Attacking the Refugee Convention


Could there be a global revolution (read paper shredding operation) on refugee law in the offing? Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has commenced his effort to survive the next election, has began an all out offensive against the Refugee Convention, a United Nations document that remains the great headache of policy makers across the globe.

Sacrosanct, inviolable obligations such as non-refoulement (prohibition against sending an arrival back to a country in case of persecution) have been the great eyesore of restraint on governments. Like irate children, they don’t like it. Sometimes, they ignore it.

The revisers are out with their euphemistic labels: they want ‘reform’. They want to modernise. They want to flip the cart on the rights lobby. Reform remains the weasel word of the radical conservative prat. As Australian governments have made conservatism the stable orthodoxy, Rudd had deigned to adopt a strategy that is, like him, new but old, revolutionary but musty. Should he win in this amorally untidy effort, it will be, as one backbencher termed it, “unity by exhaustion”.

Of course, the techniques of the Rudd arsenal are hardly new. The Howard government, Australia’s own Thatcherite imitation, made slandering both the Refugee Convention and refugees habitual and acceptable. From low fashion to high fashion, rubbishing new arrivals, especially by boat, has not become so much de rigueur as instinctive.

In 2000, Adrienne Millbank, author of Australian Parliamentary Research Paper (No. 5), lamented how the Refugee Convention of 1951 was an irritating anachronism, “that it was developed in and for a different era. Its focus is the resulting problems that have been identified since the late 1980s with the operation of the Convention in Western countries.” Sharpening the focus on the “illegal” arrivals at the end of the 1990s, the report noted how Australia, disappointingly, was “constrained” by how it could deal with them. Eviscerate the old; remove the cobwebs.

What had so significantly changed? “The use by the boat people of people smugglers to circumvent the visa and border controls has prompted Australia to join other countries in openly questioning the operation and continuing viability of the Convention itself.” The logic here: If an obligation is onerous and burdensome, or a right hard to observe, it should be scrapped, lifted, adjusted, moderated. The Convention definition of a refugee was “outdated” along with “its notion of exile as a solution to refugee problems.” It did not offer a “flexible response” to a complex problem.

There was no obligation to share burdens between states. There was an “inequity” in terms of outcomes between “camp” and “Convention” refugees. The more mobile, the more adventurous, and overall, the more desperate, were being rewarded. Never mind the deaths, the appalling lost of life on the seas in travelling between transit states.

Around the same time, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw claimed that the Convention was drafted and signed in an era where, “Intercontinental travel was rare, difficult and expensive. Fifty years on, new technology, global communications and cheap international travel have all contributed to a world where rapid long-distance migration is a realistic operation.” Straw’s language resembles that of an unenthusiastic travel agent keen to exclusively serve first class customers and toffs. Poorer applicants need not apply.

The Rudd of 2013 has latched on to that old theme, and is laying things out with the trowel of a faux reformer. Experts of the weasel word use genteel, soapsud expressions, an effort to be “benign” in a genuine attempt to be callous. And the campaign is being made global, even though the main thrust of any change remains a rich man’s effort (suggestively “Western”) to stomp on the poor. “Turning back the boasts” has become as ubiquitous an expression as Japan’s “sphere of co-prosperity” – every effort will be made to realise it, even if corners are no so much cut as annihilated. After all, as the opposition leader Tony Abbott has termed it, the arrival of refugees by boat to Australia is “a national emergency”.

To that end, Rudd has suggested a true bureaucrat’s formula: stemming the number of boat arrivals can be done through a “three-pronged” shift involving national, regional and global approaches. (Beware any politician who uses terms such as “pronged”.) He has openly told the press corps that the “effectiveness” of the Convention is now under review. The Refugee Review Tribunal has also been instructed to prioritise claims between those who have authentic identity documents and those who either have false documents or do not “co-operate” (Sydney Morning Herald, Jul 18).

In all of this, the darkest of trends emerges. Anyone who believes that inviolable rights, be it a local bill of rights or the so called “international” bill of rights, are the evocations of conscience, are the true conservatives. Such rights are there, not to be flexibly deflected, but to be applied with as much faith as is needed. When the law falls silent, the vicious shall reign.

The saboteurs are the “new” conservatives who believe in radical projects, undertaken with nihilistic enthusiasm. They man the draw bridge and unleash drones against their own citizens. They hold the signatures, electronic or actual, penned on cheap paper and even cheaper promises. They come in the form of such figures as Tony Blair, a supposedly “progressive” politician who was also happy to consider taking the knife to the refugee system. And they have the guns to turn back the boats.

One of the greatest corpses of this project will be the Refugee Convention. The ossuary, in time, will prove a heavily stacked one.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

October 07, 2015
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Witness to a Troubled Saint-Making: Junipero Serra and the Theology of Failure
Luciana Bohne
The Double-Speak of American Civilian Humanitarianism
Joyce Nelson
TPP: Big Pharma’s Big Deal
Jonathan Cook
Israel Lights the Touchpaper at Al-Aqsa Again
Joseph Natoli
The Wreckage in Sight We Fail To See
Piero Gleijeses
Jorge Risquet: the Brother I Never Had
Andrew Stewart
Do #BlackLivesMatter to Dunkin’ Donuts?
Rajesh Makwana
#GlobalGoals? The Truth About Poverty and How to Address It
Joan Berezin
Elections 2016: A New Opening or Business as Usual?
Dave Randle
The Man Who Sold Motown to the World
Adam Bartley
“Shameless”: Hillary Clinton, Human Rights and China
Binoy Kampmark
The Killings in Oregon: Business as Usual
Harvey Wasserman
Why Bernie and Hillary Must Address America’s Dying Nuke Reactors
Tom H. Hastings
Unarmed Cops and a Can-do Culture of Nonviolence
October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria