Australia should send ambassador back to Indonesia immediately

The relationship with Indonesia is more important than the protest over two dead drug traffickers and Australians need their ambassador in Jakarta. AAP/Oscar Siagian

My brother died in Indonesia last year – albeit in very different circumstances to Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. I know what it is like to have to fly to Bali, grieve for a sibling, and then organise for them to be brought home. It is tough regardless of the circumstances of death. But it is members of the Australian diplomatic staff who make the difficult circumstances less hard deal with.

This is one of several reasons why Australia should reverse its decision to withdraw its ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, in response to Chan and Sukumaran’s executions. Harsh as it is to say, the Australia-Indonesian relationship is far more important than the protest over two dead drug traffickers.

On average, an Australian dies in Bali every nine days – let alone the rest of Indonesia. Each nine days in Bali a family has to go through the grief of pain and suffering that accompanies losing a loved one. While the circumstances were different, Australia’s consul-general gave great support to our family when we needed it. It did the same for Chan and Sukumaran’s families.

Each time an Australian dies, members of the Australian diplomatic staff are on hand to help. The ambassador and consul-general lead the staff who provide this support. Australians are the ones who suffer when this support is weakened.

Other aspects of the relationship at stake

Australia’s third-largest export is international education, where Indonesia is one of the critical markets. Beef, resources, manufactured products and other goods are sold into that market.

Australian diplomatic staff assist, help and encourage our trade. Again, Australians suffer when the diplomatic post is weakened.

Australian joint training with Indonesian military forces has come a long way since the middle of last century. Many credit the joint training as assisting in the de-escalation of a number of tense moments in the INTERFET peacekeeping deployment in East Timor. As such, weakening diplomatic ties harms Australia’s security.

Police co-operation in people and drug trafficking has helped reduce the flow of trafficked women, asylum seekers and drugs into Australia. While there are legitimate questions over the Australian Federal Police’s actions in the Bali Nine case, weakening Australia’s diplomatic mission makes Australia more vulnerable to people and drug smuggling.

The doctrine of proximity

Do Australians really want the country weakened in trade and security? Do we really want the ability of our diplomats to assist families in grief or businesses seeking to trade lessened?

If one bases protests over the executions on human rights, them Australia is on shaky ground. Human rights law is said to be “universal”. If this is the basis for being upset, then the protest should be equal regardless of who is executed and where the executions take place. The protest should be the same regardless of whether the execution takes place in the US or Indonesia, or if the person executed is Australian or of another nationality.

Australia did not withdraw its ambassador to Singapore in 2005 following the execution of one of its citizens, Van Tuong Nguyen. Australia very rarely protests against US executions. Any Indonesian would have to query an apparent hypocrisy in the differing positions based on nationality.

Likewise, while most Australians can name the two Australians killed, can they name the others killed at the same time who do not share our passport? There is a “doctrine of proximity” in which people feel more strongly about events that are perceived closer to them. Killing one “of ours” will also mean more to Australians than killing someone else.

But if we are protesting based on proximity, let’s not hide behind the “universality” of human rights when really many only care about Australians killed.

Relationship is already complicated

Australia has a complicated relationship with Indonesia. It is such a shame that it is not a relationship based as much on trust and collaboration as it could be. This is why the recall of the ambassador is an important step. But is it as big a deal as it has been said?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims the ambassador’s recall is an “unprecedented step” that makes Australia’s protest clear. This is simply not true.

Recalling ambassadors is quite common in diplomatic circles. It happens for all number of reasons and is one of the more mild levels of diplomatic protest.

The trick in an ambassadorial recall is not the withdrawal, but the timing of when to return the ambassador – especially if the circumstances that triggered the withdrawal do not change. The longer a country drags out the process, the harder it is to send them back.

The people who suffer in this withdrawal are Australians, more than Indonesians. Why make our own people suffer for a largely toothless protest?

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