Time for Rudd to take a stand for basic rights in West Papua

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has staked Australia's UN Security Council candidacy - and international reputation - on the claims that Australia is a "principled advocate of human rights for all" and that we "do what we say". He should be just as concerned, forthright and vocal on human-rights abuses and basic democratic rights and freedoms on our doorstep as he has been on the Middle East and North Africa.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first raising of the West Papuan Morning Star flag. The occasion will almost certainly be marked by flag-raising ceremonies throughout West Papua - a basic democratic act that can land Papuans in jail for up to 15 years.

Tensions in the Indonesian province are running particularly high this year, following a recent deadly crackdown by Indonesian military and police forces on the Third Papuan People's Congress. The October 19 crackdown ended with the deaths of at least three pro-democracy protesters, 90 injuries and 300 arrests.

As the torture videos leaked last year suggest, this was not an isolated event. The Indonesian military has form in crushing political dissent in the province. Theys Eluay, the elected leader of the previous congress, held in 2000, was later assassinated by the military. Particularly concerning are reports of a heavy military build-up in the province ahead of today, although the reports are difficult to verify, with a ban on journalists travelling to West Papua.

While Rudd distinguished himself as one of the first world leaders to advocate a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians, he has not been as principled or forthcoming in standing up for basic human rights and civilian protections in Papua.

Last week, the Human Rights Law Centre and leading global human rights group Human Rights Watch wrote to Rudd urging him to follow US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's lead and directly raise concerns with Indonesia about the violence and human-rights abuses in West Papua. We suggested four steps to help reduce the likelihood of violence, the excessive use of force, and the suppression of peaceful protest.

First, Rudd should urge the Indonesian government to ensure full and free media access to Papua. Given the restrictions on media, Australian embassy staff should be deployed to monitor and observe today's events.

Second, he needs to reiterate with the relevant Indonesian officials Australia's unequivocal support for the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. Indonesia must abide by, and be held to account for, its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Third, Rudd should call for an immediate, full and impartial investigation into the deaths and injuries, and allegations of excessive use of force by the authorities, arising from the congress on October 19. Consistent with international law, use of force by police or military forces must be strictly necessary, proportionate and exercised for a legitimate purpose.

Fourth, Rudd should urge Indonesia to release all political prisoners detained in Papua - including Filep Karma, who Amnesty International reports was imprisoned for his part in a flag-raising ceremony. All persons, including independence supporters, should be allowed to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or reprisal.

Australia has a critical leadership role on human rights in Asia and the Pacific and should take a principled and proactive stand on human rights with a key partner such as Indonesia.

It is not in our strategic interest to have a festering human rights problem on our doorstop. Nor is it the sign of a true friend to remain silent on such issues. If Australia is to be a true friend to Indonesia, we should heed Oscar Wilde's words: "Anybody can say charming things and try to please and to flatter, but a true friend always says unpleasant things, for he knows that then he is doing good."

Rudd must take a principled, public stand for basic human and democratic rights in our region.

Tom Clarke is a spokesperson for the Human Rights Law Centre.

This opinion piece was written for and first appeared in The Australian.