Moves by an Australian government to use special forces to board merchant vessels carrying asylum seekers could spark international diplomatic incidents, a law of the sea expert said.
ANU’s Professor Don Rothwell was responding to opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison saying the Special Air Service could be brought in to help repel asylum seekers trying to reach Australia’s shores.
In strong rhetoric that recalled the 2001 election, dominated by debate over the MV Tampa, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said Australia would not be ”played for mugs by the people smugglers and their customers”.
On Tuesday Maltese oil and chemical tanker Sichem Hawk came to the aid of 34 asylum seekers and two crew members after their boat got into trouble on the way to Christmas Island.
The boat was reportedly in international waters, between the Indonesian island of Java and Christmas Island.
But a plan to hand the passengers over to Indonesian authorities was later aborted by the Sichem Hawk’s master, for the safety of the passengers and the crew. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority agreed to the ship master’s request to take the 34 asylum seekers and two crew to Christmas Island, after he raised concerns about the safety and security of the asylum seekers and his crew.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare confirmed that the rescued asylum seekers had threatened self-harm.
Mr Morrison said a Coalition government would consider using SAS troops to board vessels that picked up asylum seekers who then threatened to harm themselves to get to Australia.
”You’ve got to be prepared to do this sort of stuff,” he said. ”The vessel has basically been taken over there with threats, a duress situation potentially,” he said. ”That should never be copped. People who are going to try this on should be stopped. That’s exactly what happened with the Tampa. John Howard took a strong stand on that.”
But Professor Rothwell said Australia had no right under international law to board any boat in international waters without the permission of the flag state – the nation to which it was registered.
”Any attempt to use the military against a merchant ship that has rescued persons at sea has the potential to raise multiple legal, political and diplomatic issues, and I’m not just talking about Australia,” Professor Rothwell said.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke declined to condemn Mr Morrison’s claims the SAS should be sent after flailing asylum boats. Asked about the comments, Mr Burke said: ”He’d have a bit more integrity to argue these sorts of things if they hadn’t blocked Malaysia.
”At the core of this is whether or not Australia has the right to send people, if they don’t have a valid claim – or to be able to send people – to countries other than Australia, so that we choose rather than the people smugglers choosing [where asylum seekers are sent].”
Mr Burke said the asylum seekers who threatened to kill themselves could have participated in criminal behaviour.