NO DONE DEAL DOWN UNDER © Duncan Graham 2007
An agreement signed five months ago between Australia and Indonesia is now coming under serious attack by jurists, academics and human rights activists in Australia.
They allege that the wording is vague, open to misconstruction and if implemented in its present form could cripple free speech and further strain relationships. Duncan Graham reports:
Last November the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Australia signed a 'Framework for Security Cooperation Agreement' in Mataram. Inevitably this mouthful was chewed down to the 'Lombok Treaty'.
At the time it got fairly benign media coverage with comments focusing on counter-terrorism cooperation. An exception was Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University. He said it would ‘raise unrealistic expectations which will lead to bitter disappointments, making the relationship more, not less, vulnerable to shocks and crises.'
Others saw it as a positive development between two prickly neighbors, a document that might help prune problems before they tangle relationships.
But the agreement cannot become a treaty until it's ratified by the parliaments in both countries.
Prior to this process, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCT) in Australia is now scrutinizing the agreement. The committee is made up of 16 politicians representing all major parties and both houses of parliament.
The committee has called for submissions and so far has received 52. It's due to report to the parliament in mid-June.
On the surface the agreement looks tame enough. Although it took two years of negotiations between ministers and bureaucrats it's an elastic document full of warm-fuzzies, like 'mutual respect' and 'closest professional cooperation'.
But when blood pressures are rising on both sides of the Arafura Sea over some real or imagined insult, then definitions are critical, and seemingly innocent words get close scrutiny.
That's what the International Commission of Jurists has been doing in Australia, concluding that the terminology is 'appallingly vague'. Unless the wording is changed, it says, 'the freedom of Australia's right to speak out on matters of international concern will be severely curtailed.'
The Australian Council for International Development – a consortium of 72 non-profit agencies with 36 active in Indonesia – also fears restrictions, including on the activities of aid organizations.
Other submissions note that in the wordy seven-page agreement the term 'human rights' never appears.
Nor does the word 'Papua', yet it's the alleged human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian military in the province (known in Australia as West Papua) that are at the heart of the treaty.
In January 2006 a boat carrying 43 Papuans sailed unnoticed through Australia's northern surveillance system and landed in Queensland.
The men and women claimed asylum, alleging they'd been persecuted in their homeland and feared retribution if returned. Foreign journalists are generally not allowed into Papua, so factual information about events is sparse and often biased.
The Papuans' story was believed and they were given temporary-protection refugee status. The Indonesian government and its citizens were furious, and for a while it seemed the neighbors were heading for a serious falling-out.
Most Indonesians saw Australia's acceptance of the Papuans' claims as a threat to the Republic's integrity, part of a plot to aid separatists and split the Unitary State.
Few Australians understand how critical this issue is in the hearts of Indonesians and how disintegration of the Republic is feared and must be opposed.
The jurists do. They've told the JSCT: 'It is absurd to suggest that we should arm and train Indonesian armed forces which are largely going to be used internally and not for matters of defence and abandon and indeed preclude proper comment as to any abuses.'
Many Indonesians still believe the independence referendum that saw East Timor (now Timor L'Este) break away from the Republic in 1999 was a plot engineered in Canberra.
Likewise few Indonesians appreciate that in a mature democracy a government can give genuine assurances that it will keep its official nose out of its neighbor's affairs – but it can't censor the words or curb the agitations of non-government organizations that might urge freedom for Papua as they did for East Timor.
Eventually the Papuan refugee issue cooled down, and the determination to get something onto paper was revived to avoid tensions re-igniting.
The critical clause in the agreement commits both sides to avoid doing anything that 'constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other party'.
In its submission the jurists claim this could mean the Australian government couldn't criticize any cross-border incursions by Indonesian troops into Papua New Guinea or Timor L'Este.
Dr Malcolm Cook of the Lowy Institute for International Policy has told the JSCT that the agreement 'will do little to address (the) deep-seated bilateral problem that undermines the national interest of both countries.'
He defines this as the lack of knowledge, understanding and a general wariness on both sides. He highlighted ignorance among Australians of the way democracy has advanced in Indonesia.
Last year the Institute published results of a poll that showed most Australians feel uncomfortable about their heavily populated neighbor, seeing it as a military state and source of Islamic terrorism. For every Australian there are 12 Indonesians – and ten are Muslims.
Many submissions focus on these mistrusts. Like Professor White they argue that much more work needs to be done at the grassroots to improve public perceptions before a treaty can get widespread acceptance.
An earlier agreement negotiated in secret in 1995 with former president Soeharto was ripped up by his successor Habibie when Australia led the international peacekeeping force into East Timor.
A positive side revealed in the Lowy poll is that a majority on both sides reckons there should be closer relationships.
This is an election year in Australia, and foreign affairs will feature in the scramble for votes. Although policies of the present Liberal-Coalition government on Indonesia differ little from those of the opposition Labor Party, neither side will be willing to aggravate voters by promoting an unpopular treaty.