Several weeks ago, the United States’ government requested Australia resettle detainees freed from the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. Australia refused the request. While the reasons behind such a refusal are abundant and rather obvious, there is a strong case for Australia accepting some, if not all, of the freed former detainees.
Politically, Australia was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war. Howard acted in lock-step with Bush from the early days of the latter’s presidency, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to Howard’s eventual loss (you’ll recall that not only did the Liberal Party lose control of parliament, but Howard even lost his own seat). Australia consequently bares some responsibility for the illegal and unconstitutional imprisonment of individuals at GITMO. We were complicit in torture, and the denial of basic human rights.
Here, we have something for which we ought to atone. That fact, I understand, is arguable. But this element of my argument is based on a personal belief: when one has the opportunity to offer some recompense, within reasonable bounds, for wrongs against another, it is a moral imperative to do so. I believe this of individuals, communities and nations.
The argument could undoubtedly be made that this is not within reasonable bounds. But I believed that there is sound reasoning to demonstrate Australians are not entirely unwilling to accept GITMO detainees. We did, after all, not merely accept David Hicks upon his return, but in fact actively campaigned for his release. Australia has demonstrated no fundamental objection to accepting detainees, just a degree of parochialism as to which it will accept. This is an objection that ought not restrict us.
Should the United States or Great Britain- who bare a larger share of the responsibility for the Iraq war- resettle the detainees? Certainly. The responsibility ought to first fall to them. But should they choose not to accept that responsibility and act in a manner that denies their moral accountability for the war, we as a nation ought not do the same.
Australia frequently offers grand symbolic gestures: the Apology, signing Kyoto. While these are good things, Australia’s smallness in international matters looms large. If we sign cap-and-trade legislation and significantly reduce our carbon emissions, it will make little difference in the fight against climate change. If we increase our foreign aid to 0.7% of our GDP, it will do little to reduce global poverty. (Please note: I do not think, therefor, that we should not do these things, simply that their effect is limited).
Accepting detainees is something significant that Australia can do. Not merely a symbolic gesture, it will cost us something. It will be unpopular with some.
Kevin Rudd and the Labor party gained much political capital from their objection to the Iraq war. They have readily repudiated the Howard government at numerable junctions, and gained for doing so. However, they have not spent any of that capital. Accepting detainees offers an opportunity to spend some of the goodwill the Iraq war gifted to the Labor party.
We bare some responsibility. We ought to accept it. If others culpabable in the atrocities at GITMO will not make some amends, let us do so.