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Australia’s Abu Ghraib moment

By Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Allegations that asylum seekers are being water-boarded while held in detention in Nauru, and their denial by Government,  is reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib scandal that engulfed the Bush Administration in 2004.  What has emerged reflects a likely pattern of abuse that can no longer be ignored by Australian citizens.

Even though it became clear that senior members of the former Bush  Administration were well awareof detainee abuse by US soldiers before the explosive Abu Ghraib photographs were published, it didn't prevent official denials and counter allegations that Congress, civil libertarians and the media were exploiting the story to discredit the Bush Administration.  Official condemnation  focused solely on the work of a "few bad apples.”

Subsequent examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal by well known American psychologist Philip Zimbardo highlighted the systemic failures, including that of leadership, which ultimately led to the abuse.


According to Zimbardo good people do bad things when there’s a dehumanisation of others, de-individuation of self, diffusion of personal responsibility, blind obedience to authority, uncritical conformity to group norms and passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference. All this usually occurs in a new or unfamiliar situation.

If Zimbardo’s analysis correctly describes the situation that inevitably corrupts the individual then we have more than a little cause for concern.   The Abbott Government has instructed department and detention staff to publicly refer to asylum seekers as illegal arrivals and as detainees, dressed public servants in military-style uniforms, ignored the fact that children identify more readily with their boat identification number than their name, implemented media bans,  solidified departmental and contractor power and anonymity and blanketed all government  policy and action in secrecy.  How better to set the scene for significant human rights abuses?

It’s also a telling sign that,  just as the Bush Administration blamed a “few bad apples” when evidence of misconduct emerged,  a representative from Wilson security describedthe recent revelations of spying on Senator Hansen-Young  as  the “rogue actions of a misaligned individual”. 

The Abbott Government’s initial response to the latest serious allegations of torture - and let’s be frank about this, that's what they are - is to claim ignorance.  A spokesman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton simply saidno claims of water-boarding had been made to the Government or brought to its attention.

Nothing is said about what the Government does to ensure that serious human rights violations are not occurring in offshore detention centres, or what it proposes to do about the allegations now that they have emerged.

The response suggests that the Government is following the "Abu Ghraib denial process": start with denials, and until much more pressure builds up there won't be any Government investigation, and certainly no acknowledgment or action,  and no attempt will be made to assess more general questions like whether Wilson Security staff are properly prepared trained and supervised.  And just as fundamentally,  there will be no attempt to find out why the ongoing allegations of abuse keep coming or to identify the institutional and external factors around individuals who may be perpetrators of detainee abuse.


Government policies of dehumanisation and blanket secrecy facilitate, and possibly encourage,  the commission of crimes against asylum seekers held in detention centres.  Government policies of turning a blind eye and issuing "Abu Ghraib denials" in response to allegations or evidence of the commission of such crimes won't make them go away. 

As the US experience has demonstrated, that approach progressively unwinds and in the end the public sees the criminal complicity, shameless mendacity and ultimate responsibility of the politicians and their lackeys who dictate the overriding agenda.

Back on the ground, there’s a certain inevitability that more people will continue to defy the Border Force Act as being part of something so wrong becomes more and more intolerable. Australian citizens are becoming more outraged with the injustice and inequity and the fundamental evil that is being done in their name, and with the diminution in Australia’s moral standing in the international community.

Faced with widespread international condemnation the United States  handed control of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison back to Iraqi authorities in 2005.  As further and more frequent disclosures of abuse and atrocities are made public it can only be a matter of time before those in power are forced to close Australia’s offshore detention centres. And they would do well to remember that their condoning of and complicity in human rights violations undoubtedly will register at the polls.

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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