Thursday 22 Oct 2020 | 14:29 | SYDNEY
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The Global Issues program examines themes that lie at the intersection of global political trends and Australia’s interests, specifically US foreign policy, global migration & multilateral institutions.

The program has published ground-breaking papers on diasporas, the provision of consular assistance to Australians overseas, and Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.

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Is there any point to an embassy?

Over the weekend the US closed many of its embassies in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of what was described as a serious al Qaeda threat.

Given the number of times US embassies have come under attack in the last decade or so, and certainly in the post-Benghazi era, it would seem hard to argue against such a dramatic move. Indeed, it says something that these days such precautions don't really seem that dramatic any more.

The problem is, they should. Closing all of your embassies in the Middle East raises the question of whether it is even worthwhile having embassies anymore.

It is not just the act of closing an embassy for security reasons that is an issue. Anyone who has had a meeting at an American embassy in the Middle East or South Asia knows the experience of going through multiple layers of security. The embassies have come to resemble fortresses and bunkers.

This is both a symbolic and a practical matter. While I would not want to make too much of this, the size and disposition of an Embassy – whether it is open and accessible or hunkered down – does say something to the locals about the country the embassy represents. But far more serious is the practical problem caused by the pre-occupation with security, in particular the fact that diplomats leave their embassies a lot less than they used to.

You might argue that this only really happens in countries like Pakistan or Egypt where the security situation warrants it. In Australia, for example, American diplomats move around freely. But it is precisely in countries like Pakistan and Egypt, where there are problems in the bilateral relationship or where the political situation is in flux and it is difficult to understand what's going on, that you need embassies and where diplomats need to be out and about.

This is not just a recent development. I remember when I served with the Australian mission in Tel Aviv in 2000 after the outbreak of the second Intifada, my American colleagues would constantly lament how onerous and time consuming it became to organise travel to the West Bank and that when they eventually did go they were accompanied by so much security that it was intimidating for the locals.

Nor is it just an American story. Some of my former DFAT colleagues have complained of how security restrictions limited their ability to do their job in the post-9/11 era.

If, as a diplomat, you cannot actually spend time travelling in your host country and if you can't develop strong relationships with the locals, you might as well pack up and go home. You cannot effectively represent the country from which you have come, nor can you really develop an understanding of the country to which you are posted.

You could argue that maintaining such levels of contact are not worth a diplomat's life. Indeed, by closing embassies, even temporarily, and by bunkering them deep in multiple security perimeters this is effectively the judgement you are making. But if that is the case, then we need to ask what purpose embassies really serve anymore. Why have anyone in the country at all?

What should I ask Julian Assange?

I've been asked to participate in the Sydney Morning Herald's Google Hangout with Julian Assange on Wednesday at 12.30pm. Along with host Tim Lester and a few other guests, I'll be quizzing Julian Assange, who of course will join us from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. The discussion will be streamed live and no doubt recorded too.

Personally, I'm desperate to get Assange's views on the Decision Review System, but it occurred to me that our readers might have some more pertinent questions to ask, not just about WikiLeaks and its implications for governments and international diplomacy (check out our 2010 debate on WikiLeaks for a refresher on the issues), but also about the WikiLeaks Party, which has candidates standing for the Australian senate in this election, including Assange himself.

You can email me ( with your question or make a suggestion on our Facebook page. It's a 45-minute event and no doubt there will be loads of questions coming in (the SMH is crowdsouring too), so I can't guarantee I will ask yours. But I will look at them all.

Photo by Flickr user Carl Gardner.

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    Movie trailer: The Fifth Estate

    Benedict Cumberbatch does a more than passable Australian accent in this first trailer for the new feature about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Apparently Assange did not like the early script of this film, but judging by this trailer it seems like a pretty favourable treatment of his organisation. There are hints here, however, that The Fifth Estate won't treat Assange himself entirely favourably. Speaking of which...

    Whaling debate redux

    With Japan having just made its closing argument in the International Court of Justice case launched by Australia, some highlights from a debate we hosted back in March between Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson and Griffith University's Michael Heazle.

    First, Paul Watson:

    Sea Shepherd is in the Southern Ocean because it is an internationally established sanctuary for whales and it is also an Australian sanctuary for whales. The key word here is 'sanctuary' and both the international community and Australia recognise these waters as a sanctuary for whales. The bottom line is that whales should not be slaughtered in a whale sanctuary.

    Japan is targeting endangered Fin and Humpback whales and protected Antarctic Minke whales in this sanctuary and they are doing so in violation of the global moratorium on commercial whaling that came into effect in 1986. The Japanese whaling fleet is also in contempt of a ruling by the Australian Federal Court prohibiting the killing of whales in the Australian Whale Sanctuary. The court ruled that the whalers were in violation of the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Japan is also in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.

    Michael Heazle:

    I am genuinely concerned with the issue of whale conservation...and I believe the best way to ensure this happens is for the IWC to regulate whaling again, which is something the commission has been unable to do since the moratorium took effect in 1986 (the moratorium was, by the way, adopted as a temporary measure and against the advice of the IWC Scientific Committee).

    Continuing the kind of hardline position adopted by Australia, which helped wreck the IWC's most recent (US-led) compromise initiative in 2010, can only result in Japan and the other whaling countries leaving the IWC sooner rather than later, which will effectively reduce the IWC to little more than a whale protectionist club and end any prospect for international supervision of whaling in the future.


    Japan does not adhere to its obligations to the IWC as Mr Heazle suggests, because Japan's so-called 'scientific research' whaling is bogus and everyone knows it. We have witnessed the whales killed, brought onboard and quickly processed without a single scientific measurement taking place. The number of whales killed under Japan's self-allotted scientific permits since 1987 is twenty times the number of whales killed under scientific permit by all nations from 1950 to date.


    The IWC's convention clearly grants member states the right to run scientific whaling programs, and it is under this provision that Japan legally takes a number of mostly minke whales in the Antarctic, since it is scientific and not commercial whaling.

    What Mr Watson does not acknowledge is that Japanese scientists regularly present information on findings, methods and progress relating to this research (both lethal and non-lethal) to the IWC Scientific Committee, where it is peer reviewed. Criticism of the research is made, as is normal with peer review, as are recommendations and also statements acknowledging the contribution it makes.

    Not surprisingly, given the controversial nature of whaling, opinions on the research and its contribution within the Scientific Committee have been and remain divided, particularly over the topic of lethal sampling (which a simple majority of the commission opposes). But to claim, as Mr Watson does, that there is no research going on and that therefore Japan is breaking international law by whaling commercially is not a balanced representation of what has been happening (it's also worth noting that much of the IWC's field research is made possible by Japan's provision of ships).

    Photo by Picasa user Gary Story.

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