The Australia government last week signed onto a joint statement calling for an end to arbitrary detention of citizens in state-to-state relations, following recent incidents in Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea.
The declaration is led by Canada, which has accused China of arresting two Canadian citizens, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and consultant Michael Spavor, as hostage diplomacy. Australia joined the international coalition of 57 countries following efforts to have its own citizens released from Iran, China, and Myanmar.
In a statement, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the practice of arbitrary detention is against international law and that Australia “will continue to work with our international partners to counter this malicious activity.”
“States must uphold all of their international human rights obligations, and that includes those owed to foreign and duel nationals within their jurisdictions,” she added.
In recent weeks, Australian citizens have been detained in China and Myanmar. Australian economist Professor Sean Turnell was advising the civilian government in Myanmar at the time of the military coup earlier this month and has been in detention since.
Earlier this week, concerned for Turnell’s safety, Australia’s second-most senior military officer, Vice Chief of the Australian Defense Force David Johnson, spoke over phone with Myanmar’s Vice Senior General Soe Win. In a statement to the ABC, a defense spokesperson said Johnson “reiterated Australia’s call for the immediate release of Professor Sean Turnell.”
Rawan Arraf, principal lawyer and director of the Australian Centre for International Justice said it’s unbelievable that Johnson called Soe Win.
“While the US, UK and Canada impose sanctions on Soe Win and Tatmadaw leadership, Australia is lending credibility to them by holding discussions with accused war criminals and perpetrators of genocide,” she tweeted.
Turnell’s wife, Ha Vu, wrote to the wife of General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Myanmar’s military, pleading, as “one wife to another wife… to speak to your husband to let my husband return home to my family in Australia.”
The day before Turnell was arrested, Chinese authorities formally arrested Australian citizen Cheng Lei, six months after she was first detained. Chinese authorities claim Cheng, an anchor for the Chinese state-owned English-language news channel China Global Television Network, is being held “on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” but have not presented any evidence.
Payne said at the time that the Australian government had “raised its serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention.”
In September last year, Australian correspondents Bill Birtles and Mike Smith were hurried out of China after the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warned that both Australians were at risk. Birtles said after a subsequent five-day diplomatic standoff that the ordeal left him feeling like a “pawn in a diplomatic tussle.”
Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic, was released last December after more than two years held in an Iranian prison. The Iranians claimed she was a spy, but Moore-Gilbert and the Australian government rejected the charge. The negotiation for Moore-Gilbert’s release included a prisoner exchange and involved officials from both Iran and Australia as well as Thailand and Israel.
The Canadian-led declaration calls for an end to these kinds of acts. It notes: “The arbitrary arrest or detention of foreign nationals to compel action or to exercise leverage over a foreign government is contrary to international law, undermines international relations, and has a negative impact on foreign nationals travelling, working and living abroad.”
It’s believed China arrested Kovrig and Spavor in response to the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wenzhou in Vancouver in 2018. China’s government has not formally responded to the Canadian declaration, but state-owned media dismissed it as “an aggressive and ill-considered attack designed to provoke China.”
The detention of the two Canadian citizens is just one of 152 cases of coercive diplomacy by the Chinese Communist Party in the last 10 years, according to an Australian Strategic Policy Institute report.
A co-author of the ASPI report, Emilia Currey, said the declaration as it stands is a non-binding instrument and therefore lacks teeth.
“A treaty based on the declaration condemning arbitrary detention would amount to the coordinated joint pushback against [the Chinese Communist Party] that Canada, and all other target states, have needed from the beginning,” she said.
Australia has been accused in the past of practicing arbitrary detention. In 2018, the working group on arbitrary detention, which reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council, said Australia should immediately release refugees and asylum seekers from indefinite detention and pay them compensation and other reparations for their unlawful detention.