Law and human dignity

Law and human dignity

UN condemnation and a sports boycott: Australia again called on to end offshore detention

EPA/Nyunt Win

On ABC TV’s The Drum on Monday, author Antony Loewenstein called for a sports boycott of Australia. Loewenstein’s argument was that such a move from other countries could force a change in approach to the offshore detention of asylum seekers who travel to Australia by boat.

Sports boycotts have had a colourful history in the UN era. By far the most-well-known is the boycott of apartheid South Africa.

There has been debate regarding the impact of sporting boycotts in the past. In the South African case, sports boycotts were accompanied by wide-ranging political and economic sanctions. Apartheid was almost universally condemned as a violation of the international legal prohibition on racial discrimination.

No doubt a boycott of sports-loving Australia would be hugely controversial. However, a boycott seems highly unlikely to eventuate. Criticism of Australia’s refugee policies tends to come from or through UN humanitarian bodies and NGOs more so than from individual countries.

The major sporting codes in Australia are also largely domestic. So, boycotts of Australian rules football or rugby league would likely have a negligible effect. And a boycott would potentially risk the further entrenchment of negative attitudes toward asylum seekers travelling by boat.

Australia again criticised for offshore detention

Loewenstein’s argument was prompted by the latest in a long series of international critiques of Australia’s policy of mandatory offshore detention of people who seek asylum here by boat.

Specifically, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) chief Filippo Grandi has accused Australia of misleading conduct.

The UNHCR describes as “exceptional” its decision to assist Australia in concluding a refugee transfer arrangement with the US. That arrangement has been mired in controversy. It was agreed in the final days of the Obama administration. Tensions arose early in the Trump administration over what the new president described as “the worst deal ever”.

The two countries now appear set to manage the transfer of a large number of those still in offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island. The fate of those who do not pass US checks remains uncertain.

Yet, according to the UNHCR, Australia committed to resettling vulnerable affected refugees in Australia if they had family members already living in the community. However:

UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees, and that they, along with the others on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, have been informed that their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or to the United States.

This means, for example, that some with serious medical conditions, or who have undergone traumatic experiences, including sexual violence, cannot receive the support of their close family members residing in Australia.

Human Rights Watch Australia regards the UNHCR’s statement as a stinging rebuke of Australia’s non-compliance with international legal obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers.

The Human Rights Law Centre joined the call for an immediate end to offshore processing and the resettlement in Australia of the 2,000 people still on Nauru and Manus Island. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has reiterated Australia’s commitment never to resettle refugees in Australia if they have been transferred to offshore detention.

Fruitless attempts to force compliance?

The perennial problem of international law – particularly troubling for students of the area – is the often overwhelming difficulty of requiring countries to comply. The international legal system lacks a court of compulsory jurisdiction, police force, or global parliament.

When compared with a robust domestic legal system like Australia’s, the international legal system appears weak on enforcement mechanisms. Famously, though:

Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time.

Australia is – across a vast range of areas – an enthusiastic proponent of the international legal system. In the human rights context, Australia routinely comments on the performance of other countries and describes itself as a global leader in human rights.

However, as I wrote last week, there is a disjuncture between Australia’s policy and practice on asylum seekers and its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Continued international critique of mandatory offshore immigration detention undermines Australia’s standing.

Political leaders of both major parties have maintained a longstanding commitment to punitive dealings with asylum seekers travelling by boat without visas. This is an area of Australian practice that seems unlikely to shift in response to international critique.

Instead, the will to locate humanity within Australia’s refugee policy must come from within. While Loewenstein’s sports boycott proposal seems improbable, it was worth making to highlight Australia’s intransigence in this area.

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