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Beyond self-interest: Australia’s post-Tampa choices

By Guy Goodwin-Gill - posted Friday, 17 February 2006

History and more recent developments - such as the Tampa incident - appear to confirm that self-interest continues to count first for states when dealing with refugees.

The immense gap between a literal reading of international provisions for refugees and the reality could hardly be more compelling. And yet still there is evidence pulling in the other direction.

Today, the institutions of international co-operation are more comprehensive, universal and firmly established than at any time in the past, but the idea of pursuing an idealised “obligation” of co-operation on refugees is probably pointless.


Self-interest drives co-operation, and action in pursuit of solutions for refugees depends on the formal consent of states, staggering from one crisis to another.

And, ironically or understandably, it’s the largest emergencies, such as the Indo-China refugee crisis in the 1980s, that engage self-interest rather than the persistent niggling of small, distant humanitarian situations.

It would be nice to be able to assert confidently there is at least an emerging legal principle requiring states to co-operate on a basis of international solidarity and burden sharing.

But engagement remains a political matter - and a matter of discretion - in a context in which each and every state appears to act first and foremost in the light of its own self-interest. And the trend seems to be getting stronger.

Many states seem to want to put yet further distance between themselves and the United Nations ideal of co-operation in the resolution of humanitarian problems.

This is quite strange in many respects, for policies now being adopted and put into practice stand at odds with the lessons of experience, however much they may reflect the desire of many states to assert their sovereignty even in the face of humanitarian need.


The benefits of co-operation, however, are not just theoretical, as the successful resettlement of 1.4 million South-East Asian refugees after 1975 demonstrates.

The dangers of unilateralism are equally self-evident. Co-operation leads to solutions and a fair allocation of responsibilities among nation states. But unilateral measures lead to isolation and a greater unwillingness to help, as the 2001 Tampa incident showed.

The Tampa incident shows, however, what might be done - and what ought to be done - in this and other similar circumstances in the future. It also discloses a wider context, particularly in relation to human rights, and typifies a scenario in which no single issue, such as rescue at sea and disembarkation, can ever be considered in isolation.

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Article edited by Allan Sharp.
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This article is an edited and abridged version of the second of three lectures Dr Goodwin-Gill he gave in Australia in 2005 for the Kenneth Rivett Orations. The first article has appeared in Online Opinion.

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About the Author

Dr Guy S. Goodwin-Gill is currently a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He was previously the Professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford, the Professor of Asylum Law at the University of Amsterdam, and worked for over a decade for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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Refugee Council of Australia

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