Apr 20, 2012

Who stopped Robinson? The inhibition of responsibility

Governments have ensured that accountability for harassment is ever more difficult.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Twenty four hours on, we now have a clearer idea of the circumstances in which Australian human rights lawyer Jen Robinson was stopped at Heathrow Airport on her way home to Australia, told she was on an "inhibited persons" list and that she would not be permitted to board her flight without approval from the Australian High Commission. But not why she was stopped and on whose authority. Robinson touched down in Sydney this morning and was looking forward to seeing Attorney-General Nicola Roxon at the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association conference, where both are speaking. Robinson, who has spent most of the last day in the air, has clarified that she understands no call was made from Heathrow to Australia House before her check-in was approved, despite Virgin Airlines staff and a security guard insisting she was an "inhibited person" who had evidently done something "controversial" and that approval was required before she could be checked-in. So what is an inhibited person? It's not a term used by Australian agencies. But Dean Procter on Twitter directed me to an agency that does use it -- the Department of Homeland Security. According to one of DHS's operating manuals for airlines,
"Travelers receiving an inhibited response must be further vetted prior to receiving a boarding pass authorization. The response message returned will provide a contact number that must be called to determine if a resolution can be accomplished."
That sounds exactly like what happened to Robinson. Another DHS document says:
"'Inhibited status', as defined in this rule, means the status of a passenger or non-traveling individual to whom TSA has instructed a covered aircraft operator or a covered airport operator not to issue a boarding pass or to provide access to the sterile area."
In March, as part of the US government's seemingly remorseless attempt to impose its laws on the rest of the world, the UK agreed to new rules that required airlines to provide the Department of Homeland Security with details of passengers even if they weren't travelling to the United States, but to countries near the US, such as Canada, Mexico and Cuba. Robinson, plainly, was going to none of those. But it raises an interesting scenario for when Robinson next seeks to travel to the US. DFAT yesterday said it knew nothing of what happened. ABC journalist Jeff Waters last night contacted a spokesman for the UK Border Agency, who denied that they had stopped Robinson. Which leaves the airline, Virgin. But the only circumstances in which an airline would stop a passenger in the manner Robinson was stopped is if she was not a citizen of the country she was flying to and there was a risk the airline would have to return her to her point of origin if she was refused entry, costing the airline money. Plainly a government agency is either lying or knows far more than they are letting on. But because of the tangled web of responsibility for international travel, it's impossible to do more than speculate. Different agencies within government, different government, and private companies all have different but related functions. It's a particularly egregious example of how governments can deflect responsibility and scrutiny because decision-making is outsourced into a nebulous mix of systems and separate decision-makers, leaving no one person or agency ultimately responsible. And international air travel has long since become a Kafkaesque mix of security theatre, institutionalised paranoia and irrational bureaucracy in which any semblance of logic is not merely dismissed but might even be considered a threat. This outsourcing of responsibility enables governments and politicians in particular to operate with complete deniability. Ministers, who used to be considered responsible for what happened in their portfolios, can place their hands on their hearts and swear they know nothing, that they have sought advice and that it is nothing to do with them. Meantime, lawyers, activists... hell, let's call them what they are, troublemakers -- get harassed without anyone with any authority having to front up and accept responsibility. It's all part of the constant process of delegitimising dissent.

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48 thoughts on “Who stopped Robinson? The inhibition of responsibility

  1. Chess C

    BK – thanks for your analysis and decoding of this important issue.

  2. Stiofan

    “Plainly a government agency is either lying or knows far more than they are letting on.”

    No, there is at least one other possibility.

    “Robinson, who has spent most of the last day in the air, has clarified that she understands no call was made from Heathrow to Australia House before her check-in was approved”.

    “Clarified”? Yesterday, you reported such approval was given. Was that an accurate report of what Robinson had said? How does Robinson know that no call was made to Australia House?

    Still unanswered is the question of what actually happened at Heathrow:

    * why and in what manner did Virgin and the “security guard” change their minds?

    * did Robinson see any phonecalls being made?

    * who was this “security guard” – airport security, a Virgin employee, a UK Government official, a man in a dark suit and sunglasses?

    * was Robinson actually stopped from boarding a flight, or merely delayed (and, if so, for how long)?

  3. kennethrobinson2

    If Jen Robinson thinks that she is going to get an answer from the AG, she will have to wait for approval for the AG to say anything without the permission of her US controllers.
    This really stinks and shows how treacherous our political (both parties) are treating us peasants, and the big question is how much they cant, wont tell us about what looks like a subserviant bleak future.

  4. zut alors

    This incident is chilling.

    And, hey, what a surprise that the ‘inhibited’ terminology is endemic in the Dept [email protected] Security. Who would’ve guessed, none other than our close ally the USA.

  5. Pamela

    Well said.
    We take off our shoes, surrender our hand lotion, give up our water, remove our belts, get lined up and down and God help us if we joke about it.
    Surrender all reason at an airport while we submit to some senseless BOYS OWN CHARADE. Refuse at your peril.
    We have had beefy boys armed on our domestic flights without any evidence that Al Quaida have infiltrated Tasmania en route to the Gold Coast.

    As I stepped out of a plane at Cooloongatta last week, it was to a reception committee of 4 big burly cops at the doors and a phalanx of same lined up inside.
    Surely they would better serve the public interest out on the roads and streets than standing around watching weary travellers struggle on by with bags and kids in tow.
    REDICULOUS or as a 4 year old says DICULOUS DICULOUS!!

  6. davidk

    Just one more example of why we need Wikileaks. It represents our best hope of ever getting the truth about anything.

  7. Andybob

    So glad to know my homeland is secure from inhibited persons

  8. SBH

    Free from inhibitions, I spent Wednesday also free from the constraints of pants. Should I ensure access to Virgin aircraft with a similar approach in future?

    And how on earth did kennethrobinson2 get in here? He’s got the kinda name I don’t trust.

  9. mikeb

    Sorry to disagree with earlier commentators but if it takes a 100 burly guys in sunglasses to ensure I get to my destination in 1 piece then I’m happy to take on any inconvenience. The question is how did Robertson become a potential inhibited person – not the actions afterwards.

  10. lindsayb

    the question is “what can we do about it?”, when all the major parties in our bastardised western pseudo-democracies support the introduction of increasingly authoritarian control over our lives. The Occupy movement looked like it might have some chance for a while, until it disappeared in a shower of capsicum spray. Our governments seem determined to crush all forms of legitimate peaceful dissent, rather than address our legitimate concerns, making the appearance of less desirable forms of protest almost inevitable.

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