An unprincipled and myopic approach to human rights will fail in West Papua just as it did in East Timor. Australia needs a new approach, underpinned by a principled and persistent commitment to human rights, to addressing conflicts in our region. For 24 years, successive Australian Governments not only turned a blind eye to Indonesia’s brutal occupation of East Timor, but they actively supported and financially benefited from it.
For two decades, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials and government ministers put on their best poker faces and told the Australian public that everything was just fine in East Timor. Credible reports of human rights abuses were routinely dismissed as the death toll climbed to more than 180,000. Gareth Evans, Australia’s foreign minister at the time of the Santa Cruz massacre — in which more than 200 civilians were shot during a funeral procession featuring pro-independence flags — labelled the killings "an aberration".
Of course, this inept and immoral policy of trying to simply sweep human rights abuses under the carpet eventually came crashing down. In response to an overwhelming tide of public support, the Australian government belatedly took a principled stand on East Timor.
Looking at current events unfold in West Papua, it’s hard not to feel that when it comes to dealing with human rights abuses on our doorstep, Australia’s foreign policy is trapped in a "ground-hog day" cycle.
The presence of the same key ingredients — the denial that there’s a problem, the defence and justification of the indefensible, the deafening silence and dubious financial interests — are extremely worrying.
As recently as last November, Labor Senator Joe Ludwig was dusting off the often repeated line that "under President Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s human rights record and scope for freedom of expression have improved markedly". This comes at the end of a decade that saw the Indonesian military assassinate Papuan political leaders, oversee a massive build up of personnel in West Papua, and get caught out torturing Papuan captives.
Democratic reforms are making great headway in Indonesia. But much of this progress is simply not reaching West Papua.
The Senator made the comments just days after reports of Indonesian police shooting into houses from helicopters and barely a month after the Indonesian military and police forcibly shut down the peaceful gathering at the Third Papuan People Congress, killing at least three people, injuring at least 90 and arresting approximately 300.
Following the violent crackdown at the Congress, Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, was quoted by Indonesian media outlets as saying the actions of the Papuan leaders during the Congress had been "illegal, provocative, and counterproductive".
Indonesia has changed so much over the last decade, but it appears Australia’s diplomatic position is frozen in time.
While the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton has publically voiced her alarm about the unfolding situation in West Papua, pledging to again raise directly with Indonesia the need for political reforms to meet the legitimate needs of the Papuan people, neither Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, or her Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, seem willing to speak up and out on the issue.
Given the Prime Minister’s trip to Indonesia was only a month after the violent crackdown at the Papuan People’s Congress, there is little doubt that her silence on the topic added to the perception of double standards. While Papuans can find themselves imprisoned for 15 years for simply raising a flag, the Indonesian military personnel who pleaded guilty to killing Theys Eluay, the elected leader of the second Papuan People’s Congress in 2000, were sentenced to three and half years.
Despite being willing to take leadership roles in conflicts on the other side of the world such as in Libya, Foreign Minister Rudd is a more reluctant advocate for human rights closer to home.
The Australian Government may not be benefiting as directly as it did during the occupation of East Timor — through government royalties from Timor’s oil and gas resources — but Australia’s financial interests in West Papua should not be overlooked. Watching businesses such as Rio Tinto extract huge profits from the resource rich province at significant environmental cost can only fuel the resentment felt by the local people.
How can Australia emerge from this policy black hole?
Tomorrow in a courtroom in Jayapura, five West Papuan men will face charges of treason. They are the Papuan leaders Forkorus Yaboisembut, Edison Waromi, August Makbrowen Senay, Dominikus Sorabut and Selpius Bobii, who were arrested at the Papuan People’s Congress after raising the Papuan ‘Morning Star’ flag and declaring independence. Their lawyers say they face 20 years to life in prison if they are found guilty.
The Human Rights Law Centre does not have a position on West Papuan independence, but our support for fundamental human rights such as the rights of all persons to freedom of expression, association and assembly, is crystal clear — as should be the Australian Government’s.
Australia’s bid for a place on the UN Security Council pitches us as a "principled advocate of human rights for all". Here is a prime opportunity for Rudd to take a principled stand against human rights abuses on our doorstep.
If Australia has the special relationship with Indonesia that the Foreign Minister says we do, he should use it to remind his Indonesian counterparts that the prosecution of activists for peacefully expressing their political views has no place in a modern democracy. The Australian Government should also deploy embassy staff to observe the legal proceedings to help ensure that the protesters receive a fair trial.
Last week the US State Department reminded Indonesia of its domestic and international legal obligations and urged the authorities to ensure due process is followed. Rudd would be on safe ground to publically reiterate Australia’s support for the fundamental rights of all persons to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association that are protected by International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — which Indonesia ratified in 2006. He should also go one step further than the US and urge the authorities to drop the charges.
Beyond tomorrow’s trial there are some other basic steps Australia could take to help improve the human rights situation in West Papua.
The effective ban on journalists from travelling to and reporting from West Papua only serves to highlight how little we know of what’s actually happening there. The Foreign Minister should push this issue at every opportunity and support Australian journalists to gain free access to West Papua.
It is also essential to ensure that Australia is not providing training, logistical support or equipment to assist the Indonesian military violate human rights. Australia provides millions of dollars to Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, which has been accused of brutality towards political prisoners. A complete review of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia’s military and security forces is required.
Most of all, Australia needs to play a leadership role in bringing the world’s attention to the problems in West Papua and supporting those moderate voices within Indonesia that support human rights and are pushing democratic reforms forward.
Our choice is between supporting the pro-military and anti-reform remnants of the Suharto regime that we backed during the occupation of East Timor or aligning Australia with the mainstream Indonesian human rights movement that recognises that the problems in West Papua do not have a military solution. I know which I prefer.
Tom Clarke is a spokesperson for the Human Rights Law Centre.
This article was first published on the New Matilda website.