02 November 2011

Do deaths at sea justify the Malaysia solution, or retrospective legislation?

Having previously attempted to replace its obligations under the Refugees Convention with a type of politician's carte blanche called the "national interest", Australia's minority Labor (yes, Labor) government has now thumbed its nose at the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which, like almost all other civilised countries, we are a signatory. Article 15 of the ICCPR has two parts:
  1. No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time when the criminal offence was committed. If, subsequent to the commission of the offence, provision is made by law for the imposition of a lighter penalty, the offender shall benefit thereby.
  2. Nothing in this article shall prejudice the trial and punishment of any person for any act or omission which, at the time when it was committed, was criminal according to the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations.

On the evening of 1 November 2011 the House of Representatives passed a piece of legislation called the Deterring People Smuggling Bill 2011. (It has become fashionable to give legislation names that look like they were thought up by an advertising agency, but let that go). What this legislation does flies in the face of Article 15.

Since 1999, sections 233A to 233D of the Migration Act have imposed sentences of up to 20 years, with a mandatory minimum of 5 years (s 236B), for people involved in "people smuggling", defined as bringing to Australia someone who has "no lawful right" to come here. In a case currently before the Victorian Supreme Court, defence lawyers have argued that a genuine refugee seeking to invoke Australia's international and domestic legal obligations of protection cannot be said to have no lawful right to come here. Ordinarily the case would be determined by the Supreme Court by judicially interpreting the legislation, and would then in all probability have gone on to the High Court to make a final interpretation. If the defence case were to be upheld, it would mean that when the accused brought the refugees here they were not breaking the law at that time. The Bill passed yesterday, in under an hour with support from Labor and the Coalition, changes the definition of "no lawful right" to mean simply that the person didn't have a visa or was not exempt from having a visa, regardless of whether Australia may have protection obligations under the Convention and the person may have been come here to seek that protection. That would mean that what was not illegal (assuming the defence case is correct) when it was done, would be made illegal by the amendment.

It would be impossible to argue, nor did the government try to do so in presenting the Bill to Parliament, that bringing refugees to Australia would be "criminal according to the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations". Article 15.1 of the ICCPR therefore expressly prohibits this retrospective criminalisation.

In its brief defence of the Bill in Parliament, the government made no mention of the ICCPR. Its justification was simply, "to clarify an existing understanding of the laws, and to ensure convictions for people smuggling offences already made as well as prosecutions underway are not invalidated." This is no justification at all. There can be no "existing understanding" of what legislation means if that understanding is ruled incorrect by a superior court. Since the US Supreme Court judgment in Marbury v Madison in 1803, a case long accepted as axiomatic in Australian jurisprudence, courts have had the final say on the meaning of the law. Any "existing understanding" to the contrary would be, quite simply, a wrong understanding.

Besides breaching Article 15, the Bill also in its specific reference to the Refugees Convention further distances Australia from that international instrument and raises the question again of whether this country should be taken to have effectively resiled from it.

Neither the government nor the opposition in supporting the Bill let go the chance of referring to the issue of deaths at sea of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia. The ultimate fall-back position of both sides is that travelling to Australia on unseaworthy boats is dangerous. Neither side, however, noticed the fatal flaw in their argument. The purpose of the law is to "deter" people smugglers by making their actions illegal. But, according to its supporters, it has been the "existing understanding" since 1999, presumably even amongst people smugglers, that these actions were illegal. Yet the 300 or so people convicted since then obviously were not deterred. It hasn't worked for over a decade, why should it work now? The fact is the law has only ever punished the impoverished and illiterate fisherman conned or coerced into crewing the boats by the real people smugglers who stay warm and dry in port.

But people do die at sea on those leaky boats. I would not accuse either side of disingenuousness in pointing this out. The fact that it is the most seemingly humanitarian argument they have to support their conflicting Malaysia / Nauru solutions doesn't mean they don't genuinely care about the tragic loss of life, and it would be fatuous to pretend that it is not a legitimate issue in the debate.

The problem is, in humanitarian terms we are offering nothing as an alternative to taking the risk of getting into one of those boats. It is as if a group of people were gathered on the balcony of a burning building, with people below warning them not to jump because it was too high. If one does jump, and survives, do we throw them back into the fire to deter the others?

Sending asylum seekers back to Malaysia or Indonesia, or forcing them to stay there, is denying them their internationally recognised legal right to seek asylum in a country that is a signatory to the Refugees Convention. We cannot deny them that right. If it is dangerous for them to avail themselves of it, then we must do all we can to reduce that danger by arranging for meaningful avenues to reaching safety legally. At the very least we must ensure they are fully aware of the danger, which the evidence seems to suggest some of them may not be. Instead, it appears our shadowy "disruption programs" do little more than force desperate people into the hands of the most unscrupulous of the smugglers, working with the most corrupt of local officials. Compelling evidence of this sort of collusion has been available since the infamous Siev-X sinking.

As a footnote, it is worth remembering that Australia is also a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals who believe their rights have been breached to take a case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission for adjudication. Australia may yet have some explaining to do.

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