Australian government tells UN violence against woman isn't torture

Tony Abbott  at the 69th United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2014 in New York City.

Tony Abbott at the 69th United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2014 in New York City.

On Monday night, representatives from the Australian government appeared before the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) as part of a current review into Australia's obligations under its treaty. In their submission, our government argued, "As a matter of international law, domestic violence does not fall within the scope of the Convention ... as it is not conduct that is committed by or at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity."

In other words, violence against women does not constitute 'torture'.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the government's position sparked considerable social media backlash on Monday.

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As Rachel Ball from the Human Rights Law Centre explains, this interpretation of international law is patently incorrect. Rather, international law recognises that family and intimate partner violence is not a private matter and that governments have an obligation to install measures to prevent, investigate, punish and redress this criminal behaviour. She says, "Governments' obligation to effectively address domestic violence has long been established under international law and Australia's failure to recognise this is a disappointing backwards step. The outdated view that domestic violence is a private matter between a woman and her partner is one of the reasons that it remains one of the most serious and widespread human rights abuses in Australia."  

The CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Kon Karapanagiotidis, took to Twitter yesterday to express eloquent fury about the government's position. In an email exchange with me, he said, "It is deeply disturbing trend we are seeing under the Abbott Government that the abuse and mistreatment of women are not seen as a concern." Referencing the 789 women imprisoned in our detention centres and the fact 1 in 3 women in prison are Indigenous, Karapanagiotidis condemned the Abbott Government as the first in 25 years to argue that the CAT does not apply to violence against women, and called it "a dark day in Australia's history".

We've come a long way from the time when young journalists were instructed not to write about domestic violence. So why does it feel like we still have so far to go?

Compare political attitudes to men's violence against women with the concern over religious terrorism. A few weeks ago, it was reported that a Canadian soldier had been shot and killed while guarding that country's war memorial. Nathan Cirillo was only 24 when "homegrown radical" Michael Zehaf-Bibeau turned a gun on him before entering the parliament building in pursuit (one assumes) of political targets.

Zehaf-Bibeau was shot dead before he could inflict any more harm, but the incident made headlines around the world. I was in Queensland for work when I first read about it, and noticed that the Courier Mail had devoted its front seven pages to analysis. Unlike incidents involving the white men and guns whose actions are painted as the result of poor mental health and solitary planning, this shooting was framed as a terrorist attack. I read of concerns that such a thing could happen here in Australia - that a terrorist could enter a government building with the intent of killing, and that an innocent person could tragically lose their life as a result.

I couldn't help but be darkly amused when confronted with this handwringing. Terrorists operate in Australia every day. And innocent people are murdered every week in this country by combatants who rely on their fear to thrive and to control them. But because they act in the privacy of their own homes and in the supposed sanctity of intimate relationships, their violence and criminal behaviour is seen as somehow different. 

In Australia, one woman is murdered every week by her partner or ex-partner - and yet this is never discussed as terrorist behaviour even though by definition it fits into that category. There are thousands of women and children who are terrorised here on a daily basis by their partners, their fathers and their loved ones. They are then further terrorised by a society that appears only superficially interested in preventing this violence or even challenging it.

This utter lack of regard for the circumstances and safety of women from society at large is bad enough. But our own federal government is becoming increasingly confident in publicly dismissing these issues as peripheral or private. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre recently pointed out that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's proposed changes to refugee legislation (outlined in the bill Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014) could result in refugee women being forced to disclose incidents of sexual abuse in their initial applications in order to be considered for refugee status. This is despite everything experts know to be true about the potential for secrecy among survivors of sexual assault, particularly those whose abuse has been inflicted by men known to them or people in positions of authority over them.

That these deeply problematic issues haven't even occurred to the Minister or his colleagues is a telling insight into the lack of understanding this Federal Government has towards the myriad ways men's violence against women presents itself. The passing of such legislation makes them directly culpable in the further perpetration of violence against women, and the bald-faced assertion this week that Australia's obligations to oppose torture and human rights abuses don't encapsulate the quiet, hidden abuse of thousands of its own citizens should cause outrage among everyone.

Men's violence against women is one of the most pervasive human rights abuses in the world, and Australia is not an outlier in this reality. One in three women in this country will be subjected to some form of physical violence in their lifetime, and one in five women over the age of 15 will be subjected sexual violence. These statistics rise exponentially when women experience intersectional oppression - disabled women, for example, are up to 90% more likely to be the victims of sexual assault while women living in refugee camps or detention centres face a significantly increased risk of victimisation (in addition to the trauma of having to flee their homelands and live in virtual prisons). Meanwhile, Indigenous women are more likely than non-Indigenous women to experience violence during pregnancy and are ten times more likely to be the victims of domestic homicide.

This is a silent war that is still being persistently denied by individuals, communities and elected representatives, and it is literally killing women. And yet here is our government, shafting its responsibility to significantly address combatting this form of torture and violence and being so overwhelmed by its own hubris that it has no qualms doing it on an international stage. Is it because acknowledging their obligations here might be at odds with their cavalier disdain for the 789 women sitting in detention centres? The same centres which have come under fire for running rampant with physical and sexual violence?

In Australia, the federal government is instituting a broad range of measures to address the possible risk of a Jihadist related terror attack, despite the fact not a single person has been killed in this country as a result of this kind of violence. On the other hand, a staggering 61 women have been murdered in domestic homicides this year alone (according to Destroy The Joint's Counting Dead Women project, at the time of writing). Why was the federal government not thinking of them when it instructed representatives to try to weasel out of acknowledging the responsibility in helping to prevent the future murder and brutalisation of Australia's female citizens and asylum seekers?

A dark day indeed. And one in which we learned, yet again, exactly what kind of esteem this government holds women in. Which is to say, not very much at all.