Qantas will be required to take a public position on the human rights abuses resulting from the deportation and domestic transfer of asylum seekers and refugees at its AGM in October, with the filing of a shareholder resolution on this flashpoint issue.
The resolution has been put forward by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), which in the last 12 months has forced both BHP and Rio Tinto investors to address their companies’ financial contributions to the pro-coal Minerals Council of Australia.
The resolution follows a ‘Public statement on Deportations to Danger’ which has been signed by Australia’s award-winning authors, writers, media personalities, responsible investors, business leaders, lawyers, academics, and human rights experts. Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist, human rights defender, poet and film producer who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013, is the latest person to sign the statement.
The shareholder resolution requests that:
- the Board commit to engaging a heightened due diligence process in relation to any involuntary transportation activity in which it is involved as a service provider to the Australian Department of Home Affairs (the Department);
- the Board commission a comprehensive review of our company’s policies and processes relating to involuntary transportation (Human Rights Review), with a specific focus on risk and responsibility according with our company’s commitment to aligning its business with the the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
- the Board prepare (at reasonable cost and omitting confidential information) a report describing the completed Human Rights Review, to be made available to shareholders on the company website prior to any further involvement in removal or involuntary transportation activity as a service provider to the Department.
The resolution will be put to a vote at the upcoming Qantas AGM, on 26 October 2018.
The role of companies in Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has been the subject of high profile financial sector campaigning in the past. The ‘No Business in Abuse’ campaign saw HESTA divest $23 million from Broadspectrum (then known as Transfield) over its offshore detention centre contracts. The campaign ended in a hostile takeover of Broadspectrum by Spanish multinational Ferrovial, which announced its exit of detention centres contracts as soon as the takeover was finalised.
Brynn O’Brien, Executive Director, ACCR (and former member of the No Business in Abuse campaign) said: “It simply makes no business sense that an insignificant part of Qantas' business is exposing them to the real risk of involvement in human rights abuses, and very significant brand damage. The best way for Qantas to manage this risk is simply to stop doing removals work on behalf of the Australian government.
“This issue is not at all complex. Any other business relationship would come under more scrutiny. For example, if Qantas was aware of a supplier that had high risk of slavery in their factories, Qantas would simply screen that supplier out of their network. Where Qantas does removals work on behalf of the Australian government it is all but assured of complicity in grave human rights abuses.
“A company is either for human rights or it is not. There is no halfway position here. For Qantas’s leadership to be in favour of human rights on some issues, and facilitating human rights abuses on others stinks of hypocrisy and, over the medium term, won’t be tolerated by their customers and their investors."
Behrouz Boochani on Manus Island said: “On Manus Island and Nauru, and also in Australia, refugees are processed unnecessarily late and have to endure the threat of refoulement throughout this time. Many have to resist being deported after 5, 6, 7 or 8 years of this tortuous process.
“It is immoral to play with someone's life and well-being by drowning them in futile bureaucracy and then forcing them to go back to where they fled. Many families have been destroyed as a consequence of their relatives being deported.
“No serious investigation or research has been conducted as of yet to determine the fate of those who have been sent back. The airlines that transport refugees are part of the system, they are complicit in torture and death just like IHMS, G4S, Wilson, the department of immigration and others - they are all interconnected and part of the same mechanism.
“Those transported to and between detention centres are transported by plane; essentially, the system cannot function without airlines. They may not inflict torture but they are ultimately instruments within programs of torture.
“The directors, managers and staff of these airlines may not be aware of what kind of atrocities they are contributing to. I want to encourage every airline working with the Australian government to reflect and act on this statement with urgency. I ask that you discontinue deporting and transferring refugees immediately.”
Several international human rights groups have condemned Australia’s immigration regime for failing to adequately protect the human rights of refugees and people seeking asylum. These groups include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Human Rights Council.
On July 17 2018, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged Australia to end the forced separation of refugee families, after a Sri Lankan refugee family was forcibly separated overnight by the Australian government. Multiple requests for legal intervention, lodged with the Home Affairs Minister, were ignored. UNHCR said, “this contravenes the basic right of family unity, as well as the fundamental principle of the best interests of the child.”
Last year, CEO Alan Joyce explained that: “A company’s first responsibility is to its shareholders and delivering sustainable returns on their investment. To do that, you’re automatically part of the community you operate in. Society is your customer base. And just because there is money changing hands doesn’t mean it is only ever an economic transaction. There’s an implicit social contract between companies and communities – just ask any brand that has ever been on the receiving end of a boycott.”
Qantas has voluntarily committed to The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The UNGPs note the responsibility of business enterprises to avoid adverse human rights impacts in their operations, products and services including through their business relationships.
Qantas does not presently disclose to shareholders the processes in place to manage its responsibilities under the UNGPs, or the risks to Qantas and its shareholders in relation to the provision of deportation services.
Qantas has no legal obligation to undertake deportations work on behalf of the Australian government.
Recent international precedents
Earlier this year, other major airlines overseas stated their refusal to participate in forced deportations, removals, and/or involuntary transfers.
In June 2018, six US airlines announced that they would not participate in transporting children who have been separated from their families at US borders, under the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
In June 2018, Virgin airlines in the UK announced that it would ‘end all involuntary deportations on [the Virgin Atlantic] network’ from August 1, 2018, ‘in the best interest of our customers and people, and... in keeping with our values as a company’.
In recent months, there have been other well-publicised instances of individual pilots in the UK, Germany and Israel refusing to participate in forced removals and deportations.