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.


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 The outdated view that domestic violence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
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.