Turnbull urged to push for free media access to Papua during Jakarta visit and adopt safeguards in military cooperation

Turnbull urged to push for free media access to Papua during Jakarta visit and adopt safeguards in military cooperation

The Australian Prime Minister has been urged to discuss ongoing human rights abuses in Indonesia’s Papua provinces during his visit to Jakarta next week.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Communications, Tom Clarke, said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should make the most of his seemingly close relationship with Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to push for unfettered media access and human rights monitoring in Papua.

“With Australia seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, the Government is out there telling the world that it will be a principled defender of human rights internationally, yet right here in our own backyard, successive Australian governments have tried to sweep the human rights abuses occurring in West Papua under the carpet. This visit is an opportunity for Prime Minister Turnbull to make amends and put the issue squarely on the table,” said Mr Clarke.

For decades, reports of political assassinations, torture and massacres have filtered out of the Papuan provinces.  Heavy restrictions on the press make accountability for those abuses extremely difficult. The restrictions remain in place despite President Widodo promising to lift them during his election campaign.

“Basic political rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are routinely and often violently supressed in West Papua. This happens a stone’s throw from Australian shores, yet the Australian Government fails to speak out,” said Mr Clarke.

Speculation is growing that Australia’s failure to take principled stances at the UN on issues such as the need to investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka and continue human rights monitoring in Burma will damage its candidacy for the Human Rights Council. Australia needs to beat either France or Spain for a seat at the world’s peak human rights body.

“The Australian Government needs to overcome the perception that whilst it’s vocal on human rights issues on the other side of the world, it’s reluctant to ruffle any feathers closer to home,” said Mr Clarke.

The Australian Government has spent much of its political capital in the region on its one-eyed obsession with ‘stopping the boats’ and Mr Clarke said the Government may be worried that if it criticises the countries it relies on for boat interception, detention and potentially resettlement, then it may lose their cooperation.

“Our relationship with Indonesia is vitally important and hopefully Prime Minister Turnbull can recognise that good friends occasionally need to be able to have tough conversations. The ongoing human rights abuses in West Papua shouldn’t be ignored, they need to be on the agenda,” said Mr Clarke.

Following the recent re-establishment of military ties between Australia and Indonesia, Mr Clarke said the Australian Government also needs to introduce measures to ensure that Australian policing or military assistance isn’t inadvertently going to individuals or units involved in serious human rights abuse.

“Unfortunately it’s hard to have any confidence that adequate steps are being taken to ensure Australia is not in any way complicit with the human rights abuses occurring in Indonesia’s Papuan provinces,” said Mr Clarke.

Under international law, countries have an obligation to conduct due diligence to identify the “risks and potential extraterritorial impacts of their laws, policies and practices on the enjoyment of human rights”.

Mr Clarke points to the “Leahy Law” in the USA as a model the Australian Parliament should investigate because it attempts to ensure recipients of military aid are vetted by the US State Department and the Department of Defence.

“Such mechanisms are never going to be magic wands that can just wave away all human rights concerns, but we could and should do more to implement practical steps to reduce the risk of supporting people or units that commit gross violations of human rights,” said Mr Clarke.

Related content: Protection of human rights should guide Australia’s foreign policy: HRLC White Paper submission

For further information, please contact Tom Clarke on 0422 545 763 or via tom.clarke@hrlc.org.au