[Guy S. Goodwin-Gill is a Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford and Professor of International Refugee Law, University of Oxford.]
Before Sale, before Haitian interdiction even, there was ‘piracy’ off the coast of Thailand, tolerated and encouraged locally as a deterrent to landing; there was towing out to sea, even of unseaworthy vessels; there was the blind eye turned to the plight of those in distress; and somewhere in-between was the refusal to allow disembarkation of the rescued – an exercise of legal competence on a matter regulated in the past by practice and expectation, but never written into law.
No, there is nothing new here, and many are the ways by which States have sought to keep others away from their shores, particularly those in search of refuge. And yet despite the many novel forms of interdiction, I do not share many of the premises on which this conference appeared to be based. For example, I do not think that Sale itself has influenced the practice of States in any meaningful way. It may have encouraged elements within States to push the envelope of legality, but looking around at what goes on in the name of ‘migration management’, it’s hard to believe that they need any encouragement.
Nor do I think that courts which clarify the legal limits to permissible State action thereby invite executives just to look for other ways to avoid law and obligation. They do, of course, but that’s part of the tension inherent in societies operating under the rule of law. Nor do I think that the judgment of the Supreme Court in Sale counts for anything juridically significant, other than within the regrettably non-interactive legal system of the United States. Here, the Court ruled for domestic purposes on the construction of the Immigration and Nationality Act. What it said on the meaning of treaty was merely dictum and the Court was not competent –in at least two senses – to rule on international law.
At best, the judgment might constitute an element of State practice, but even here its international relevance can be heavily discounted. The Court failed, among others, to have regard to the binding unilateral statements made by the US when interdiction was first introduced, and the ten years of consistent practice which followed. And as any student of international law will tell you, practice and statements of this nature are highly relevant, particularly when against interest.
UNHCR, moreover, which is responsible for supervising the application of the 1951 Convention/1967 Protocol, protested the judgment at the time and has consistently maintained the position set out in its amicus brief to the Supreme Court (and in earlier interventions with the US authorities). Significantly, no other State party to the treaties has objected to UNHCR’s position, though the forum and the opportunity are readily available, such as the UNHCR Executive Committee, ECOSOC, or the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly.