Australia’s role in negotiating international treaties and the domestic implications of these obligations is a topic of considerable interest within the general community, including businesses and other non-government organisations (NGOs).
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has put together an information kit on Australia’s international treaty making process, providing insight into the significance of treaties to Australia’s national interests, and listing the key treaties that Australia is a party to.
What is a treaty?
DFAT states that a treaty is “an agreement between States (countries) which is binding at international law” and that it may also be called a “convention”, “protocol”, “covenant” or “exchange of letters”.
Treaties are important as they reflect agreements and understandings between national Governments. In an increasingly globalised world where issues often transcend borders, treaties allow for coordinated and effective international responses.
Treaties can be bilateral (between two countries) or multilateral (between three or more countries), and can cover a wide range of subjects including defence and security, nuclear non-proliferation, trade, the environment and technological exchanges.
Why are international treaties important to Australia?
Australia contributes to shaping the standards and rules of the treaties it is a party to, which determine how international relations are conducted. Australia therefore has the opportunity to influence treaty developments in line with its national objectives, and may be able to achieve very specific benefits such as increasing exports and GDP.
Treaties also provide for international law enforcement cooperation (for example in relation to drug trafficking) which helps to enhance national and international security, all of which benefit Australia.
How does Australia decide whether to become party to a treaty?
Australia consults extensively before deciding to become party to a treaty, in order to ensure that it is consistent with its national interests.
The Government consults with States and Territories, industry bodies and other interest groups such as NGOs concerned with international human rights issues.
Once a decision is taken, how Australia then joins the treaty is determined by the treaty in question, and further information is provided in the DFAT information kit.
Law enforcement treaties
Law enforcement treaties create a framework for international cooperation. Australia is a party to the following law enforcement treaties:
- Bilateral mutual assistance treaties help to ensure that criminals cannot reach “safe havens” simply by crossing borders, allowing for the exchange of evidence between countries, as well as facilitating the seizure and confiscation of proceeds of crime.
- Bilateral extradition treaties also help to ensure that criminals cannot evade prosecution by crossing borders. For example, if an alleged offender is located in a country with which Australia has a bilateral extradition treaty, then steps can be taken to seek their extradition to stand trial in Australia.
- The United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988) helps to combat the production, sale and trafficking of these illicit substances.
- The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (1980) requires participating countries to take appropriate measures to ensure the prompt return of children abducted from one country to another.
National security treaties
These treaties help to ensure Australia’s national security, as well as the security of other countries party to the treaties. DFAT lists the national security treaties to which Australia is a party, and outlines the key functions of these treaties.
- The UN Charter (the foundational treaty of the United Nations) is the most important national security treaty regime
- The ANZUS Treaty (1951) formalises the Australia-US defence alliance
- The Five Power Defence Arrangements (1971) facilitate bilateral and multilateral cooperation between the defence forces of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom
- The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1968) commits non-nuclear weapon states to not acquiring nuclear weapons and prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons (or the know-how to make nuclear weapons) to non-nuclear weapon states
- The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1997) constitutes a commitment of parties to stop nuclear testing
- The Chemical Weapons Convention (1993) provides for a global ban on all aspects of chemical weapons development, production and transfer, as well as for the destruction of all existing chemical weapon stocks and production facilities
- The Biological Weapons Convention (1972) bans the production, development, stockpiling and acquisition of biological weapons and their delivery systems
- The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, and on their Destruction (1997) (the Ottawa Convention) provides that countries adhering to the Convention agree never to use, develop, produce, stockpile or transfer anti-personnel mines (mines designed for use against humans). Each state must also agree to the destruction of previously stockpiled mines
- The Geneva Conventions for the Protection of War Victims and Additional Protocols (1949 and 1977) regulate and control the conduct of international and non-international armed conflicts
- The Inhumane Weapons Convention (1980) prohibits or restricts the use of certain specific categories of weapons (including anti-personnel landmines, booby traps, incendiary weapons and fragmentation weapons) which can be characterised as causing “unnecessary suffering” or have indiscriminate effects
- The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1956) provides both for preparations in peacetime for safeguarding cultural property against foreseeable effects of armed conflict, and also for respect for such property in time of war/or military occupation
- The Treaty of Rarotonga (1986) creates a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, prohibiting the testing, production, acquisition, possession or stationing of nuclear weapons in the region
- The Truce and Peace Monitoring on Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (1997 and 1998) agreements between Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu concern the establishment and operations of the neutral Truce (and subsequently Peace) Monitoring Group on Bougainville
International treaties are very important to Australia in ensuring that it is able to achieve its national objectives, adequately enforce the law and uphold national security. Treaties allow for more effective international cooperation in conducting criminal investigations, including gathering evidence and extraditing wanted persons to stand trial. Treaties also contribute towards creating a safer global environment, discouraging the use of extremely harmful weapons and helping to prevent international organised crime.