Robertson said the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guaranteed the right of a person to leave their own country freely and states no one should be “arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”.
The treaty contains exemptions for national security, public order or public health but Robertson argued the sweeping caps were overly punitive because the 14-day hotel quarantine system dealt with the health challenges of returning citizens.
About 36,000 Australians are stranded abroad but limits on how many can land at airports in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory have forced airlines to operate flights with an average of just 30 passengers each.
A spokesman for the Department of Infrastructure said the decision to implement passenger caps was “a matter for National Cabinet and is based on state and territory advice about quarantine capacity”.
Australian Human Rights Commission president Rosalind Croucher last month warned federal and state governments could be violating the rights of parents and children to be reunited by preventing them from entering or leaving the country.
She said governments may be breaching the Convention on the Rights of the Child because they could not reunite parents and children in an “expeditious manner” into and out of the country.
Doughty Street, the chambers founded and jointly run by the former Hypotheticals host, handles some of the world’s most complex and high-profile human rights cases. It propelled Amal Clooney and the now UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to prominence.
Robertson had planned to tour Australia this year for a new stage show, It’s No Longer Hypothetical, but the production has been pushed back to May next year. He will talk about Brexit, US President Donald Trump, the implications of Prince Charles’ eventual ascendancy to the throne and the lawyer’s campaign to restore stolen cultural property to its traditional owners, including Indigenous Australians.
“By May I hope to be able to have live audiences,” he said.
“Australia is the lucky country. At the moment there seem to be more shark deaths in Queensland than there are deaths from COVID. Australia and Australians probably don’t realise how lucky they are compared to the United States and Europe.”
The 74-year-old civil rights advocate said there was a difficult balance to be struck between combating Europe’s worsening second wave and the impact of lockdowns on rights and liberties.
“Civil liberties may be necessarily curtailed, but what is important is that they are curtailed fairly where you don’t have a privileged class and they are curtailed for as little time as possible so that the powers of government are permanent and not temporary,” he said.
Border policy will be discussed when Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets with state and territory leaders on Friday.
The government is expected to shortly sign off on more subsidised Qantas repatriation flights in addition to the eight already scheduled from London, New Delhi and Johannesburg. Passengers on those flights are quarantining at the Howard Springs workers’ camp near Darwin, creating more capacity in hotels in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Hobart.
The extra Qantas flights could depart from London, Frankfurt and capitals in Asia. Inbound international flights are not expected to resume at Melbourne Airport for several more weeks.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.