Opinion: Bishop should face Australia’s record with International Law

julie-bishopAustralian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has warned China that it must respect international law, following the state’s rejection of the Phillipines arbitration case over its claims in the South China Sea.

‘While we take no position on competing claims in the South China Sea, Australia’s commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight consistent with international law is unshakeable,’ Ms Bishop said at a press conference in Tokyo last Tuesday.

China has created man-made islands in the Sea, and is now militarising the installations.

But Australia is no leader in adherence to international law. Under Bishop’s tenure as FM, Australia has been chastised by the United Nations on multiple occasions for breaching treaty obligations it holds as party to the Convention Against Torture, the 1951 Refugee Convention, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A special report by the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, which concluded that Australia had breached its international obligations, prompted then Prime Minister Tony Abbot to say that Australians were ‘sick of being lectured to’ by the United Nations.

Bishop has consistently distanced Australia from issues of international law, saying when she was given the Foreign Ministry that her tenure would focus on ‘economic diplomacy’ and building relationships with geographical neighbours in the indo-pacific.

Bishop’s sidelining of Australia’s realtionship with the international rule of law, and consequently of its role as a leader in its development and enforcement, have detrimented Australia’s standing in discussions of international law policy and development. As a result, the legacy that had been built for Australia’s seat at the table has been left unmaintained and unfilled. Treatment of the South China Sea issues in Australian policy has highlighted further the broken link between Australia and championship of rule of law.

As part of the same press conference in Tokyo, the Minister said: ‘China has every right to enjoy greater strategic influence consistent with its economic weight’. Hardly the words of an individual leading in the world of international law.

In the lead up to an election for Ms Bishop, her record with issues of international law will remain key, as she is unlikely to be removed from the portfolio if she keeps her seat, and her party in government. Before sacrificing Australia’s interest in the rule of law for ‘economic diplomacy’, Julie should watch her feet. She might be walking on a knife edge.

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