UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday he had concerns about Australia’s approach toward refugees, even as he praised the “model” nation for its record on the world stage.
Beginning a Pacific tour expected to focus on the threat of climate change, Ban met Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to discuss developments in Libya and the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.
“Australia is one of the model countries in many areas,” Ban said, listing its contributions to peace and security and human rights among its efforts.
However, he added: “Of course there are some concerns on how to deal with immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.”
Canberra suffered a humiliating setback last week when the High Court blocked its plans to ship up to 800 boat people to Malaysia, ruling that asylum seekers could not be sent to another nation unless that country was compelled to adequately protect them.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees and the court’s decision was welcomed by activists who had accused Australia of abandoning its international obligations by transferring asylum seekers to a country without proper protection.
Canberra had argued the policy would have dealt a blow to people-smugglers and is taking legal advice on what to do next, as the ruling could also jeopardize its plans to transfer other asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea.
Ban is the first UN secretary-general to visit Australia since Kofi Annan toured in 2000, and his visit comes as Canberra is pushing for a seat on the UN Security Council.
He commended Australia’s recent endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and praised the country’s contribution to the organization.
“You may be known as ‘Down Under,’ but when it comes to contribution and commitment you are well above and beyond,” he said. “On foreign aid, Australia is increasing ... at a time when too many countries are pulling back.”
The UN leader, who was to leave Australia yesterday to visit the Solomon Islands and Kiribati before heading to New Zealand, said climate change and sustainability would be a key focus of his Pacific tour.
Climate change was a real and growing threat, with some countries in the region particularly vulnerable, he said on the eve of the Pacific Islands Forum, which he was to attend in Auckland.
“Whole islands could be lost as sea levels continue to rise,” Ban said, calling for ambitious targets to keep global temperatures in check.
He said time was of the essence in dealing with the issue.
“With so much at stake this is not a time for gamesmanship,” he said. “This is a time to work together to get real results.”
Gillard said Australia would remain a strong supporter of the UN.
“We understand that the work of the United Nations brings our world together to address some difficult problems,” she said. “Australia will continue to pursue its bid for election to the United Nations Security Council because we believe in the work of the United Nations and its importance.”
The prime minister said Australia would provide an additional A$10 million (US$10.65 million) to fund UN efforts in the Horn of Africa, bringing the nation’s assistance on the issue to almost A$100 million.