Super department a bad sign for justice and the rule of law

Earlier today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the launch of a new ‘super department’ along the lines of the UK Home Office or the US Department of Homeland Security.

The move was not recommended by the recent review of the national security architecture by respectected Michael Le’Strange, was not endorsed by cabinet and has split the National Security Committee. The new department will capture the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Federal Police, Border Force and the Department of Immigration. It will be headed by the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

Many commentators have argued the only reason to create such a department is political, providing Peter Dutton with additional power as a means of steering him away from a leaderahip challenge. Although the government has not stated what benefits such a department would bring to national security, the new department would presumably be responsible for strategic planning and coordination of the agencies in its purvue. This is most concerning. 

The Australian Federal Police has historically been under the remit of the Justice Minister with a strong relationship to the Attorney-General’s Department. The Australian Federal Police are not only used for counter-terrorism and border control activities. The AFP has personnel deployed on operations all over the globe including on peace support operations with the United Nations. They are a significant tool in Australia’s strategic investment in a rules based global order more closely aligned with the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Defence Force.

On the other hand, Border Force and Australia’s immigration policies, particularly those relating to refugees and asylumn seekers, are broadly condemned as breaching international legal norms and human rights standards.

The AFP are the authority responsible for investigating and prosecuting such international crimes as war crimes, crimes against hanity and genocide when they fall under Australian jurisdiction. Each of these crimes is outlined under domestic legislation and has been included in the Criminal Code Act. Even though it is known that Australians have perpetrated these crimes while fighting with Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, no investigations of prosecutions have yet occurred. 

Indeed, rather than meeting our obligations to investigate and prosecute these crimes, Australia has supported impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict by revoking the citizenship of a key perpetrator known to have committed these crimes. That decision was made by the very man now given authority over all the agencies within thisnew department.

Amy Maguire has argued that Australia’s human rights obligations now need to be rechecked under the new departmental structure. I could not agree more.

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