8 December 2006

New rules of engagement that allow the Australian navy to fire on illegal fishing vessels go against international law, a sea law expert has warned.

The changes, announced by Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, authorise the firing of live ammunition into the bow or engine of illegal fishing vessels that ignore orders.

UQ international law lecturer and sea law expert Dr Rachel Baird said the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which rules on international maritime matters, had decided in 1999 that using such force was excessive.

Dr Baird said international law required the use of force be avoided as far as possible when arresting ships, even if their activities were illegal.

“Using such force exposes an unacceptably high risk of injury or death to foreign nationals and exposes Australia to unnecessary risk of international action by the national’s State,” Dr Baird said.

“It is settled international practice that vessels are to be directed to stop via auditory or visual signals.

“If the vessel does not respond and stop, then other action is permitted including boarding and firing shots across the bow of the vessel.

“Firing shots into a vessel in an open sea State is inherently risky and the likelihood of injury or death high.

“The risk of escalation and retaliation by the flag State or State of nationality is not one the Australian government should contemplate and exposes Defence personal to unnecessary risk for a task that is not core Defence business.”

She said there were better alternatives than force such as closing illegal fishing ports and markets and bringing vessel owners to account rather than individual fishers.

Dr Baird is a Fellow of UQ's Centre for Public International and Comparative Law.

MEDIA: Dr Baird (0411 208 732, r.baird@law.uq.edu.au) or Miguel Holland at UQ (3365 2619)