Pacific Island of Nauru scraps link to Australian appeal court

Nauru abolishes decades-old legal agreement with Australia, removing the Pacific island’s highest court of appeal.

President Baron Divavesi Waqa of Nauru speaks at the UN [Lucas Jackson/Reuters]
Nauru's President Baron Waqa suggested he would sever legal ties with Australia's High Court in February [Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

Nauru has abolished a decades-old link to Australia’s legal system, removing the island nation’s highest court of appeal, in a move critics have described as “shocking” and “concerning” for human rights.

The government of Nauru – a Pacific island on which hundreds of asylum seekers are detained in an Australian immigration facility – said on Monday that no new judicial appeals to Australia’s High Court would be permitted under the now defunct 1976 High Court Appeals Act.

Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, confirmed on Monday that Nauru had informed government officials in December of its intention to scrap the 1976 appeals act.

“Australia supports Nauru’s sovereignty and its December 2017 decision to terminate the treaty in advance of the nation’s 50th anniversary of independence,” she said in a statement to reporters.

The agreement was formally terminated on March 12, according to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, though news of the severence has only emerged in recent days after Nauru’s solicitor-general reportedly made comments on Friday concerning the act’s abolishment.

More than 1,000 asylum seekers are detained by Australia in the Pacific on Nauru and Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea, according to the Australian Border Force [File: Rick Rycroft/AP]
More than 1,000 asylum seekers are detained by Australia in the Pacific on Nauru and Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea, according to the Australian Border Force [File: Rick Rycroft/AP]

Critics have said the move could have adverse consequences for asylum seekers being detained on Nauru, who could be left without the right to appeal, and accuse Australia of exploiting the island’s decision for reasons of “political expediency”.

“Australia needs Nauru to solve its refugee problem, and as a consequence it is completely compromised by its desire not to offend the Nauruan government,” George Newhouse, a human rights lawyer for Australia’s National Justice Project, told Al Jazeera on Monday.

“[But] there are serious problems in the processing of asylum seeker reviews on Nauru … [and] these are life and death decisions because an asylum seeker that has their claim rejected could find themselves returned back to harm or even death,” he said.

Australia’s top court presided over at least 13 appeals from Nauru last year, according to Jeremy Gans, a professor of law at the University of Melbourne, Australia, having only decided on five cases from the Pacific island in the preceding 40 years of the act’s existence.

Australia’s asylum policy

Under its strict border control policies, Australia sends asylum seekers who arrive by boat to processing centres the government manages in the Pacific and permanently bans those individuals from settling in the country.

According to the Australian Border Force, 1,111 of those asylum seekers are detained on Nauru and Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea.

Attempted suicide among asylum seekers is rife in Nauru because of the prison-like conditions they face in indefinite detention, an Amnesty International report released in 2016 said.

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, rejected the report, saying the government’s commitment to dealing with those detained was “compassionate and strong”.

Australia, Nauru’s largest aid donor, will provide it with $19m of “official development assistance” this year alone, according to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Attempted suicide is widespread on Nauru because of the prison-like conditions asylum seekers face, according to an Amnesty International report released in 2016 [File: David Gray/Reuters]
Attempted suicide is widespread on Nauru because of the prison-like conditions asylum seekers face, according to an Amnesty International report released in 2016 [File: David Gray/Reuters]

On Monday, Nauru’s government defended its decision to scrap the appeals act in a series of Twitter posts saying it will “not accept interference in our domestic affairs”.

“As a sovereign nation with a democratically (re) elected government, we will make decisions based on what is best for our people, not what ill-informed, racist, elitist, colonial-minded Australian lawyers, journalists and activists try and demand,” the government said via its Twitter account.

“Nauru’s justice system is independent and transparent, and our judges – all from outside Nauru – are highly respected.”

The government of Nauru is yet to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, but officials have previously said all cases filed before Nauru gave notice to Australia of its intention to abolish the appeals act will proceed unhindered to the Australian High Court.

News of the severence has only emerged in recent days after Jay Udit, Nauru’s solicitor-general, reportedly revealed on Friday that his government had already formally notified Australia of its decision to scrap the legal agreement.

According to local news media reports, Udit told two legal representatives of Matthew Batsuia – a former justice minister of Nauru, who is one of 19 people charged over protests outside Nauru parliament in 2015 – during a chance meeting with them that Nauru had issued the notice in January or December.

‘A logical step towards full nationhood’

Baron Waqa, Nauru’s president, suggested in February he would seek to sever the island’s legal ties with Australia’s High Court during a speech to parliament.

Each party was required by the appeals act to provide the other signatory with 90 days of notice before abolishing it.

“Severance of ties to Australia’s highest court is a logical step towards full nationhood and an expression of confidence in Nauru’s ability to determine its own destiny,” Waqa said on February 12.

The government also issued a statement to the same effect almost four weeks later, on March 2, in which it committed to establishing a new local court of appeal to replace the High Court’s legal function.

The government, however, is yet to specify a date for the creation of such a court.

Separation of powers row

Peter Law, a former resident magistrate in Nauru, described on Monday the timing of the government’s decision as “very unfortunate”.

“Whilst I support the idea of an appeals court being set up in Nauru, that hasn’t happened yet … [and] a number of appeals are currently in progress,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.

Law also expressed concern over the government’s approach to the rule of law, suggesting Nauru’s officials have “trampled over” the judiciary on several occasions.

“This government, over the last four years, has not really fully understood the importance of separation of power between judiciary and government … through their actions they have breached the rule of law, ignored injunctions issued by courts and sought to influence judicial decision making,” Law said.

Law was deported from Nauru in 2014 after being sacked alongside Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames, both of whom are Australians, in a move he has since called politically motivated.

International rights groups, including Amnesty International and the International Service for Human Rights, have raised concerns in recent years over Nauru’s commitment to judicial independence, suggesting the removal of Eames and Law undermined the rule of law.

The Nauru government, however, has vigorously denied accusations it has interfered with the independence of the island’s judiciary.

Source: Al Jazeera