Boundary riders


Our boundaries have been changing in recent years. Holes in them have suddenly appeared; some of our fences have been raised higher, while others have fallen over; some of our border lines have been pulled in, while others have suddenly been pushed out. If we are confused by the resulting plasticine effect, we might remember that there are always people looking in as well as out, and that insiders are never the only, nor even the most influential, observers of borders.

On 15 December last year the Prime Minister announced that in March 2005 he would set a sea boundary of up to 1000 nautical miles around Australia. Any vessel inside it would be required to give satisfactory identification, or face possible attack by the new Australian Joint Offshore Protective Command. Indonesians and New Zealanders at once complained that the notion of an Australian Maritime Identification Zone infringed the sea boundaries of their Exclusive Economic Zones, as indeed it appears to do, as well as those of East Timor. A 1000 nautical mile zone would take in two thirds of Indonesia’s territorial waters “ parts of the Java Sea, the Halmahera sea off Maluku, and the Sulawesi Sea.

Thanks to Bill Leak at the Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak at the Australian

The Law of the Sea, which was negotiated long and painstakingly over fourteen years and signed by 150 nations in 1982, sets a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone around every coastal country. Beyond that, ships have freedom of the high seas, as well as rights of transit passage through straits. What Mr Howard wants, claiming the need to protect our oil and gas facilities, our borders and fisheries, is the right to interdict ships, and presumably aircraft, that Australia suspects of carrying terrorists, as far out as 1000 nautical miles. This, he said, will complete Australia’s ‘enhanced offshore maritime security’.

The Prime Minister’s new Zone is peculiar in three ways. One is that since May 2003 Australia has been one of eleven countries in the Preventive Security Initiative (PSI), which does things that sound much like what the Prime Minister has just announced we are about to do. A second peculiarity is that three years ago, in December 2002, he announced, and repeated during the 2004 election campaign, that Australia has a right to attack the territories of neighbouring countries if we think there are terrorists there who threaten us. If we say we can already preemptively invade other countries’ land, sea or airspace in this way, why do we need to draw a line around Australia and say it is a Zone in which we claim we can do the same thing? A third peculiarity is that Australia already controls the world’s fourth largest expanse of land, sea, and continental shelf, and to grab for control of even more is to invite international legal challenges, and even more hostility from our neighbours, who have not forgotten Mr Howard’s preemptive attack statements.

The new Zone is not the only recent example of Australia being unnecessarily assertive, and tweaking international law. The Government’s sudden excision of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef from Australia’s ‘immigration zone’ in 2002 was another interesting distortion of legal boundaries. Expansion to the horizon, it seems, is fine for heading off terrorists, boat people, and illegal fishermen and for serving oil interests, but contraction to the coastline is much better when you don’t want refugees and asylum-seekers taking you on in Australian courts. And so that East Timor can’t succeed in its maritime boundary claim against Australia, the Government has refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice on where in the oil-rich sea the border is.

Australia has been behaving in ways that test the boundaries of international law for several years. Invading Iraq was, of course, our biggest act of defiance. But in less flagrant ways, Australia has abandoned what Gareth Evans used to call ‘good international citizenship’ in favour of naked self-interest. We have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, for example, nor have we ratified the UN’s latest reinforcing documents on Torture, Child Soldiers, Land Mines, and even on Discrimination Against Women. Australia was isolated in voting against a recent UN resolution condemning the wall that the government of Israel is building through Palestinian territory. Even though Australia in 2004 chaired the Human Rights Commission, the Government has repeatedly been late in reporting to UN committees on human rights and the status of women, and has obstructed UN human rights inspections of Australian indigenous communities.

Geoscience Australia

Geoscience Australia

Why is the Government defying the UN and so much that it represents? One answer, of course, is because it can. In the 2004 election, Australian voters retrospectively approved the invasion of Iraq, lies and all. As we know, the Prime Minister decided as early as 2000 to march in lockstep with the US President, and since then both governments have defied the UN whenever it suited them. Imitating the US, Howard even wanted to refuse to ratify the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, until Downer reminded him that Australia had helped negotiate it.

The UN, imperfect as it is, is all that stands between the Bush administration and its ambition to reshape the world in its own interests. The US has always resisted being told by the ‘unelected UN Security Council’ what it can and cannot do, and as its most powerful member and largest contributor, has mostly got away with it, occasionally making and unmaking Secretaries-General to prove the point. But Australia has no such power: we are not one of the Permanent Five, nor of the Group of Eight industrialised countries, and we only just make the Group of 20. We have much to gain from an international system that looks after the interests of smaller countries. When the US imperium ends, as it will, or when it clashes with China, as it may, Australia will need the UN and the legitimate boundaries that stand between us and chaos. We will have more influence then if we have observed them ourselves.

Postscript: In early April, under pressure from several regional leaders, the Prime Minister changed the name of the Maritime Identification Zone to ‘Maritime Identification System’. The Indonesian Foreign Minister, accepting this, made the point that his country was equally entitled to deploy such a system, presumably including Australian sea and air space.

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