And then you go and spoil it all . . .

Today’s column from the Financial Review.

About twenty years ago, a boatload of Indonesians arrived on Australia’s coastline and claimed refuge. That request threatened relations with Indonesia and alarmed federal ministers. Cabinet secretly decided – without any interviews – that these arrivals were not refugees. That improper decision was quickly revoked but, because these applicants had no valid claims, they returned home.

The contrast in ministers’ treatment of the recently arrived Papuans is commendable. The Howard government treated their claims fairly and expeditiously. The 42 who have temporary protection are grateful, and Australians are thankful that their government has at last acted honourably towards asylum seekers. There was no sign of another Pacific solution.

But then the government spoiled it. Peter Costello was the first to resist a gold medal by claiming that the decision favouring the Papuans “was not a decision of the government”, it was made by bureaucrats. He misplaced the concept of responsible government.

And last Friday, John Howard told a radio audience that it was only the “independent decision makers in the department of immigration” who believed that the 42 deserved protection. The way Howard spoke, claims about abusive treatment by Indonesian agencies are merely allegations. For all he knows, the Papuans might be economic refugees.

These sentiments are, of course, nonsense. The decision to grant protection was a government act. To paraphrase others, doesn’t the government decide who comes to Australia and the conditions of their coming? The migration legislation gives the immigration minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, the power to issue visas. It specifically provides that before issuing a protection visa the minister has to be satisfied that Australia has obligations under the refugee convention. These provisions can be delegated to public servants, but the powers reside with the minister.

Howard claims not to have “direct knowledge” of abuses. He hasn’t seen it but he knows, because his advisers have told him, that Papuans are being badly treated.

These ministerial genuflections in the face of unjustified Indonesian sensitivities trivialise concerns over human rights abuses in Papua. And they demean Australia. We saw another example of undue deference last week when Howard referred favourably to the 1969 plebiscite under which responsibility for Papua was transferred to Indonesia. He knows that the vote was a sham. It gave no Papuans a say over their political future, other than the thousand prevailed upon to vote unanimously against independence.

The Prime Minister also realises that his government could not in good conscience accede to the Indonesian desire that the Papuans be repatriated. Although the request was made personally to Howard by the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who pledged their safety, it was too ambitious a promise. Indonesia cannot be trusted until they have repented. Because the Indonesian government has declined even to acknowledge that its security agencies are abusing Papuans, its undertakings about protection are mere pious expressions.

The United States Department of State last month published its 2005 report on human rights in Indonesia. It bluntly stated that Indonesian security forces continue to engage in extrajudicial killings in separatist areas and that the Indonesian government has “largely failed to hold soldiers and police accountable for such killings and other human right abuses in Aceh and Papua.” In contrast, the only concession or admission made by the Indonesian government in its national action plan on human rights is that the “promotion and protection of human rights is not an easy task that can be concluded in a short time.”

Despite Howard’s best work, Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is unstable. It is too fragile even to allow Howard to utter the truth about abuses in Papua. But Australia should not be mealy-mouthed about human rights, and we should certainly not sacrifice them “in the national interest”, as the Prime minister suggests.

There is more than a risk that the review of refugee processes announced by Howard – a review welcomed by Indonesia – will lead to the Howard government rejecting refugees. The reported suggestion that Australian agencies will forcefully repatriate Papuan boats to avoid further difficulties with Indonesia means Australia is copying the model adopted by Switzerland in the Second World War. It refused sanctuary to German Jews partly because the national interest required Switzerland to accommodate German sensitivities. That act insulated Swiss citizens; it also highlighted their amorality.

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18 years ago

Although as analogies go this one is more, not less, imperfect.

Principally with respect of the nature of the foreign government concerned, and also with respect of the treatment suffered by the minority. That, of course, cuts both ways – but I think it makes the analogy of very limited value.

The most important flaw is that the government in Indonesia is probably not inherently evil, and destabilising it might be, indeed would be very likely to be, worse than supporting it. It is also arguably reasonably receptive to desirable changes.

Even from a human rights perspective, the argument for ‘winning’ every battle here is not clearcut.

18 years ago

more West Papua info – UPDATED

This post contains links to more articles providing background on the West Papua issue.

18 years ago

Looks like they’ve really gone and spoiled it for you now,10117,18800451-2,00.html