Why what happens on the little island of Nauru should matter to the whole world


UPDATE: Access joined an international coalition of rights organizations to send a letter to the government of Nauru on May 26. You can read the letter here (PDF).

The island nation of Nauru may be tiny — only 21 square kilometers (8.5 square miles) — but what is happening there should reverberate around the world. Over the past few weeks, the government of Nauru has imposed an internet shutdown, blocking people from using certain sites on the pretext of protecting them from online pornography. At the same time, it has passed a dangerous new provision in its criminal code that could restrict free expression. These developments are putting people who care about human rights on high alert.

Why? One of the reasons is that Nauru operates an immigration detention center for people seeking asylum in Australia. Men, women, and children are held — often in abusive conditions — while authorities decide whether to grant them full refugee protection and resettlement on Nauru, Papua New Guinea, or Cambodia — but not Australia, the country they are seeking asylum in. This detention center, funded in part by the Australian government, is located in the steaming hot center of the island — as far from the sea as it is possible to get in Nauru.

I spent several years working on refugee issues at Amnesty International in Australia before co-founding Access, an international organization that defends and extends the rights of users at risk around the world. What I quickly learned is that asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in society. They are cut off from family, friends, and colleagues and in many cases, they do not have the means or ability even to share the evidence of the horrific experiences from which they fled.

Now asylum seekers in Nauru are going without connections to loved ones, colleagues, and family that internet services can provide, something that could make a difference in their efforts to get asylum. They are also living in a nation where a vague, broad new law could send anyone who says something “likely to threaten” public order — whatever that means — to jail. Notably, other countries have used similar laws to suppress criticism of the government. These circumstances could make it extremely difficult for these asylum seekers to get the human-rights protections they need under international law.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Australia, Julie Bishop, has spoken out against the new law, citing free expression, but has refrained from addressing the harder issue: Australia’s complicity in this crisis. The government of Nauru receives significant aid money from Australia to operate its immigration detention center, and it appears that Australia is fostering a relationship with Nauru that enables human rights abuses to occur. Nauru has become shorthand for “abuse” in Australia, for good reason. This needs to stop. It’s also wrong to send asylum seekers to countries such as Cambodia and Papua New Guinea that themselves have a worrying record of censorship.

This year, we have seen people seeking asylum all over the world, from Myanmar to Libya to Iraq, often at tremendous risk to themselves and their families. The internet is a powerful tool for people who have no other way to show the rest of us what is going on. It enables people to document human rights abuse, and allows asylum seekers to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution, the legal standard for them to receive protection. It is also a valuable resource of information — one that should not be cut off to those seeking asylum and protection from another country.

Tomorrow my organization will send a letter to the government of Nauru requesting that it put an end to the internet shutdown and rescind the changes to its criminal code. As I noted in a recent blog post, experts at the UN have rightly issued an historic declaration that internet kill switches aimed at silencing certain perspectives or voices can never be justified under international law. The internet shutdown in Nauru must stop. Without the internet, what happens in the world won’t be available in Nauru or any country that pursues this policy — a dangerous precedent. That’s why what happens in Nauru should matter to the world.

photo credit: Sean Kelleher