Asylum seeker advocates have lashed out against Nauru’s proposal to sign the UN Convention on Refugees, saying that the tiny island nation is nowhere near ready to take on the responsibilities enshrined in the document.

David Manne, from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, said that Nauru’s proposal was simply “smoke and mirrors” and that signing the document would make no difference to the country’s capacity to humanely handle refugees.

“Nauru need to understand the seriousness of signing the convention, instead of suddenly appearing opportunistic,” he told Crikey. “It should be an extremely solemn undertaking to agree to protect refugees and to afford them all the rights set out in the convention.”

The remarks were made after Nauru President Marcus Stephen told The Australian today that the country would be willing sign the UN Convention on Refugees, if it meant they could reopen the off-shore processing centres used under the Howard government’s Pacific Solution.

“If that is one of those conditions, we would be very happy to look at signing that convention,” Stephen told The Australian. Last week, the federal government announced plans to process asylum seekers on East Timor, citing it as a refugee convention signatory.

Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, was also sceptical of Nauru’s offer, telling Crikey that the island state would not be able to meet the minimum standards set out in the convention. The convention dictates that signatories must agree on the UN definition of refugees and that they must legislate the status of asylum seekers.

“There would have to be huge changes. For the convention to make a difference it is essential that the status of asylum seeks is enshrined in domestic law, otherwise it’s meaningless,” Rintoul told Crikey. “Nauru will need more legal staff, medical staff, welfare staff and processing staff if it is going to be able to take on the appropriate responsibilities as set out in the convention.”

Manne was scathing of the plan, labelling it a “cynical marketing tool” being used by a “client state of Australia” to derive an injection of foreign aid.

“Nauru has a chequered past in relation to signing fundamental human rights conventions. It was one of the last nations to sign on to the Geneva Convention,” he told Crikey. “Signing this convention will not magically transform the country into one where it has sufficient resources and infrastructure to be able to properly manage asylum seekers.”

Last week, the federal government and opposition flagged the return of off-shore processing for asylum seekers. Nauru’s detention centres were heavily criticised by refugee advocacy groups before their closure in 2008.