Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC
By James O’Neill
When Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister in an internal party coup in September 2015, there was a strong hope that one of the first changes flowing from the change in leadership would be in foreign affairs.
Abbott was notorious for reducing complex issues to simplistic three word slogans. Further notoriety came from the ill-advised threat to “shirtfront” President Vladimir Putin of Russia at last November’s G20 meeting in Brisbane.
That clumsy, inarticulate throwback to the worst elements of the 1960s was replaced by a man acknowledged as one of the best debaters of his generation. The new catchwords became “agility” and “adaptability” to guide the country in a “never more exciting time” to be an Australian.
In a series of speeches Turnbull spelled out a different hope for Australia. The devil, as they say, is in the detail. A little over three months into his prime ministership Turnbull went to the United States. He gave a major foreign policy speech to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
Here, perhaps, were the first insights into how the evident change in style might be reflected in a change of policies. A major theme of Turnbull’s speech was the singular importance of nation states embracing international law as an effective and peaceful means of resolving international disputes.
As a sentiment, or indeed a policy, that argument is compelling. Unfortunately, one of the repeat offenders against international law is the nation that Turnbull represents. The offending takes a variety of forms.
In his speech for example, Turnbull chided the U.S. (another serial offender) for its failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). That Convention is already playing a role in the various territorial disputes between China and other nations bordering the South China Sea. Non-ratification of the Convention, Turnbull said in his speech, “diminishes American leadership where it is most needed.”
Leaving to one side the very moot point of how American “leadership” might do other than aggravate an already tense situation, Turnbull omitted a rather important point.
It is true that Australia has ratified UNCLOS. It is also true however, that Australia withdrew from abiding by its terms when it was pressuring East Timor, a newly independent, tiny and desperately poor state, into accepting a manifestly unfair drawing of their maritime boundaries that gave the vast bulk of the Timor Sea’s oil and gas resources to Australia.
Australia even bugged the deliberations of the East Timor cabinet so that it had advance knowledge of the Timorese negotiating position. The International Court of Justice unsurprisingly found that behaviour unacceptable.
Undeterred however, the Australian government refused to renegotiate the issue with East Timor and has refused to allow an independent arbitrator from the UNCLOS Tribunal to resolve the issue.
Australia has shown a similar disregard for other Conventions that they have ratified, when its provisions are inconvenient for the policies of the day. Australia is in clear breach of the Convention on the Treatment of Refugees, and the later Protocol, in multiple and repeated ways.
The breach of the doctrine of refoulment (returning refugees from whence they came without a proper processing of their claim to refugee status) is only one of the more egregious examples.
The indefinite incarceration and ill treatment of refugees who are also children is a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
A third major area where Australia’s commitment to the rule of international law is decidedly tenuous is its persistent involvement in (usually) American instigated wars and invasions of, or attacking of, third countries.
Vietnam (1965-1975), Afghanistan (2001 – present), Iraq (2003 and ongoing), and Syria (2015) are some of the better-known examples.
Each was in breach of international law. Each relied upon multiple lies and/or false flag attacks. Each continued long after the original flimsy justification had expired or been exposed for the lies upon which they were based.
And each and every one of these foreign misadventures has their current defenders, including a prime minister ostensibly committed to the international rule of law.
Another area where Australia’s commitment to international law does not meet even minimum standards of principle is in its voting record in the United Nations. Even the most casual observer of that record cannot fail to notice that Australia is consistently one of only a literal handful of nations that votes against the interests of the Palestinians when the question of their rights are, as is the case on at least an annual basis, before the UN General Assembly.
If silence implies consent, then we might infer that at the very least, Australia does not condemn the barbaric atrocities of Saudi Arabia. If the Australian Foreign Minister (Julie Bishop) has condemned for example, the illegal war Saudi Arabia is waging on Yemen, then I must have missed it.
There are many other historical examples where Australia has extended the courtesy of silence when a principled condemnation would have been the more appropriate foreign policy response.
So yes, Prime Minister, we welcome your oral commitment to the principles of international law. We await, however, the translation of those fine sentiments into actual policies that do not leave Australia open to the charge of hypocrisy or worse.
–James O’Neill is a Barrister at Law. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org