How Far We Have Come: Comets

In 1986 ESA’s Giotto mission visited Comet Halley and I watched Patrick Moore on the BBC as the first images of a comets nucleus were returned.

Composite image of Comet Halley's nucleus from Giotto

Now it’s 28 years later and the ESA mission Rosetta has just arrived at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and the difference in imagery is just amazing – and this isn’t even the full resolution version!

Detail from image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from Rosetta

More images from Rosetta are on the ESA Space Images website.

Getting Political

I’ve not been blogging recently, though I’ve been tweeting a fair bit, and I’ve been getting more and more disconcerted by what the Australian government has been up to, especially with respect to refugees. We are seeing the emergence of a militaristic approach where the facts about rights to seek asylum are conveniently ignored and refugees are labelled as “illegal” (they’re not) and a threat to our borders (they’re not). Questions are met with silence (unless they happen to coincide with their agenda) to frankly absurd levels.

We keep them in concentration camps on foreign soil and deprive them of necessities even though they’ve committed no crime and we leave them to go mad from boredom, fear and neglect. We’ve had one person murdered in our care with the prime suspect being a Salvation Army worker, but somehow after 6 months nobody has been charged. Others were seriously injured, but their assailants haven’t been charged either.

Now we have the situation of refugees from Sri Lanka who have boarded boats in India being intercepted at sea and returned, not to Indias care, but to the Sri Lankan navy where on their return to Sri Lanka they are then handed over to the police for prosection (as it’s apparently illegal to leave Sri Lanka without permission, the sentence is “two years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine”).

This seems like a prima-facie case of refoulement and a clear breach of international law. I’m not the only person to think like that, 57 legal scholars from 17 Australian universities have written an open letter expressing the same feelings.

Such summary procedures do not comply with minimum standards on refugee status determination under international law. Holding asylum seekers on boats in this manner also amounts to incommunicado detention without judicial scrutiny.

I cannot stand by and be seen to acquiesce in this abuse of fundamental human rights and so I’ve decided that I must join The Greens as none of the major parties appear to understand international law and obligations.

This is not an easy decision for me, I spent 7 years working in the UK Civil Service and so that ethos of being independent of a political party is deeply ingrained, but the revulsion I have for the policies of this government and my fear of the dark places it is leading us has finally overcome it.

This is not in my name.

Lunar Eclipse 15th April 2014

Tonight Melbourne got to experience the tail end of a lunar eclipse as the moon rose in eclipse at 17:48. We took a friend on a trip up to the (apparently now closed) Olinda Golf Course to view the moon rise. It was nice and clear and after roaming around a bit to find a place where we should have been able to see the eclipsed moon we found a suitable spot but couldn’t see the moon itself. Mars was visible in the right area but of course the salient point of a lunar eclipse is that the moon is in the earths shadow and so wasn’t findable until it started to exit at third contact. Got a few photos, of which this was the best.

Lunar Eclipse 15th April 2014 taken from Olinda Golf Course

We had to head back down the hill as Donna had an appointment at 7pm but later on our friend called up and said excitedly “Have you seen the moon? Go and look!”. I went out to see but the hills were still in the way then, so later on I headed out with the camera once the moon was visible and got some more photos as the moon headed towards fourth contact (when it exits the shadow of the Earth).

Lunar Eclipse 15th April 2014 taken from Upper Ferntree Gully
Lunar Eclipse framed in gum leaves, 15th April 2014 taken from Upper Ferntree Gully
Lunar Eclipse through trees, poles and wires - 15th April 2014 taken from Upper Ferntree Gully
Lunar Eclipse shortly before fourth contact, 15th April 2014 taken from Upper Ferntree Gully

National Court of PNG Opens Inquiry Into Treatment of Refugees

This could get interesting, the National Court of PNG has invoked a section of the PNG Constitution that permits it to investigate possible breaches of basic rights on its own initiative.

The National Court, having taken judicial notice of the alleged detention at the regional processing centre at Lombrum Naval Base, Manus Province, of a considerable number of persons seeking refugee status or asylum in Australia, who have been transferred to Manus pursuant to memoranda of agreement between the Governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia, known generally as “asylum seekers” or “transferees”, and reports of alleged human rights violations and complaints about the conditions of detention and disturbances resulting in injuries to such persons, decided on its own initiative to inquire into such matters by invoking Section 57(1) of the Constitution.

The full opening statement by Justice Cannings is currently on Scribd, but Justice Cannings makes it clear that the intention is to visit the detention centre and talk to refugees:

The third stage of the hearing I anticipate will be in Lorengau, in the week commencing Monday 10 March. Evidence will be received at this hearing. The Court will inspect the regional processing centre. Transferees will be invited to give evidence. It is anticipated that this process will take at least three days.

The questions that he has set are:

  1. What human rights do the transferees have under the Constitution, if any?
  2. Have those rights, if any, been or are they now being, administered to them?
  3. If not, what orders and declarations should the Court make to protect and enforce those rights?

I suspect that the first one is the real substantial question, my guess is that if the court finds that they do have human rights then the rest will flow pretty simply from that. You can read the PNG Constitution online as a PDF.

Hat tip to Humanitarian Research Partners for mentioning this on Twitter (see below).

Australian War On Refugees latest: refugee intake capped at 2,773 for this financial year

Thanks to Asher Wolf on Twitter for digging up this piece of latest awfulness in Australia’s War On Refugees:

I, SCOTT MORRISON, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, acting under section 85 of the Migration Act 1958 (‘the Act’) DETERMINE that the maximum number of Protection (Class XA) visas that may be granted in the financial year 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014 is 2773.

Worse still it’s not the first time the Minister for Operation Sovereign Murders has tried this, on 4th December 2013 he set a limit of 1,650 visas, the number granted up to that date. That instrument was revoked on the 20th December after a legal challenge was mounted to it (see the RACS PDF for more information). So this seems to be another cynical attempt to prevent genuine refugees coming to Australia, by any means at all.

I can only imagine what will happen on Manus Island when the news gets out that nobody will have any chance at all of getting a visa until July at the very earliest.

Australian Government says Australian law doesn’t include a right to seek asylum

In a supplemental answer to a question taken on notice (PDF) in the Senate Estimates Committee regarding the forced repatriation of 12 and 14 year old Sri Lankan refugees the Australian “Department of Immigration and Border Protection” (formerly DIMIA, etc) said (my emphasis):

In relation to question 2, no, the unaccompanied Sri Lankan minors were not advised of their rights to seek asylum. Australian law does not contain a right to seek asylum, and therefore, departmental practice does not involve advising unauthorised arrivals that they have such a right.

In other words, Australia’s own “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, except this time in defiance of international agreements Australia itself helped forge.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

You’d have thought the Australian government would have heard of that because their own Human Rights Commission website points out:

Australia was a founding member of the UN and played a prominent role in the negotiation of the UN Charter in 1945. Australia was also one of eight nations involved in drafting the Universal Declaration.

This was largely due to the influential leadership of Dr Herbert Vere Evatt, the head of Australia’s delegation to the UN. In 1948, Dr HV Evatt became President of the UN General Assembly. That same year he oversaw the adoption of the Universal Declaration.

Of course that declaration was not legally binding but Australia was involved in drafting, and we are signatories to, the 1951 Refugee Convention, which in the preamble says it:

recommends Governments to take the necessary measures for the protection of the refugee’s family especially with a view to:
(1) Ensuring that the unity of the refugee’s family is maintained particularly in cases where the head of the family has fulfilled the necessary conditions for admission to a particular country,
(2) The protection of refugees who are minors, in particular unaccompanied children and girls, with special reference to guardianship and adoption.

The Australian Governments own website says that the 1958 Migration Act enshrines into law the Refugee Convention definition of a refugee as one:

owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

The Australian Government site then goes on to say:

The Migration Act incorporates art 1A(2) into Australian domestic law, and gives effect to Australia’s obligation of non-refoulement—not to return a person in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where the person’s life or freedom would be threatened on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Section 36(2) provides for the grant of a protection visa to a ‘non-citizen in Australia to whom the Minister is satisfied Australia has protection obligations under the Refugees Convention as amended by the Refugees Protocol’.

Now the Migration Act itself doesn’t include a right to ask for “asylum”, but it does include the right to ask for a “protection visa” on grounds of being a refugee. To me that’s exactly what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights means when it talks about asylum, not to mention the fact that the Refugee Convention talks about asylum all the time. For instance when talking about not penalising refugees for their method of arrival it says:

The Convention further stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay. This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules.

To me this seems to show that the Australian Government itself is either ignorant of its own legislation or just being deliberately misleading. Or both. None of which would surprise me at the moment.

A hat tip to RISE for pointing this out on Twitter:

Refugees: They’re not “transferees”, they’ve become political prisoners of Australia

The Australian Government seems to like calling refugees seeking asylum and protection “transferees” as a euphemism to avoid facing the fact that they are effectively being kept in indefinite detention for committing no crime – article 14 of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights says:

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Now detaining someone indefinitely for exercising a recognised human right is not a behaviour you would normally associate with a democratic nation, especially not one that likes to think of itself as being the land of the fair go, of battlers and a nation founded by convicts from Britain (there had been people here for longer than the current continuous occupation of the UK, but that gets forgotten).

If the Australian Government was really interested in reducing deaths at sea of refugees whilst abiding by the international conventions they had voluntarily signed up to they would be investing in ways to let people apply for asylum far closer to their native land so they didn’t need to travel, whilst keeping them safe, and ensuring that applications were processed rapidly, fairly and accurately.

To me the fact that we don’t do that but rather imprison (let’s call it what it really is) the tiny trickle of refugees who do decide to come here means that the Australian Government isn’t interested in their welfare or dealing fairly with people looking from protection from persecution, it’s just interested in stopping people coming here full stop.

They are, therefore, keeping these people in prisons for political purposes, to win votes at home and to stay in power.

So I submit that the Australian Government is now in the de-facto state of keeping political prisoners, even to the extent of defying direct requests from the UNHCR to release some.

Mount Burnett Observatory Second Birthday & Open Day

Just over a week ago it was the Mount Burnett Observatory’s second birthday, celebrating two years since being reopened as a community observatory. Originally it was built by Monash University and used as a research and teaching observatory until becoming surplus to requirements. A group of people made a community association to take up the lease after the Astronomical Society of Victoria passed it over and now it’s the third largest astronomical society in Victoria!

Preparing for the Mount Burnett Observatory Open Day 2014 Mount Burnett Observatory Dome

To celebrate being two years old MBO held an open day running from 10am until 6pm when there was an open barbecue followed by a talk by Prof. Sarah Maddison from Swinburne University. We really didn’t know what to expect in terms of turn out but were amazed to see our first visitors arrive before we opened at 10am! I helped out demonstrating the large 18″ telescope in the dome until 12:30pm when I had to head home, at that stage we’d had 30 people through. I was struck by the number of people who were amazed they had no idea that there was an observatory on their doorstep, let alone one they could join and participate in. One person asked how much it was to join and when told it was just $50 for the year said “I spend more than that on astronomy magazines every year!”. ;-)

First visitors arriving for the Mount Burnett Observatory Open Day 2014Vistors and Members Arrive for the Evening Talk at Mount Burnett Observatory Open Day 2014BBQ Underway at the Mount Burnett Observatory Open Day 2014

It was a very successful day with well over 100 non-members visiting the observatory during the day, plus of course many members. It was certainly a packed club house for the talk that night! I donated two bottles of sparkling wine for a door prize, one of which was one by a member (and volunteer for the day) and one was one by a visitor. The only disappointment of the day was that we had cloud that night, so there wasn’t really much to see in the sky.

Prof. Sarah Maddison from Swinburne University talks about what is a planet at Mount Burnett Observatory Open Day 2014 Prof. Sarah Maddison from Swinburne University talks about what is a planet at Mount Burnett Observatory Open Day 2014

It was very good to see that the following Friday we had over 30 people attend the regular Friday night members night and probably about half were new faces.

Mount Burnett Observatory Members observing at Mount Burnett Observatory Member with his own 16" Dobsonian telescope at Mount Burnett Observatory