Is the Pacific Solution Australia’s Guantanamo?

With a population of less than 10,000 people and an unemployment rate near 90%, one can assume that Australia’s immigration nightmare of ‘boat people’ and revival of the Pacific Solution has come to Nauru’s rescue, giving the small island nation new life with an economic stimulus. On the contrary, Australia’s attention to Nauru and the re-installment of offshore asylum-seeker processing and detention centers is exploiting the country’s political and economic instability. Once a policy of the right-wing Howard Government, the Pacific Solution has become nonpartisan among the major parties in Australia, with opposition only remaining among a handful in Labor and minor parties such as the Green Party. Deaths of asylum-seekers by sinking ships, the ever-persistent people-smuggling business with war-torn clients and anti-immigrant sentiments among the Australian public have driven the government to an extreme policy measure that was intended to be temporary.

The Pacific Solution creates a legal gray zone in which asylum-seekers are currently deprived of recourse to Australian law and can be detained for upwards of five years. Rather than following recommendations from the United Nations to only utilize offshore facilities as a temporary measure, the Labor Government is establishing new, dangerous precedents by setting its policy of exploitation literally in concrete by building housing to hold upwards of 1,500 asylum-seekers on Nauru alone. The Supreme Court of Nauru has perhaps been the country’s saving grace, with the President and asylum-seekers both turning to the court to solve their problems.

Offshore-processing centers for asylum-seekers were part of the Pacific Solution instituted by the Liberal-National Coalition Government led by Prime Minister John Howard beginning in 2001. This policy was once strongly opposed by Australian Labor Party leaders who rejected the idea that offshore centers, and Nauru in particular, could “stop the people-smugglers’ business model.” In February 2008, the last refugees detained in Nauru under Howard’s plan were sent to Australia and the center closed; at the time, the Labor Government under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the Pacific Solution  “a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise introduced on the eve of a Federal election by the Howard Government.” What has changed the situation so that Labor now is unafraid of using Nauru as an offshore-processing and detention center?

One concern voiced by Labor was that Nauru had not acceded to the 1951 UN convention related to refugees and its 1967 protocols. Once Nauru took steps to become party to the convention, the opposition told current Prime Minister Julia Gillard to “swallow her pride” and “pick up the phone to Nauru” instead of making a deal with Malaysia (a state that had also not acceded to the convention).  The ‘Malaysia Solution’ and ‘East Timor Vacation’ are additional stories in themselves – and unlike Nauru those governments were more difficult to sway. 

While trying to craft Labor’s version of the Pacific Solution in 2010, Gillard advocated for using East Timor as an offshore-processing center for asylum-seekers. However, the government of East Timor eventually opposed the plan and passed a unanimous resolution rejecting the proposal. East Timor Member of Parliament Jose Teixeira illustrated the difficulties with using Pacific Island nations as Australia’s own penal colonies. Teixeira said “it’s an unfair burden to put on us as an emerging society, post-conflict, as a society that has a number of social and economic pressures on it. It’s unfair to put that additional pressure” on East Timor.

The same can be said for Nauru, a small island country that has experienced political turmoil over the last two decades. Political power struggles have not been overly violent or utilized a coup d’état, in part because Australia is responsible for Nauru’s defense (meaning Nauru does not maintain defense forces).  Nauru’s political troubles have continued this year. Parliament has not held a regular meeting since early February due to the resignation of two cabinet ministers that caused the government to lose its majority.  President Sprent Dabwido attempted for weeks to dissolve Parliament, but Speaker Godfrey Thoma and the lack of quorum in Parliament stood in his way.

In addition to defense protection, Australia provides development aid to Nauru budgeted at AUD$31.8 million for 2012/13. Opponents of the offshore center argue that at a time of shrinking government budgets, Australia cannot afford to dump funds into these new ‘development projects’ where taxpayer return will be minimal. Over the past four years, “Effective Governance” has been a top goal of development funding and currently around 60% of the total budget . While I do not doubt the overall transparency of AusAID and the commitment of development practitioners, the historically higher level of funding to governance compared to “Sustainable Economic Development” and “Promoting Opportunities for All” are a pathway for the Australian government to have demonstrable influence over Nauru’s political process; this influence allowed for the reopening of offshore-processing center and creation of a permanent mass detention center complex that has impacted the country’s political and economic outlook.

Other changes on the horizon may soon be driven by the Supreme Court in Nauru. The Supreme Court will decide both the political fate of Nauru’s government as well as the fate of asylum-seekers. With many resignations, votes of no confidence and changes of administration over the last two decades, Nauru is lucky to have a functioning Supreme Court that can help facilitate the country’s constitution. To be able to dissolve Parliament and have fresh elections, President Dabwido is considering taking legal action through the Supreme Court; this application to the Supreme Court is likely to take place over the next week. As recently as May 3, Parliament failed to reach a quorum for the fourth consecutive time, continuing to give the president reason to utilize the Supreme Court.

A landmark Supreme Court case involving asylum-seekers set for June includes an application of habeas corpus. Australian barrister Jay Williams and retired US Marine Corps lawyer Michael Mori are part of a “legal dream team formed to challenge the legality of the Nauru detention center.” Mori formerly represented Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks. The team of lawyers are representing the ten detained asylum-seekers facing charges of rioting and willful damage. Williams has been facing a challenge of his own – lack of access to the defendants to prepare an adequate case – which is an infringement of the defendants’ constitutional rights. As a constitutional challenge this ruling could have strong repercussions for Australia’s offshore-processing and detention center.

While Nauru’s government shows signs that they are unable to maintain stability, Nauru additionally lacks significant infrastructure to adequately handle the additional burden of providing for a future thousand-plus residents. The construction efforts for the detention center on Nauru attest to the longevity of the Pacific Solution and the creation of an island full of detainees similar to the US facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Underground cables have been installed for electricity, and water and sewage hook-ups have been difficult among the phosphate field. Additionally, Nauru lacks a modern port; to ship prefabricated accommodation blocks into Nauru, a “causeway of rock and gravel was constructed…and had to be repaired daily.”

While considering the damage that these events are doing to Australia’s regional and international image, the Labor government is pressing onward with development of the offshore-processing and detention center in Nauru. Currently there are more than four hundred asylum-seekers on Nauru, who have now been moved into part of the permanent detention center facilities. One journalist describes the new facilities in Nauru: “unlike the flimsy weatherboard huts used in the first iteration of the Pacific Solution under the Howard government, the new buildings are built to last.” To accommodate 1,500 detainees in a detention camp, there will be a total of ten accommodation blocks costing the Australian government more than AUD$70 million to construct. According to a report, the “initial stage of the project is a twin-storey accommodation centre of about 1000sq m, containing 44 rooms grouped in three pods, connected by covered breezeways. For now, asylum-seekers will sleep two to a room of 4m x 3.5m.”  These new facilities were likely built in response to criticism from the international community and nongovernmental organizations about poor conditions being faced by refugees as well as the impact on local communities.

In December 2012, observers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a scathing report on the facilities and processing operations at Nauru. UNHCR representatives expressed the “need for more information and clarity for asylum-seekers about their situation, and counseling on the procedures and time frames of various steps in line with international standards.” The report also stressed that asylum-seekers should be supplied with “adequate conditions of accommodation, and the legal framework, rules and procedures for processing of transferred asylum-seekers in Nauru should be completed as a matter of urgency.” Having risked their lives on a treacherous journey by boat, asylum-seekers being sent to Nauru and Manus Island detention centers are particularly vulnerable. While they are not being placed in a war zone in Nauru, Australia should not send asylum-seekers, especially when they may have mental, physical and economic problems, into a detention center for an undetermined period without adequate legal and medical provisions.

Despite Australia’s move to improve facilities on Nauru, the most glaring problem remains; asylum seekers will be held in a legal gray zone outside of Australia’s borders and outside of the protections of Australian law. Further, off-shoring asylum-seeker processing serves to restrict journalistic access and the flow of public information to the public. These issues are the crux of the UNHCR insistence that “all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory [should] be processed in Australia, consistent with general practice.”Add to this Australia’s dubious political and economic pressures and incentives that the government is applying liberally in order to secure the island as their national penal colony. Australia has the option to use its economic and strategic clout in the Pacific in order to benefit the region and promote humanitarian aims. Taking advantage of the economic woes and political instability in Nauru through the perpetuation and expansion of the Pacific Solution is undermining Australia’s standing among its Pacific island neighbors and in the international community.

Australia’s National Security Strategy: Opportunity is What Labor Makes of It

“To focus only on dangers in the world would be to neglect the opportunities to improve our security environment and shape our strategic landscape. It is as important to seize these opportunities as it is to address threats.” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013)

Australia’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) was launched on January 23, 2013, just a week before the Labor government announced the next election date. As a follow-up to the 2008 National Security Statement, the NSS cohesively lays out Australia’s national security objectives, risks, outlook and priorities.  A critical part of the strategy is describing Australia’s vision for security, including the “Pillars of Australia’s National Security.” While the document reminds us that the international political environment is in a stage of transition due to the rise of China and India, American ‘rebalancing’ to the Asia-Pacific, resource constraints and technological developments, it paints a rosy picture of the security landscape as something that Australia can – with the help of the United States – tackle; Prime Minister Gillard herself seems to be saying: no worries, mate, we’ve got this.  Rather than putting Australia on alert to mitigate current and imminent threats, the NSS much like the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper emphasizes opportunities that benefit national and regional interests.

Why does Australia need a National Security Strategy?

Australia’s foreign and defense policies depend upon the state’s identities and interests which are amenable to change. While the NSS took seemingly years to plan, it was launched at an appropriate time for Australia’s continued preeminence on the international stage. The NSS provides another avenue for Australia to proclaim that it is a responsible “liberal democracy with deeply held values” and to reinforce the state’s belief in shared laws and norms to organize international society. (p. 3) With the United States ‘rebalancing’ to Asia, including (but not limited to) the American military rotation in Darwin, Australia is arguably more critical than ever for the US in the Asia-Pacific. In contrast to America’s heavy usage of the word, the Australia NSS only mentions freedom once (on page 1) to describe the Australian “way of life.” Furthermore, Australia’s trade and development relationships with regional neighbors provide greater strength to the US as well as a platform for Australia’s interests.

Relatively unscathed by the global recession, Australia must deal with overall market volatility and the effects of resource scarcity. Australian living standards are high, the economy continues to expand, and New Zealanders continue to flock across the ditch to help meet labor shortages; financial success has been due largely to the mining industry boom led by the growth of China and industrialization of other developing countries in Asia and South America. It is discernible then that for Australia economic wellbeing and security are tightly linked. International interdependence through bilateral and multilateral trade and defense arrangements necessitated overlapping policies that seek both peace and prosperity. One aspect sorely lacking from the NSS, however, was a comprehensive section concerning water security given its severity in Australia and increasing significance in Asia.

Pillars of national security

With the release of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, restart of the Pacific Solution, and success of the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme among other policy moves, the Labor-led government is attempting to redefine the state’s role in Oceania as well as the Asia-Pacific. In fact, a significant and surprising pillar of national security is “understanding and being influential in the world, particularly the Asia-Pacific.” (p. 12) Deterring traditional security threats such as terrorism, attacks and organized crime align with pillars of maintaining border integrity, securing and strengthening resilience of Australia and the international environment.

According to the NSS, the US “remains an important anchor for peace and security in [the] region.” (p. 20) For American policymakers, the US is the most important anchor for peace and security in the region, and Australia helps to facilitate that role; the alliance allows for sharing of intelligence and defense technology, joint military exercises, regular dialogue particularly through AUSMIN and cooperative diplomatic efforts.

Prioritizing cooperation to meet national security needs

The NSS promotes a proactive and constructive approach to national security. The word opportunity was mentioned 32 times, and cooperation 36 times. Each section seemingly provided a glimpse of Australia’s desire to collaborate with the US and to strengthen regional organizations such as the East Asia Summit, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Pacific Islands Forum. As an illustration of regional dynamics and a comparison of the opportunities and existing partnerships, in the NSS the United States was mentioned 31 times and China 26 times. An assessment of Australia’s national security outlook delivers priorities that are consistent with the state as an emerging player in international affairs and a liberal democracy.

 The NSS identified the following three priorities over the next five years:

  • Enhanced regional engagement in support of security and prosperity in the Asian Century.
  • Integrated cyber policy and operations to enhance the defence of our digital networks.
  • Effective partnerships to achieve innovative and efficient national security outcomes.

The first and third priorities may appear to be duplicates as they utilize cooperation to secure Australia. However both bilateral and domestic partnerships and regional engagements play important roles depending upon the issue at hand. The NSS strongly advocates for improved cooperation among Australian government departments for pressing problems such as border security. Information-sharing is critical between departments and among governments in facing cyber security challenges.

While there were no specific opportunities identified in the “National Security Opportunities” section in the same way as threats and priorities were listed, the idea was reiterated throughout the National Security Strategy.  Rather, threats create opportunities for domestic collaboration among government departments and international collaboration among states to solve and mitigate challenges. With strong partnerships with neighbors Indonesia and New Zealand, and close ally the United States, Australia will not have to ‘drink with the flies’ (go it alone) when developing regional or global initiatives.   

Despite an overall positive tone that sees Australia shaping the region for the good of national and regional security, the section entitled “Deterring and defeating attacks on Australia and Australia’s interests” was fuel for criticism of Australia’s shrinking defense budget. The NSS acknowledged that because conflict could eventually break out in the Indo-Pacific region, it is necessary

“that we maintain the capacity to protect Australia’s sovereignty, assets, infrastructure and institutions from conventional armed attack, and to contribute to international security efforts where appropriate. The ADF is an essential part of our approach. Maintaining credible high-end capabilities enables us to act decisively when required, and deter would-be adversaries.”

To boast about high-end capabilities, a well-maintained ADF and to continue to pursue interoperability efforts, Australia should not be pursuing defense policies that worry its closest defense ally, the United States. During the launch of the NSS, Gillard misquoted Australian defense spending per capita and stated that Australia was second only to the United States; later the official website amended Gillard’s national security speech to compare Australia among G-7 countries and China, a significant difference. Nonetheless, Australia’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP is ranked 50th in the world.

For domestic security issues and regionally stability it makes sense for Australia to focus more efforts on aid programs and peacekeeping operations. The NSS cites operations in the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste as Pacific successes and missions in Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of extra-regional cooperation. With the “long-term shift in global economic weight from west to east,” (p. 7) resource scarcity and the effects of climate change will, in Australia’s view, create new opportunities as the country adapts to new risks and scenarios.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Bali Process; the initiative combating people smuggling and managing irregular migration is no less relevant today as the Labor government continues to grapple with incoming ‘boat people’. As the cyber-security scene evolves and related agencies consolidate, Australia’s capabilities in this area will become a feature more interesting to the United States and New Zealand. By recognizing that the state’s national security interests will not necessarily lead to conflict but in fact provide opportunities for cooperation, Australia is conveying a welcome message in its first National Security Strategy. The state’s approach “reflects who we are and where we have come from” and hopefully represents the future of international relations. (p. 3)