Breaches have gone further than Senate Inquiry suggests

29th Mar 2014

Breaches into Indonesian waters could be far more common than recorded by the Defence and Customs Review and Senate Inquiry report, the Australian Lawyers Alliance said today.

Yesterday afternoon, a Senate committee released its report into the breaches of Indonesian waters following the Defence and Customs Review in February 2014. The six breaches, committed by the Royal Australian Navy and Customs and Border Protection Services in December 2013 and January 2014, were said to be ‘inadvertent’.

However, the report, fails to acknowledge that it is likely that more than six breaches into Indonesian waters have occurred.

The report, issued by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committee, has made some strong recommendations, including that the government must review the evidence provided regarding international law and the encoding of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in domestic law, and provide appropriate training to relevant agencies. The Committee also viewed dimly the Immigration Minister’s reliance on the public interest immunity to evade questions posed by the Committee.

“Such recommendations are incomplete to resolve the problem, when there is still a failure to recognise how extensive the problem is,” said Greg Phelps, Northern Territory Director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

Inadequate training in UNCLOS was identified as one of the areas that led to the incursions.

“If training is an issue now, then certainly, it has been an ongoing issue, and must be assessed with the seriousness that this issue demands,” said Mr Phelps.

Since 2005, when the Department of Customs and Border Protection was entrusted with responsibility for processing foreign fishers, approximately 5,394 fishermen have been apprehended by Australian officials on the ocean and hundreds of boats destroyed.

“There is no guarantee as to how many of these apprehensions occurred within the Australian Fishing Zone, or even in the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone.

“Given that six breaches occurred in just two months, how many have there been in nine years?”

Mr Phelps represented an Indonesian fisherman, Sahring, in a landmark decision
handed down by the Federal Court of Australia last week. In that case, the Australian navy had crossed Indonesian waters and destroyed Sahring’s fisherman’s boat. The Court awarded him compensation.

“This was another form of breach into Indonesian waters that occurred in 2008 with Australian authorities exceeding their lawful enforcement powers” said Mr Phelps.

“In that same year, from June 2007 to June 2008, 1,217 fishermen were detained. How many of these apprehensions occurred in Indonesian waters?

“The Timor Sea requires a greater level of scrutiny,” said Mr Phelps.

“This is a controversial area in which many claims arise for example, those allegations of asylum seekers’ hands being burnt; fishermen’s boats have been burned, and asylum seekers have been pushed back in lifeboats to Indonesian islands.

“There is clearly a need for greater transparency with a concerted effort to fix the problems not to hide them. Public interest immunity is no excuse. The public interest here should be to fix our relationship with our Indonesian neighbours in the Timor Sea.

“The review must go further and much more is required.”

Tags: Human rights Indonesia Foreign fishers