It's time for some straight talking about human rights in Papua

Jennifer Robbinson, Lawyer & West Papua human rights activist introduces Benny Wenda at TEDxSydney
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The PM must show that he is a custodian of free speech

Tom Clarke The Age 29 September 29, 2013

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, should use his visit to Indonesia on Monday to cast aside the wilful blindness previous Australian governments have had about the human rights violations occurring just a stone's throw away in Indonesia's Papua provinces.

The arrival and then hasty removal of seven West Papuan asylum seekers this week highlights the need to ensure our relationship with Indonesia is mature enough to handle two-way exchanges of fair criticisms when it comes to human rights.

Obviously, any human rights advocacy on Australia's behalf risks being diminished when we are perceived to be turning our back on our own obligations or passing the buck, as is the case with the government's asylum seeker policies. Despite this, there are simple steps Australia could take to provide leadership in this area in our region.

Australia just assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council and was appointed to the council on the promise that it would be a ''principled advocate of human rights for all''. If Australia is to live up to this pledge, Abbott should not be shy in raising concerns about the serious human rights violations committed by Indonesian authorities.

The Prime Minister has said that he and his Coalition colleagues are the ''custodians of free speech''. If this is the case, they cannot be comfortable with the severe and harshly enforced restrictions on free speech and political expression that occurs routinely in West Papua.

Despite the progress of the democratic reforms in Indonesia after the fall of General Suharto in 1998, many of these reforms have simply not made their way to Indonesia's eastern-most provinces. Reports of political assassinations, torture and the violent repression of peaceful political gatherings are all too common. This month saw Papuan community leaders arrested for simply raising the banned ''Morning Star'' flag after a prayer meeting and, according to one Catholic brother, three Papuan men were shot for refusing to have their hair cut.

A proactive stance in support of democratic rights and freedoms would be in keeping with long-standing support among the Australian public for democracy within Indonesia.

After World War II, many within the Australian community supported the Indonesians' struggle for independence. For example, a boycott led by the Australian Waterside Workers Federation and supported by 30 other Australian trade unions, immobilised 559 ships that were meant to supply the Dutch effort to retain their former colony.

Indonesia's then foreign minister, Dr Subandrio, would later describe Australia as the "midwife" of the Indonesian republic, after such popular support for the Indonesian cause translated into belated political support and the Chifley government took up the matter at the UN.

Prime Minister Abbott has a prime opportunity to rekindle this shared goodwill. His promise of a more Jakarta-centric approach to foreign policy should be matched with an appetite for frank and forthright dialogue between friends.

Indonesia has rightly and respectfully raised its concerns about Australia's asylum seeker policies. And, as should be possible in a mature relationship, Australia should also be putting issues of concern, such as strengthening democracy in our region, on the agenda.

First, the PM should urge Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to lift the effective ban on international journalists reporting from West Papua so the world can get a clearer picture of the human rights crisis that is occurring.

Second, he should highlight Indonesia's commitment to uphold the rights of all persons to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association as outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2006.

And third, the PM should announce a complete review of Australia's relationship with Indonesia's military and security forces to ensure we are in no way aiding or abetting human rights abuses, directly or indirectly, through our support of Indonesia's elite counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88.

Both Indonesia and Australia stand to benefit from some straight talking about human rights concerns. This week's visit is the PM's chance to highlight his support for fundamental human rights such as the rights of all persons to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Tom Clarke is the director of Communications at the Human Rights Law Centre. Twitter: @TomHRLC

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