Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
[Letter] to the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr John Howard.

Download WordDownload Word

To: The Prime Minister of Australia, Mr John Howard

From: David Cockroft, General Secretary


30 August 2001


Dear Prime Minister,


I believe it is my urgent duty to advise you and your government that its refusal to allow the migrants on board the vessel Tampa to disembark on land places Australia in breach of international conventions to which it is a signatory. It also endangers the members of the ship's crew, who have done nothing more than comply fully with their responsibility to aid a ship in distress. Additionally I must advise you that even the military action undertaken so far is dangerously close to the definition of an act of war.


Australia's actions so far put it in breach of the following international conventions, which are the keystones of international maritime governance:


  • Solas (Safety of Life at Sea) 1979. The Tampa is not licensed as a passenger ship and is clearly unfit for that role beyond for the short period necessary to assist shipwrecked seafarers. In its current level of occupancy it is deficient in lifeboats, lifejackets and other lifesaving equipment and would be liable to detention at any port in the world if it were to attempt to take on a quarter of the number of passengers it now has.
  • International Convention on Maritime Se arch and Rescue 1979. This convention requires the parties involved to co-operate where necessary and to bring a rescue to a speedy conclusion by taking those affected to shore. Australia's behaviour in delaying such a resolution and answering the master's Mayday signal by boarding the ship with troops is clearly incompatible with this.
  • Article 98 of Unclos (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) [Duty to Render Assistance] requires every state to require the Master of a ship flying its flag to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost and to proceed at all speed to rescue persons in distress. Again, this is at odds with the delay in allowing the Tampa to enter port.


These infringements must be placed alongside the apparent flouting of Australia's obligations under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It is difficult to see how any course of action other than allowing the migrants on the Tampa to land (ready for processing by the relevant national authorities) is compatible with Australia's continuing in its position as a member of the Council of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) - a body whose central concern is the safety of life at sea.


As well as these matters we feel obliged to put on record that the unwanted and unrequested occupation of the sovereign territory of Norway - a friendly country - by Australian soldiers is dangerously irresponsible. It is difficult to see how this, let alone any use of troops or a frigate to turn around the Tampa, is anything less than a technical act of war. Were it to have been carried out on the high seas, rather than in territorial waters, there would be a good case to be made for calling it piracy.


We are mindful of the difficult position in which your country has been placed by the appalling behaviour of Indonesia and its refusal to effectively crack down on the horrible trade in people smuggling and to police its own waters. However, unlike Indonesia, Australia is a signatory of all these conventions and has until now been recognised as a state with a proud tradition of maritime excellence. That its Government seems willing to jeopardise that reputation by risking people's lives for short term domestic political gain is abhorrent.


I sincerely hope that you will pass on this message to your Government, and that it will take heed of the rising number of voices around the world calling on your nation to act in accordance with both its humanitarian duty and its well known reputation for fairness.


Yours faithfully,


David Cockcroft,

General Secretary