Enough about the gaffes: Bob Carr’s comments on West Papua

As you may well know if you are a follower of Australian Politics, former New South Wales premier Bob Carr is the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, sworn in to the role after some political confusion, maneuvering, and the defiant departure of Kevin Rudd from that portfolio. Though I have no political party allegiances, nor allegiances to any politician, I was dismayed to see this unapologetically intellectual, alleged egomaniac go (not as sad as I was when he was ousted from the Prime Ministerial position by his own party, but sad nonetheless). The prospect of Tony “turn back the boats” Abbott in the top job torments me almost as much as filled out budgie smugglers, and I have no idea what lays ahead in Australian Federal politics. I’ll leave that analysis and speculation to full-time devotees of political news cycles and polls, people with degrees and expertise and whatnot. I tend to follow particular issues rather than the parliamentary system as a whole, although they are, of course, interlinked. But watching politicians do what they do shits me, quite frankly. I admire anyone who has the constitution to follow this stuff without being driven to the drink (perhaps I am naive to think there is a news junkie out there who hasn’t?)

Instead, I will tentatively (and somewhat nervously) dip my toes into the discussion about West Papua. Commencing with me relaying to you Bob Carr’s statements over the last week or so regarding the region, which has been at the centre of a long-running campaign for independence by it’s indigenous people – mostly Melanesian – and their supporters. These statements clearly reaffirm the attitude of the Australian government towards calls for independence. Aside from this issue, the new Foreign Minister has had an interesting start: the top articles that resulted from a Google search of his name this morning all contained the phrase “makes another gaffe” (or words to that effect) in them, somewhere. Far be it from me to suggest that offering condolences to an orphaned man’s parents is not a significant slip (I’m sure Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop’s heart bleeds for the Taser victim, that she would never use the death of a young man as an opportunity to attack a political opponent for going after the leader of her party). I, however, have been paying more attention to Carr’s non-gaffes. Depending on your political leanings, you could say they are actually more disturbing (it’s a tonal thing… something about his voice…)

During an interview last Thursday with Waleed Aly on Radio National’s Drive program (which I listen to, obviously – decent daily show alternately hosted by Julian Morrow of The Chaser fame) our new Foreign Minister highlighted some of the positive changes occurring within Indonesia, led by the Indonesian government. He also stated the following fact of Australia’s policy position:

‘We of course support without reservation the sovereignty of Indonesia in Papua, there’s no argument about that. It’s recognised in international law, it’s in the Lombok treaty, it’s a fact of life. And the Indonesians are sensitive to the possibility of things – in what some might consider a frontier – to take a turn for the worst from time to time. We are in a position where we can raise the human rights abuses with them in a spirit of helpfulness, but on Papua, I really think Australians need to understand that this is an integral part of Indonesia. And anyone who plays with a notion of separatism is saying something deeply alarming to Indonesians, designed to produce a backlash, and it’s an unsustainable proposition anyway.”

On Australia’s role in ensuring the protection of human rights there, Carr stated that our role is to raise with the Indonesians any incidence of breach of human rights. He said that “they would be receptive to it. They recognise that from time to time, in remoter parts of those Papuan provinces, you can have an incident involving perhaps undertrained police where the concerns are valid.”

Undertrained police.

In a question without notice in the Senate on Tuesday, Greens Senator Richard Di Natale asked Bob Carr whether the issue of West Papua was raised as part of those discussions he had last week with his counterpart from Indonesia, Marty Natalegawa, and the defense ministers of both nations. Responding, the Foreign Minister reasserted that both sides of Australian politics recognise Indonesian sovereignty over the Papua provinces. He went on to warn members of the Senate against talking about or encouraging West Papuan separatism: “It would be a reckless Australian indeed who wanted to associate himself with a small separatist group which threatens the territorial integrity of Indonesia and that would produce a reaction among Indonesians towards this country. It would be reckless indeed.”


Senator Di Natale followed up with a supplementary question: what had the foreign minister done to further the recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties report of 6 December, that the Australian Government (should) encourage the Indonesian Government to allow greater access for the media and human rights monitors in Papua?

Carr replied that the Australian Embassy officials in Jakarta would raise our concerns over the recent sentencing of five men in Papua  province to three years imprisonment for subversion, and other human rights in respect of the Papuan provinces. But he added:

we will do so as a friend of Indonesia, absolutely explicit and unabashed about asserting Indonesian sovereignty over the Papuan provinces. The Lombok treaty—I refer again to the fact that the Lombok treaty was signed in November 2006, coming into force in 2008—is based on such a recognition: support for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national unity and political independence of each other.”

Carr predictably makes Indonesia sound awesome. The Indonesian foreign minister told him of “the progress being made by Indonesia in shifting responsibility for law and order in the Papuan provinces from the military to the police.” And President Yudhoyono has “committed his government to raising the living standards of the people of Papua and reinvigorating special autonomy.” Australia is championing this as the best path to achieving a safe and prosperous future for the Papuan people. Being the biggest aid donor to Indonesia, Australia will, apparently, give support to West Papuans through these aid programs.

Again, I am only relaying what is current official government rhetoric on the West Papua issue. The five activists jailed last Friday over a peaceful protest in West Papua in October, had raised the outlawed separatist flag, the Morning Star (below), and declaring the regions Independence:

This is the first post I have written on West Papua. The tag line for this blog is “There’s a Middle Way”, which sounds inherently anti-political, because it is meant to be. I really wanted to steer clear of politics this year, and tend to favour looking at issues from all angles, leaning towards the middle ground, searching for the higher ground. Yet I do have strong views on justice and compassion (as anyone who has read previous posts on political issues may have gleaned). For sure, West Papua is an extremely sensitive and political issue for Australian-Indonesian relations; the issue, and Australia’s complex relationship with Indonesia, needs to be understood in its historical and political context. But it is also a HUMAN RIGHTS issue. I know people who have fled the region and sought refuge in other countries. My aim in future posts on the West Papuan issue will be to provide information on the historical, social and political conditions which led to West Papua as it is today, to examine more closely the implications of these forces on the indigenous West Papuan population, and to examine what is – and what is not – being done about it, by everyone who has a stake in this resource rich region. Can of worms, officially opened…


…and I will try not to leave a 17-day break between now and the next post, the topic of which I do not know yet… as usual…


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