angrily declared Australia was “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations.”

When Save the Children workers exposed abuse and violence being perpetrated against children in our care on Nauru, then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison removed them from the island and referred them to the Australian Federal Police. He aired accusations that they fabricated abuse claims and coached asylum seekers to self-harm. The government’s own Moss review subsequently found that the claims of abuse against children were credible but Morrison's attack on the whistleblowers was not. Nevertheless, no apology was forthcoming from Morrison and 93 children remain in detention on Nauru.

The pattern is clear - instead of heeding important human rights messages the government attacks and obstructs the messengers.

Make no mistake about the purpose of all this secrecy. It’s not about stopping boats, it’s about stopping scrutiny. Ultimately a government confident its actions are decent, humane and lawful does not go to such extraordinary lengths to hide those actions from public view.

The insidious culture of secrecy surrounding our treatment of people seeking protection cannot be allowed to continue. It is damaging our democracy, our international standing and people in a way that is unsustainable. It poses a far greater and more insidious threat than the desperate men, women and children arriving on our shores seeking safety.

Our new PM must arrest this undemocratic slide. Immediately agreeing not to imprison people for talking to the UN would be a good start.

Daniel Webb is Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. You can follow him on twitter @DanielHRLC.