Australia’s ‘stop the boats’ policy only serves to unravel global rules and prolong the Rohingya’s suffering, writes Mathew Davies.

In 2003 Bill Clinton, in a speech at Yale University, suggested that American foreign policy should try “to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behaviour that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military, political and economic superpower in the world.”

It is a long way from the carefully tended quads of New Haven to the leaky boats, full of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, currently being bounced around Southeast Asia as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia refuse them entry into their territorial waters. Yet the same concerns that shaped Clinton’s speech back then should today shape Australia’s approach to the question of refugees.

What Clinton meant was that America, a superpower that could see its own decline, faced a choice. It could revel in the Indian summer of its power, violating the laws and norms that it had helped create because it was powerful enough, for now, to do so. Or it could make harder but more longsighted decisions, foregoing short term success for the more important goal of helping to bed down an order where its values would be best preserved when it was no longer in a position to materially force their realisation.

Australia too faces this choice – and the Rohingya illustrate the human cost of this decision.

The government’s policy of ‘turning back the boats’ has been one of its few political success stories – first in opposition when it bludgeoned the Gillard government with it, and then in power when through militarising the issue, authorising the tow-back of incoming boats and the crafting of elaborate offshore processing systems. The victims have remained largely faceless, stripped of their identity in the press and safely kept away from the cameras.

But in crafting this policy Australia weakened both the international refugee regime as a set of rules and norms that should shape how states deal with such refugee flows and helped along a regional trend that has questioned the international regime as never before.

To be clear, Australia has in no way caused the Rohingya crisis nor has its policy alone been the impetus for Southeast Asian states current policy. The current crisis could not have been predicted when the Australian government’s policy to ‘stop the boats’ was being designed and implemented.

However, Australia’s actions have helped contribute to a general questioning of international norms on the question of refugees arriving by sea and a weakening of received practice – that states would accept these refugees as they arrived. It is not that Australia’s actions in this area are unprecedented in the region – Thailand in particular has a reputation as a bad citizen. Likewise, Malaysia has a long cracked down on what it labels illegal migrants.

But Australia’s actions are the largest, most organised and most publicly trumpeted and have changed the scale of the critique against the refugee regime. And both the Abbott and previous Rudd/Gillard governments have participated in this.

The dangers of weakening international norms when politically expedient to do so has long been understood. We can choose to break the fragile web of laws and norms that shape our world when it is politically expedient to do so, especially when we are powerful. But even then, we cannot control the consequences of that transgression in terms of the precedent we set and the lessons others learn from our actions.

The consequences of Australia’s actions are now coming home to roost today, and it is some of Asia’s most vulnerable people who are suffering as a result.

It is impossible for Australia to criticise those who do what we have with such a fanfare of self-congratulation. Prime Minister Abbott has defended the rights of Southeast Asian nations to prevent the boats making landfall despite the human cost of this policy potentially being the lives of thousands on the ocean right now. This is in stark contrast to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s call for regional states to accept these refugees to avoid a humanitarian disaster.

For a country that values its commitment to human rights as does Australia, our position in the face of Rohingya suffering is a humiliating moment; a realisation of what happens when our policies and our professed beliefs no longer march in step. We are left advising Europeans to tow boats back to the civil and political turmoil of Libya or ignoring the lives of the Rohingya in favour of a ‘tough on people-smuggling’ rhetoric that we are now trapped in regardless of the human cost.

The price of living in a world of rules and norms widely shared is that you do not get to pick and choose which of those rules apply to you and which only apply to others. For a superpower like the US, facing its own mortality, these decisions were global in nature – questions of military adventurism, respect for sovereignty and pluralism, relations with the non-Western world.

For Australia they are no less fundamental; do we want to craft a regional order where our values have wider resonance because we follow them even when politically costly? Or do we want to jettison all notions of common governance in the name of self-interested politics?

The short-term electoral benefits of stopping the boats have been clearly illustrated – now we move into a different phase, the consequences of those decisions so willingly adopted.

Sadly it is not us who bear the costs of those decisions. As almost always happens, it is those most vulnerable, most persecuted and most needy who experience the consequences of our arrogance.

Dr Mathew Davies is a fellow and senior lecturer researching international relations, ASEAN and human rights at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.