The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by suspected Russian-backed separatists using a Russian missile in eastern Ukraine has raised questions over whether Australia should allow President Vladimir Putin to attend the G20 meeting to be hosted in Brisbane in November.
Among the 298 passengers and crew killed, in what Prime Minister Tony Abbott has called a “crime” and a possible act of terrorism, were 37 Australian citizens and residents.
Abbott has been asked a number of times since Friday’s tragedy as to whether he will ban Putin from attending the G20 meeting, which Australia currently chairs.
He has repeatedly refused to rule out a decision to isolate Russia from the process, saying over the weekend: “We are a self-respecting country and obviously we want to ensure that visitors to this country have good will to this country, visitors to this country are people who have done the right thing by this country and let’s hope that is what we will find in the weeks and months ahead.”
Business Insider spoke today to a number of experts who outlined various options available to the Australian government to stop the Russian delegation from attending. But all spoke of the need for caution on the political management of such a strong diplomatic snub. (One observer said unilateral action could seriously undermine the G20’s future, saying: “It would f–k it”.)
The most blunt instrument Australia has at its disposal is the immigration process. Australia can choose who enters its territory and can keep people out by not granting them a visa.
“It’s perfectly within Australia’s legal rights, but the political issues are something else they have to weigh,” International Law specialist at the University of New South Wales Dr Anthony Billingsley said.
Globally, there is a precedent for this type of decision. In April the US blocked Iran’s nominee to the United Nations from entering the country on grounds the diplomat was allegedly involved in the 1979 attack on the US Embassy in Tehran.
Billingsley said to exclude Russia from the G20 Australia would need “reasonable grounds”. The MH17 incident could be viewed, in theory, as such.
In March a statement from the BRIC nations said of November’s summit, “The custodianship of the G20 belongs to all Member States equally and no one Member State can unilaterally determine its nature and character”.
A more structured approach would be to build political support among G20 leaders for a group decision on Russian attendance. Any decision to cut Putin out of this year’s G20 summit would have to be made by consensus of participating nations, said Peter Drysdale, Emeritus Professor of economics at Australian National University. If done any other way, said “it would undermine Australia’s authority as chair of the meeting”.
“The majority would have to want to uninvite Putin as a whole,” he said, adding “it would be absolutely irresponsible” of Australia to use its power to alienate Russia if it was the view of the minority.
An example of a consensus decision played out in March when G7 leaders relocated their summit to Brussels from Sochi. Cutting Russia out of the international group for the time being because of its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and alleged interference with sovereign Ukraine.
When asked about it again today, Abbott said we are “getting ahead of ourselves”.
“A lot of water will flow under the bridge between now and November,” he said. “It is unhelpful to start speculating what might happen in four months time.”
Australia will sponsor a motion at the UN Security Council on Monday, New York time, which calls on member nations including Russia to support an independent, international investigation and access to the crash site.
Russia’s ambassador to Australia said today his government would be prepared to support such a resolutionif it didn’t attach blame to Moscow for the incident.
We contacted DFAT and the Prime Minister’s Office for comment and will update if we hear back.