Australia Should be a Stronger Force for Human Rights in Southeast Asia

Australia Should be a Stronger Force for Human Rights in Southeast Asia

‘It’s not our role to tell countries what to do.  These are internal affairs of the state.’ These sound like the words of a Chinese official, yet this is what an Australian diplomat told me on a recent visit to Southeast Asia.  Geographically on the fringes of Asia and with a different culture and history, Australia is sensitive to being perceived as a big-mouthed bully in the Asia-Pacific region.

This is not to say Australia is silent on human rights.  Australia has a good track record of principled diplomacy and implementing targeted sanctions against abusive military governments in Burma and Fiji.  Yet, it’s relatively easy for Australia to speak out about countries where it has few economic interests.  It takes more courage and principle to turn up the heat on countries where it has significant economic and strategic interests.

Australia has particularly good leverage for raising human rights issues in countries with which it has close military ties.  The Rudd Government should use it.  Australia should take the lead in protecting rights through strong public statements, private diplomacy, and intelligent aid.

As a major donor and significant provider of military and police training, Australia already strives to improve governance and human rights and professionalize security forces in countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.  Australia hopes to help these and other nations to be – or become – stable and democratic, rather than authoritarian regimes.

The Rudd Government could start by being more proactive and vocal in addressing issues like extrajudicial killings and impunity in Southeast Asia.  For example, in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, the security forces commit abuses such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrest, and detention without fear of punishment.  Abusive officials are rarely, if ever, prosecuted for such crimes, while those implicated in abuses remain in the security forces and often are even promoted.

For instance, in Indonesia, human rights violators continue to be promoted within the army and the special forces, Kopassus.  A Kopassus soldier convicted of abuse leading to the November 2001 death of a Papuan activist now holds a senior commander position.  Of 11 soldiers convicted of kidnapping student activists in the last days of the Suharto regime in 1997 and 1998, seven were known to be serving in the military as of 2007, and all had received promotions.  And those who orchestrated the 1999 massacres in East Timor remain free.

The newly appointed Deputy Defence Minister, Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, is a former military officer with a long history of working with Kopassus.  Although he has never been charged with a crime, various witnesses and investigative journalists have implicated him in abuses, including the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre of civilians in East Timor, and widespread violence by Indonesian troops and pro-Indonesia militias at the time of the 1999 East Timor referendum on independence.  In 1993, two years after the Santa Cruz massacre, he took a two-week military training course in Perth.  As a close military partner, Australia should be concerned enough about this appointment to call for a credible investigation into the persistent allegations against Sjamsoeddin.

In Cambodia, the police and military are littered with notorious rights abusers serving under Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself implicated in atrocities.  In Thailand, police officers known to have been involved in abuses during the 2003 ‘war on drugs’ and counter-insurgency operations have been promoted rather than punished.  In the Philippines, despite a government commission calling for the investigation of a senior military officer for command responsibility for extrajudicial killings, the retired general is now a congressman.

Australia often claims to be addressing these problems by offering military-to-military training, including training on human rights, international humanitarian law and military rules of engagement.  But training without a serious political commitment to end abuses is not enough.  Australia should put a mechanism in place to guarantee that military units and personnel participating in Australian-funded programs are carefully vetted to ensure that they haven’t been implicated in human rights violations.

Although the Australian Government says it vets individuals, in Cambodia, Australian military instructors have provided training to Royal Cambodian Armed Forces units that have been implicated in gross human rights abuses.  This includes live-fire weapons training to the counter-terrorism special forces, a unit refashioned out of Brigade 70 (the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit), which has a long and well-documented record of committing politically motivated violence and other serious rights violations with impunity.

Australia should also consider conditioning military and police assistance on progress in prosecuting abuses and reforming security forces.  Bilateral security cooperation agreements (such as the Lombok Treaty) should address human rights concerns by including explicit safeguards.  Australia could have real impact in pressing countries to bring the perpetrators of abuse to justice, but this means being prepared to raise human rights in meaningful rather than abstract ways, such as publicly raising specific cases with governments.  A more cautious approach only bolsters the standing of abusive governments at the expense of their people.

Elaine Pearson is the deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

The Human Rights Watch World Report 2010 is now available at www.hrw.org/world-report-2010.  The Report summarises human rights conditions in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide and includes a number of thematic essays by leading HRW staff.