Australia lets human rights takes a back seat with Indonesia

Australia lets human rights takes a back seat with Indonesia

It should be a matter of great concern to all Australians that Defence Minister Stephen Smith, says he has "no concerns" about the human rights implications of Australia's enhanced military and security cooperation with Indonesia. Last week, the Australian Government signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement with Indonesia. While the agreement is confidential and not available publicly, an Indonesian Government press release disclosed that the agreement affirms principles of territorial sovereignty and non-interference in each other's "internal affairs". This is diplomatic speak for "you mind your business and we'll mind ours".

Disturbingly, there has been no reference, by either side, to the agreement affirming any commitment to human rights or containing any human rights safeguards. Indeed, The Age reported Mr Smith as saying "he has 'no concerns' about alleged human rights abuses by Indonesian soldiers in the province of West Papua."

That the Defence Minister should make such remarks just a week after the ABC's 7.30 program aired evidence that an Indonesian counter-terrorism unit, which receives extensive training and support from the Australian Federal Police, has been involved in torture and extra-judicial killings in West Papua, is deeply concerning. The evidence included interviews with victims and witnesses, together with video of alleged incidents of abuse by the unit, known as Detachment 88.

Previous allegations of torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by members of Detachment 88 - together with Indonesia's special forces, known as Kopassus - have been verified by Human Rights Watch and specifically brought to the attention of the Australian Government.

Smith's comments are also surprising given the strong call by his colleague, Foreign Minister Bob Carr, for a "full and open" investigation into the killing of West Papuan independence leader, Mako Tabuni, allegedly by Detachment 88. There is support for such an approach in Indonesia, with a 27-member parliamentary committee, comprising representatives from all nine major political parties, being convened just days ago to "formulate and implement comprehensive and peaceful programs in Papua".

While, of course, Indonesia bears primary responsibility for protecting and ensuring respect for human rights within its provinces, Australia's human rights obligations do not end at our borders. As a principle of international law, states must avoid acts and omissions that "create a real and foreseeable risk of nullifying or impairing the enjoyment of human rights extraterritorially".

International law also provides that states 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". The purpose of such due diligence is to "inform the measures that states must adopt to prevent violations or ensure their cessation as well as to ensure effective remedies".

In accordance with our extraterritorial human rights obligations and our commitment to good international citizenship, Australia should take a number of steps to ensure that our military and security cooperation with Indonesia does not in any way aid, assist or otherwise support operations which may lead to human rights violations.

First, we should immediately suspend support for and cooperation with Detachment 88 pending a full, independent and public investigation into the alleged involvement of its members in recent human rights abuses in West Papua. In 2008, the US cut off assistance to Detachment 88 due to human rights concerns.

Second, we should develop a comprehensive human rights impact assessment procedure, the completion of which is a precondition to any Australian support for Indonesian military and security forces. As a matter of due diligence, we should also develop a vetting procedure to ensure that units and members of military and security forces accused of human rights violations are precluded from receiving Australian support until those allegations are fully investigated and perpetrators held to account. HRW reports that at least 10 Kopassus personnel implicated in gross human rights violations over the last decade continue to serve in the military.

Finally, we should make human rights safeguards central to all policies and practices relating to Australia's military and security cooperation with all states. This means that agreements such as the new Australia-Indonesia Defence Cooperation Agreement should contain human rights clauses and guarantees. Similarly, human rights modules should be a significant and essential component of any training provided to Indonesian forces.

To be "concerned" about the human rights implications of providing Australian military and security support to another country is not to interfere or "meddle" in their affairs. Rather, it is to do what all Australians expect, which is to show principled leadership and act as a force for peace, security and stability in the region.

Phil Lynch is executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre.

This article was first published on the ABC's The Drum.