What can citizens expect from their government when they find themselves in hot water with the law while travelling overseas?
Assistance with posting bail? A demand from their country’s foreign minister that they not be mistreated?
What about advice with dealing with everyday situations. Like replacing a lost passport? Or providing an emergency loan if a wallet has been stolen?
Actions that constitute ‘protection’ by states, as opposed to routine consular assistance, is the focus of ANU College of Asia and the Pacific PhD candidate Suzanne Akila’s research.
The former prosecutor, who is based at the Centre for International Governance and Justice in the Regulatory Institutions Network at the College, is looking at how Germany, Mexico and Australia measure up, when their citizens are on death row overseas.
“Some scholars argue that there should be legislation allowing for Australian citizens to have a legitimate expectation to receive assistance if they are in trouble,” she says.
”But what does assistance mean?
“Does it mean that you merely get paid a visit, if you are in prison?”
“Some scholars argue that there should be legislation allowing for Australian citizens to have a legitimate expectation to receive assistance if they are in trouble."
She acknowledges it is unreasonable for citizens to demand embassies assist with trivialities like booking opera tickets, or come to their rescue if they willfully break the law when they are overseas.
But when human rights issues are violated, it’s another matter.
“What if someone is tortured? What happens if someone experiences sexual assault? What about those cases? How do we distinguish between those instances and losing your passport?” she asks.
Her interest in the interface of public interest issues and law follows her work as a prosecutor at the Director of Public Prosecution in Perth.
She later completed a Masters qualification in London, which led to working alongside international justice guru Christopher Keith Hall, at Amnesty International.
“He really shaped my understanding of the law, and of international criminal law in particular.”
Returning to Australia, Akila joined the Office of International Law at the Attorney-General’s Department, where she advised the Government on its international legal obligations.
Drawing on that experience, she decided to examine cases brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for her PhD topic.
“On average it takes four years for a case to be completed. And everything is on the public record,” she says.
In the case of Van Tuong Nguyen, a young Australian man convicted of drug trafficking in Singapore in late 2002, then foreign minister Alexander Downer urged the Singaporean Government not to hang him.
“On average it takes four years for a case to be completed. And everything is on the public record."
“There wasn’t much public support, initially,” says Akila.
“People were of the view ‘He is a drug smuggler.”
Aided by a campaign by his distraught mother and the work of his lawyers, Australians eventually started to take note of Nguyen’s plight.
ANU law experts Don Rothwell and Chris Ward suggested warding off his impending death sentence through taking the case to the International Court of Justice.
But the Government didn’t support the legal argument. Nguyen was eventually executed in 2005.
“Australia has never taken a case, on behalf of a citizen to the ICJ,” Akila points out.
In comparison, German and Mexican citizens on death row have had cases heard before the ICJ, because protocols have been in place to protect them.
For Mexican citizens, ‘a very elaborate system’ involves non-state lawyers being paid for by the state to represent clients in trouble.
Likewise, Akila believes Germany has protocols in place that ensure human rights abuses do not occur.
“Whereas in Australia, we still don’t really have that,” she points out.
“We don’t have constitutional protections related to human rights.”
This article is from ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.