|Issue No 111||14 September 2001|
Howard's Falkland War
Zoe Reynolds chronicles the bizarre tale of the Tampa and how a group of refugees bacame pawns in a bigger political game.
PM John Howard's action against Norwegian freighter & asylum seekers amounts to an act of war, a breach of maritime law &, ultimately, a cynical re-election ploy
The Australian crew of the Norwegian flagged Enterprise held a meeting of ratings, officers and master in Sydney during the height of the Tampa crisis. Word has reached them that the Norwegian fleet worldwide are flying their flags at half mast. They agree to do likewise as the vessel sails out of Sydney and on to Newcastle, Port Kembla and Hobart.
"It is in mourning for all the people who could now die at sea because of the actions of PM John Howard," said bosun Terry Munday.
It was a fitting protest against the Australian Government's cynical contempt of maritime law all for political gain in the lead up to a federal election.
The saga began in the Indian Ocean 150 kilometres north of Christmas Island on August 26. An SOS from a sinking ship. Search and rescue authorities in Australia pick up the message spelt out on the deck of a wooden boat during a routine flight. Coastguard broadcasts the May Day to all vessels in the region. True to maritime tradition and the law of the sea the Captain Arnie Rinnan master of the Norwegian ro-ro Tampa, on route from Fremantle to Singapore takes the call.
With more than 12 centuries of maritime history in his veins and 45 years as a mariner all the the Norwegian masterıs instincts and maritime wisdom led him to change course, without reservation, and rescue the men, women and children from certain death. His second instinct was to head for shore. Duty bound he headed for the nearest port, Christmas Island.
This was no ordinary rescue. A crew of 27 successfully helping 440 exhausted men, women and children 20 metres up a gangplank onto the ship at sea. The asylum seekers on board the sinking boat had been drifting in the tropical heat for days and were about to be sucked under the ocean when the giant 44,000 freighter came alongside. Once on board the Norwegian ship the ill, injured and desperate far outnumbered the crew of Norwegian officers and Filipino ratings.
A desperate mass of humanity huddled on deck among mountains of containers under the tropical sun. Dehydration, dysentery, fevers, cramps, heat exhaustion and hunger had taken their toll. Victims of organised criminal syndicates operating out of Indonesia, these people mainly Afghani, had handed over their life savings on the promise of a safe journey and sanctuary in Australia. Victims of persecution in their own land, victims of extortion and misinformation on the high seas. Desperate they threatened suicide and worse if the ship did not turn back to Australia.
"You know about the genocide and massacres going on in our country," the refugees later wrote to the Australian Government. "We have no way but to run out of our dear homeland and to seek a peaceful asylum... Why have we been deprived of refugee rights?"
Yet despite Australia calling on the Norwegian ship to take the people on board, the Howard Government refused to allow the ship to bring them ashore.
Australian seafarers attending the monthly stopwork meeting understood too well the predicament of fellow seafarers aboard the Tampa. Many had taken part in rescue missions themselves. The crew of BHP freighter Iron Newcastle won an international medal for their rescue of the Burmese crew from the sinking Panamanian MV Carolines in January 1999. The Federal Government was acting in contravention of maritime law by shunning a ship and crew in distress.
Members of the MUA, condemned the actions of the government in refusing to offer assistance to the besieged Norwegian freighter.
"Australian seafarers understand that it is a seafarerıs responsibility under the law of the sea to aid any person or persons in distress at sea," said National Secretary Paddy Crumlin. "This is fundamental to human rights and the application of international law."
By refusing assistance to the master and crew of the vessel the Federal Government was opening the way for the international shipping industry to turn their back on people or vessels in distress at sea.
The MUA called on the Government to take urgent action to assist the crew of the Tampa.
So too the International Transport Workersı Federation. ITF General Secretary David Cockroft called on the Australian Government to allow the Tampa to proceed to Christmas Island due to the unacceptable risk to crew and asylum seekers. The ITF has also contacted the International Maritime Organisation Secretary General William O'Neill to urgently resolve the situation and put in place binding international rules for such crisis.
But for PM John Howard it was an election year. Inflated with small minded racist, xenophobic and parochial sentiments voiced on talk back radio he denied the ship entry to Australian waters. Racism was a vote winner.
On the world stage the drama about to unfold not only shocked mariners the world over, it outraged the international community.
The Tampa was designed for a metal cargo not a human one. It was not licensed to carry more than 30 passengers and its 27 crew. Itıs toilet facilities life jackets, lifeboats, accommodation and food provisions were inadequate. On day one the captain reported 15 people unconscious on its deck. One woman is eight months pregnant.
The crew could not cope without help
"I donıt think we can hold out any longer," the ships radio operator Mr Ramesh Iyengar said. The crew issued a PAN PAN distress second only to May Day at 8pm on August 28.
On Christmas Island community leaders were ready to welcome the ship in port.
"Our community expresses sympathy for those who come to Christmas Island seeking a safe haven from war, famine and oppressive regimes in their countries of origin,² the Union of Christmas Island Workers said in a statement signed by community organisations and shire councillors.
"The elected representatives of the people of Christmas Island are ashamed of the actions of the PM of our country. We call upon the Commonwealth of Australia to enter international agreements aimed at providing an orderly system of accommodating asylum seekers and refugees...."
They were ignored.
Captain Arne Rinnan aware of his rights under maritime law decided to wait no longer. People were threatening to jump overboard if no shore based medical treatment was forthcoming. The situation, he said, was getting out of hand. After issuing a May Day, he headed closer to port.
"Please be advised we are approaching Christmas Island to take shelter," he radioed as he entered Australian waters at dawn on August 29.
But again the PM's response was a brutal disregard of maritime tradition, international convention and human decency.
Sniffing an opportunity to win votes on the eve of an election, the PM ordered in the troops. They boarded carrying machine guns, wearing helmets and face masks. A further 200 troops occupied Christmas Island.
'Iron Fist' the Daily Telegraph applauded John Howardıs Thatcherist "firm stand".
"Shame on you Australia", the masters wife called from Norway.
"I think your PM is a hard man," Mrs Rinnan told The Telegraph. "I don't understand Australians. How can they live with themselves?"
Her husband, she explained was due to retire. He only had one trip to go. He had been sailing since he was 15 and was one of Wilhelmsen Lines senior masters.
The SAS storming of Tampa was a deplorable act. It was essentially a military invasion of a friendly ship in peace time, the MUA media release broadcast the next morning.
National Secretary Paddy Crumlin described the action of the Howard Government as inappropriate, inhumane and deserving of international condemnation.
"People smuggling has to be combated," he said. "But the perpetrators are the ones who need to be targeted, not the innocent victims, the master and crew of a vessel answering a distress call from a sinking ship. Nor pregnant women and children. This is nothing less than a cynical reelection gambit - Mr Howardıs Falkland War."
(The Falklands members may recall was a war the Thatcher Government, facing certain electoral defeat, drummed up in 1982 to win back government.)
The next day the ITF warned the Australian Government that turning away the vessel was illegal under international treaties to which Australia is a signatory.
In a letter to the Australian Prime Minister ITF General Secretary David Cockroft advised Howard that his Government was in clear breach of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, and the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Finally the ITF warned the Australian Government 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."
Then there were the moral issues, David Cockroft reminded Howard.
"Like it or not Australia must abide by its humanitarian duty and accept these migrants. Until then it is endangering everyone on board the Tampa - including the innocent crew members whose only mistake appears to have been to respond responsibly and promptly to an Australian call for assistance."
Outraged maritime lawyers, academics and immigration experts joined the cries of condemnation.
They include Dr Michael White, QC, executive director of the Centre of Maritime Law, University of Queensland, Professor Gillian Triggs, International Law Department, University of Melbourne, international law expert Professor Guy Goodwin-Gill of Oxford University, Dr Sarah Derrington barrister in maritime commercial law, The International Chamber of Shipping, The Baltic and International Maritime Council, Robert Richter QC, Geneva United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) refugee policy officer Rachael Rile.
"No one in the history ... recent history of international ship owning would do what the Australian governmentıs doing, you know. Not one nation," Paddy Crumlin told national television that night. "Because they understand that every country at every time is subject to this type of refugee problem or ship in distress."
'Time to end the sorry saga', called the Australian Financial Review, 'PMıs refugee bungling defies reason and decency,' said The Australian. "We must accept these stranded people on our shores."
Not before time Opposition leader Kim Beazley took a stand, with Labor joining the Democrats and Greens in the Senate to block draconian legislation enabling the Government to forceably remove ships even those in distress, from Australian waters, including, in effect, authorisation to shoot the captain.
The move was welcomed by ACTU President Sharon Burrow.
Then on Friday, August 31, the Federal Court granted an injunction to the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties restraining the Government from taking any steps to remove the Tampa from Australian waters.
The court heard that John Howard knowingly broke the law and acted unconstitutionally by using shock troopers to block the Tampa entering Australian waters and prevent the refugees seeking legal representation.
On September 3 the Tampa was provisionally permitted to sail for PNG, while the Federal Court hearings continued. This week Jusitice North ruled against the Government, ordering the asylum seekers to be returned to Australia. But the Howard Government lodged an immediate appeal. The full bench of the Federal Court is expected to hand down its decision on Monday.
Meanwhile Norway reported Australia to the UN, branding us all inhumane and in violation of international maritime rules which allow ships to go the nearest port in an emergency, calling for a ban on Australian wine imports. And Wilhelmson were warning of damages for the $30,000 a day the delay was causing the ship.
"I would not say anything if the ship was in the vicinity of a banana republic," said Tampa owner Wallenius Wilhelmsen. "But I mean this is supposed to be a civilised country."
Even our closest allies in the US and UK were shocked and mortified, raising the ghost of the White Australia policy.
Why should we claim our country is OEswampedı with refugees when last year Australia took only 12,713 applications compared to the UK's 97,600 or the US's 1.2 million.
The United Nations too spoke out against the Australian stance. But for the Maritime Union and its members, who can all too readily identify with the crew and its human cargo, the Tampa is but another sorry chapter in maritime policy under a Howard Government.
"It's a catastrophic situation because the Federal Government has cut itself adrift from the shipping industry," said MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin. "Transport Minister John Anderson appears to have no commitment or ability to understand shipping issues. He's never employed anyone with any expertise or background in shipping. Instead he relies on economic rationalists and ideologically driven public
servants like Feeney. The damage this is causing to Australia's international standing is an inevitable outcome. After five years of inaction, two reports never released and Anderson's refrain that we are a shipper nation not a shipping nation, our international standing is in tatters."
Crumlin said that the perception coming from international shipping forums is that the Australian Government is incompetent in shipping policy matters.
"The view from people in the ILO and the IMO is that Australia is losing the plot," he said. "We've lost the solid reputation developed over generations as a seafaring nation. Around the time of the Ships of Shame parliamentary inquiries Australia was providing leadership in world shipping reform, setting international benchmarks in the law of the sea. Under the Howard Government this international standing has all been squandered. It is an embarrassment to us all.
"The question is," Crumlin asked. "How has this come about. If it is merely ignorance or incompetence thatıs bad enough. If it is bloody mindedness it is all the more scandalous."
In more than one way the Tampa debacle was eerily familiar to maritime workers. Once again we have men and their families demonised and attacked (OEillegals, queue jumpersı), a pugnacious Peter Reith ordering in the troops and Justice North of the Federal Court handing ruling against the government and in favour of QC Julien Burnside. And once again we have a community assembly of unionists, clergy and civil rights activists taking a stand on high moral ground.
Interview: Amidst the Debris
ACTU President Sharan Burrow surveys the wreckage from a week that rocked the world.
Politics: Consequences of Empire
The horror of the events in New York has not led to all American and international observers feeling committed to bloody revenge.
Ansett workers lay bare their feelings at seeing their company driven into oblivion.
International: Election Results from East Timor
Fretelin as expected has topped the poll in East Timors first free democratic election and the violence predicted by some has not eventuated.
E-Change: 3.2 The Electronic Consumerist
In their latest instalment Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel ask how effective has the law become in safeguarding the things that really matter to us?
Legal: Howard's Falkland War
Zoe Reynolds chronicles the bizarre tale of the Tampa and how a group of refugees bacame pawns in a bigger political game.
Compo: Round Two Begins
Nancy Searle reviews the Sheahan Report and highlights some of the areas of concern to injured workers.
Economics: Knowledge, Power, Banking
Raj Patel questions whether a new World Bank initiative is actually designed to control the way the Third World thinks.
Review: Political Theatre
The Naked Theatre Company is a youthful, adventurous, professional, Sydney theatre company committed to the development and production of Australian playwrights.
Satire: Howard US Visit "Marginally Overshadowed"
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has said his US trip was a complete success, if slightly upstaged towards the middle.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005