Dawn of the Joko era brings opportunities for Australia

Dawn of the Joko era brings opportunities for Australia

This article was first published by The Australian.

Indonesia's incoming president presents a promising opportunity for Australia to recast both its military and human rights relationship with our northern neighbour.

Joko Widodo, referred to almost universally within Indonesia as Jokowi, will be sworn in as the Republic’s seventh president today. The sense of hope and expectation he carries with him is significant, but so are the challenges that his reform agenda faces.

External voices, including those of Australian public figures, will be important in bolstering the case for much-needed change.

Until now, successive Australian governments have held firm to the position of unwavering cheer-squad for some of the more retrograde elements of Indonesia’s political class. However, there are indications that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is aware that Australia needs to change its tune when it comes to the human rights problems in Indonesia.

Australian Greens senator Richard Di Natale has persistently tried to focus attention on Indonesia’s troubled Papuan provinces by introducing numerous Senate motions on the various human rights problems there — most of which have been instantly voted down by the major parties. This month was different. News came through that the Foreign Minister’s office was throwing its support behind his latest motion calling for the release of two French journalists detained in West Papua.

In contrast to Australia’s last foreign minister, Bob Carr, who merely sneered that such motions were “cruel”, “deceitful” and “self-indulgent”, Bishop apparently provided constructive input on the wording of the motion before supporting it.

This may not sound like much, but it’s a significant departure from Australia’s longstanding approach to the persistently troublesome topic of West Papua. It’s quite a different tone to the comments Prime Minister Tony Abbott made in Indonesia last year that he would not tolerate anyone being given a “platform to grandstand against Indonesia” after West Papuan students had entered the Australian consulate in Bali.

This subtle, but pivotal change is likely down to one thing: Jokowi.

For decades Australian political leadership has turned a blind eye to the human rights abuses occurring on our doorstep in West Papua and successive Australian governments have failed to challenge what is effectively Indonesia’s ban on journalists travelling to and reporting from West Papua. But such a position is hardly sustainable, when the new president himself has flagged these as issues he wants to tackle.

During the election campaign this year, Jokowi was the first presidential candidate to ever campaign in the Papuan provinces and he made very promising comments about ending the media ban.

He has since indicated that he will spend Christmas in Papua — a symbolically laden move for a Muslim president given Christianity is the dominant faith among the Melanesian Papuans — and wants to build a presidential residence in Papua.

Whether Jokowi can overcome the political old guard, which is likely to be well represented in his cabinet, remains to be seen. Or from a more cynical viewpoint, perhaps this is all merely manoeuvring from a populist politician.

Either way, the election of Jokowi presents Australia with a prime opportunity to revisit its relationship with Indonesia when it comes to human rights.

Jokowi has presented himself as a cleanskin, as someone who wants to do things differently. Bishop should jump at this chance and ensure Australia does things differently.

In addition to calling for the release of the two French journalists, Bishop should do more to support media freedom in West Papua in general and insist that human rights monitors and NGOs also be allowed in. Until this occurs, the world can only continue to assume the worst about why and how activists continue to die — like Marthinus Yowame who was found dead in a sack floating in the ocean in August.

Bishop and Defence Minister David Johnston should also review Australia’s relationship with the Indonesian military.

When parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties reviewed the Lombok treaty Australia signed with Indonesia in 2006, its bipartisan findings recommended the government “increase transparency in defence co-operation agreements to provide assurance that Australian resources do not directly or indirectly support human rights abuses in Indonesia”.

It is simply unacceptable that adequate safeguards are not in place to ensure Australian money and resources are not supporting the worst human rights abusers.

Reports that Australia supports Indonesia’s counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, should be of particular concern given the unit’s alleged involvement in a number of human rights abuses — including the murder of West Papuan activists.

Australia has obligations under international law to conduct due diligence to identify the “risks and potential extraterritorial impacts of their laws, policies and practices on the enjoyment of human rights”.

In the US, the Leahy Law attempts to ensure recipients of military aid are vetted by the State Department and Department of Defence. Australian legislators should explore how a similar mechanism might work here.

There’s obviously no magic-wand solution, but Australia can and should do more to reduce the risk of supporting people or units that commit gross violations of human rights.

It’s time to start a serious discussion about what isn’t currently working and to look at ways to avoid repeating the unprincipled mistakes of the past. Jokowi represents the best chance to date for such dialogue.

Tom Clarke is director of communications at the Human Rights Law Centre. He's on Twitter @TomHRLC