Australian Government’s Wrong Moves on Human Rights and the Aluminium Trade

Australian Government’s Wrong Moves on Human Rights and the Aluminium Trade

Two major aluminium-related stories have come from Australia in recent days and weeks – the Australian government’s aiding in the transition of bulk alumina carriers from domestic shippers to foreign crews on ships flying Liberian flags of convenience, and resumption of the export of bauxite and alumina to the Islamic Republic of Iran. A great deal of virtual ink has been slung, including on these pages, about the harmful effect of bringing aluminium to market by utilizing the irresponsible mining methods used in Malaysia, but Australia’s decision to trade with countries whose records on human rights are as abysmal as those of Liberia and Iran have arguably farther-reaching and longer-lasting ramifications than the pollution of Pahang.

CSL Australia, a branch of Canada Steamship Lines, is chartered by Pacific Aluminium, a Rio Tinto subsidiary, to move alumina out of Gladstone, in Queensland, to Newcastle for smelting at the nearby Tomago Aluminium plant. Along with Alcoa, CSL Australia obtained permits allowing them to use foreign workers, usually Filipinos, to move alumina aboard ships flying the flag of the Republic of Liberia.

The ships that fly the Liberian flag have probably never been within hundreds of miles of Liberia, though. Liberia is a popular country for registering ships to avoid the usually more stringent laws and regulations of the country or countries where the vessel operates – the practice is known as operating under a “flag of convenience.” Liberia has the second largest maritime registry in the world (behind Panama) largely due to its lax rules and regulations for shipping.

Liberia, one of the poorest countries on Earth, makes a great deal of money on the practice, too. The country makes US$20 million per annum on registering foreign ships. That’s not a lot for most countries, but it is about six percent of the national budget, and it is steady money, unlike other sources of government revenue.

As poor as the Liberian government is, its human rights record is even poorer. A report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein described abominable cultural practices to which the government routinely turns a blind eye in a report released last December. According to the report, nearly sixty percent of Liberian females have undergone female genital mutilation, usually without the benefit of anesthesia or any semblance of sanitary practices, conducted by a secret society named “Sande.” Another secret society called “Poro” carries out abductions, forced initiations, torture and rape against individuals thought to transgress its rules, such as being outside during Poro activities or “trespassing” upon Poro “sacred ground.”

Accusations of witchcraft abound, and the accused in Liberia would envy the scant due process the defendants in Colonial America’s Salem witch trials were afforded over three centuries ago. “Accusations of witchcraft are common in Liberia, and often have devastating consequences for the accused, who may be subjected to trial by ordeal, ‘cleansing’ or ‘exorcism’ rituals, expulsion, ostracization, and even death,” the study detailed. The UN study went on to cite several cases of trial by ordeal that were little more than physical and psychological torture, some of which even led to the death of the accused.

These egregious practices seldom, if ever, raise the ire of the Liberian government. “The authorities often hesitate to investigate or prosecute cases involving trial by ordeal, due to the perceived cultural dimensions of the practice,” the report said. “This has generated widespread culture of impunity among traditional actors.”

Australia’s resumption of trade with Iran is partial, not complete, but is highly important to the latter in any event. Australia relaxed its total embargo with Iran, begun in October 2008 in response to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear and missile programs, and efforts to contravene sanctions placed upon it by the UN Security Council. Under Australia’s new and slightly relaxed embargo, the materials under government controls at the present are various semis of aluminium and aluminium alloys. However, what is now open to shipment from Australia to Iran is alumina and bauxite. Iran, as a net purchaser of alumina, has long preferred the Australian product.

The renewed trade with Iran facilitates the continuance of a regime that, though it has made positive noises regarding nuclear proliferation, has among the worst human rights records on the planet. According to an annual report published last October, the nuclear deal reached with the Iranian regime has done nothing to improve the human rights situation. Ahmed Shaheed, special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, describes a country where scores of executions are conducted each year, and the rights of women are scarcely recognized.

From January through September of last year, at least 690 people were executed in Iran, “likely putting the execution rate during the first half of 2015 at its highest in some 25 years,” Shaheed’s report says. Most executions are for crimes related to drug offenses – crimes the Iranian government considers among the “most serious” crimes. Executions of juvenile offenders are similarly “very alarming.”

The report continues to detail the regularity of such methods of torture as surgical removal of eyes and amputations of hands. Flogging is also the norm in Iran, says the report. Though Washington Post bureau chief Jason Rezaian was released last month after over a year in Iranian prison, incarceration of journalists and activists continues.

The rights of female Iranians are scarcely recognized as well. Tehran rejected a call by the United Nations to add domestic violence (including marital rape) to the nation’s penal code. Women are twice as likely to be jobless, are forced to wear a hijab when in public, and are not allowed in common public venues like sports stadiums because the government considers them “risky places where violence against women is very likely to happen.”

The twenty-six page report, though tragic enough, is not comprehensive. “There’s a whole catalogue of violations [against women] that are still occurring in the country that I documented in my report,” said Shaheed.

Aluminium is one of the most sustainable, versatile, and beneficial metals known to man. However, bringing it to market can, and should, be done in a socially responsible way. Australia’s actions in the industry this week illustrate how First World states should not conduct their aluminium business.