Illegal Seizure In The Open Sea: Russian Federal Police illegally board and seize The Arctic Sunrise and her crew of 30 in the open sea. One of those held at gunpoint was an Australian citizen, Colin Russell. Rather than voice the strongest diplomatic protest, the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is now suggesting that people like Russell be required to reimburse the Australian Government for the consular assistance they receive.
WHY IS IT that politicians, who owe everything to democracy, frequently display so little understanding of its values? Has the novelty and radicalism of democracy’s core proposition: that the “just powers” of government derive exclusively from the consent of the governed; simply worn off? Has the hard-won right to choose their own leaders been around for so long that voters simply take it for granted?
These are just some of the questions arising from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s extraordinary suggestion that Australians travelling overseas, who find themselves in need of consular assistance, could be billed for the services provided.
Last Saturday, responding to questions about the amount of “taxpayers’ money” spent on Colin Russell, the Australian citizen imprisoned by the Russian Federation for attempting to draw the world’s attention to that country’s decision to allow oil drilling in the Arctic ecosystem, Ms Bishop declared:
“Of course the Australian government is going to support those in trouble but there are circumstances where questions are raised why taxpayers should foot the bill”.
The job of reviewing those “circumstances” has been given to the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to Ms Bishop, the exercise is all about “reviewing the consular fee for those who make deliberate and purposeful actions which break the local law and who don’t take out comprehensive insurance and then require [consular] help at the taxpayer’s expense”.
Ms Bishop’s statement is not only an extremely misleading interpretation of the circumstances leading to Mr Russell’s detention by the Russian authorities, and of his consequent need for Australian consular assistance, but it is also a fundamental misreading of a consul’s purpose.
The term “consul” has its origins in the Roman Republic, but a modern-day consulate’s primary diplomatic function is to protect and facilitate the safe passage of its commissioning nation’s citizens. In classical times the simple statement “civis Romanus sum” – “I am a Roman Citizen” – was sufficient to give anyone within reach of Rome’s retribution pause. Likewise today, when the involvement of consular staff is usually enough to make the authorities of a foreign state behave themselves. It’s says: “Our state is watching you and will hold you responsible for the welfare of its citizen.”
In the case of Mr Russell (himself an Australian “taxpayer”) consular staff became involved when The Arctic Sunrise, the Dutch-registered vessel he was sailing on, was seized illegally in open waters by Russian federal police, who then proceeded to sail the ship and its crew to the territory of the Russian Federation. The 30 crew members, citizens of 16 nations, were then charged with “piracy”, denied bail, and incarcerated in conditions of considerable stress and discomfort.
The only “law” which Mr Russell and his fellow Greenpeace activists may possibly have fallen foul of is the international law pertaining to oil drilling platforms. One of these was non-violently and temporarily boarded by members of The Arctic Sunrise’s crew in order to display a large banner protesting oil exploration in the vulnerable Arctic environment. Any redress for this harmless symbolic gesture was a matter for international civil litigation – not the criminal code of the Russian Federation.
All of these facts would have been conveyed to the Australian Foreign Minister via consular staff on the ground in Murmansk and St Petersburg. Rather than contemplate charging Australian citizens a fee for the assistance they receive in such extraordinary circumstances, Ms Bishop should have demanded Mr Russell’s immediate release and repatriation and issued the strongest possible diplomatic protest at the illegal seizure of a vessel on the open sea and the abduction by force and unlawful imprisonment of an Australian citizen.
Mr Russell had every right to expect this reaction from his government because, as a citizen and as an elector, he is one of the 22 million human-beings who, together, constitute the Commonwealth of Australia. The injustice inflicted upon Mr Russell was not just against him it was against all Australians and the politicians elected to govern in their name were duty-bound to do everything they could to rescue and bring home an Australian son in distress.
Mr Russell’s treatment bears testimony to the Australian Liberal-National Government’s woeful indifference to basic democratic values. From the moment The Arctic Sunrise was seized, the sympathies of Ms Bishop and her colleagues appeared to lie, almost exclusively, with the oil drillers and the Russian government.
The hostility whipped up against Greenpeace by the Murdoch press proved to be a stronger goad to political action than the abduction and detention of an Australian citizen.
Mr Russell had a right to his government’s support because in a democracy that’s exactly what it is – his government.
Ms Bishop needs to be reminded that she serves at her people’s pleasure. The protection of Australian citizens abroad is not only her ministerial duty, it’s their democratic right.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 January 2014.