Australia’s Manus Island Refugees and Supply Chain Activism

By Natasha Naidu

‘We have become refugees for a second time inside this hell hole, abandoned and left to fend for ourselves as best we can.’ - Behrouz Boochani, Manus Island detainee

Earlier this month, water and electricity was shut off at an Australian refugee detention centre located in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (‘PNG’). The guards previously overseeing the detention of the refugees left the premise. However, the 600 refugees, frightened by the threat of violence and persecution from local Papua New Guineans, did not leave. The situation that has developed on Manus Island poses the question of how international legal mechanisms can address human rights violations committed in Government institutions, such as in Australia’s asylum seeker detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. 

What’s Happening?

Australia has two off-shore processing detention centres for asylum seekers: one on Manus Island and another on Nauru. These detention centres have been subject to repeated universal condemnation amidst reports of a refugee self-immolating and amongst allegations levied by the UN that Australia was systematically violating the Torture Convention. In April 2016 PNG’s Supreme Court ruled that the detention of refugees on Manus Island was illegal, constituting a breach of the right to personal liberty enshrined in PNG’s Constitution. Accordingly, the Australian Government oversaw the construction of alternative accommodation elsewhere on Manus Island and instructed that the detention centre would close on 31 November 2017. However, a climate of fear remained within the detention centre with incidents including locals looting the centre and PNG Defence Force personnel firing shots into the detention centre. The 600 refugees inside the detention centre have been left in legal limbo as the Australian Government refuses to provide basic services for survival.

With both sides of politics in Australia benefitting from a ‘stop the boats’ rhetoric, political protests and lobbying has proven futile thus far. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ declared that the situation was an ‘unfolding humanitarian crisis’ which has been ignored and a comprehensive communication filed to the International Criminal Court about the detention centres on both Manus Island and Nauru has been ignored. In the circumstances, conventional international law responses seem futile and ineffective. In thinking about how international law can be used to address the situation on Manus Island, or work proactively to prevent further human rights abuses on Nauru, the use of creative business and human rights strategies becomes pertinent.

Interfering with the corporate supply chain

The actions of the Australian Government on Manus Island and Nauru do not take place in a vacuum and has relied on an extensive corporate supply chain to provide electricity, water, security services, food packages and more which likely benefit from the Government’s sub-par standards in these institutions. The question then is: are these corporations similarly culpable? Deconstructing the supply chain and directly challenging the companies who are complicit in facilitating the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru could be an effective way of utilising business and human rights strategies to enforce human rights compliance. Interfering with the corporate supply chain in this way could allow legal actors to engage in a form of ‘supply chain activism’, whereby legal action and public pressure plays on the social conscience of the corporation to effect change. Such a strategy has proven effective on Manus Island in the past, with Wilson Security ending its security services contract with the Australian Government in the wake of human rights abuse allegations and lobbying.

Supply chain activism

While identifying the companies who continue to operate on Manus Island and Nauru is difficult due to the opaque nature of information available, the case highlights the unique potential of business and human rights to operate beyond the reaches of traditional international law mechanisms. Undoubtedly, the field of business and human rights, and this strategy of supply chain activism, present untapped potential for persuasive social activism and enforcing human rights compliance. But for now, today marks another day for the refugees on Manus Island without running water, electricity and little food, perpetually at the mercy of deliberately negligent Australian leaders and a willfully ignorant global citizenry.

Photo credit: Reuters