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Will Australia take a stand on West Papua?

Recent commentary has compared the situation in West Papua to genocide and drawn parallels to East Timor. There seems to be little doubt that human rights abuses have occurred over a long period of time…

Three West Papuan activists ‘took refuge’ in Australia’s consulate in Bali on the weekend. What is the actual state of play in the troubled region? EPA/Bagus Indahono

Recent commentary has compared the situation in West Papua to genocide and drawn parallels to East Timor. There seems to be little doubt that human rights abuses have occurred over a long period of time. These violations were given a fresh airing over the weekend, after three West Papuan activists scaled the walls of the Australian consulate in Bali in an apparent attempt to draw attention to the situation in region.

These abuses have largely been the focus of civil society groups, with no countries or regional organisations willing to weigh into the issue. One reason is the lack of large diasporas in developed countries (such as the Timorese in Australia) and in a similar vein, a lack of historical engagement with the oppressed (again as in the case of Australia and the Timorese during World War Two).

The lack of action by governments raises question: who should or could do something about it? And what will the Abbott government do about the “problem” of West Papua?

The election of Tony Abbott spawned much conjecture about Australia’s foreign policy priorities. Unfortunately, we don’t have much evidence to go on. There is no question that the new government will not challenge any foreign policy orthodoxies, and the US alliance will remain the centrepiece of security policy.

But what about at the policy margins where there is more opportunities to manoeuvre? Commentators have delved into past speeches to try to piece together a picture of the government’s priorities on less central foreign policy issues, from West Papua to Fiji. Statements in opposition suggest that there may be some movement on the latter, but not the former. Too many factors inhibit radical change, not the least of which is history.

Those searching for a glimmer of hope in relation to a more activist role might cite John Howard’s reversal on East Timor as a precedent. However, opinion on the intervention in East Timor is divided. Howard’s 1998 letter to Indonesian president B. J. Habibie was unprecedented, and many argue that the final result - a referendum and independence - was unintended.

Howard is Abbott’s close confidant, but what would he say of the legacy of intervention? Howard has been less than enthusiastic about the intervention in public statements, insofar as it entailed great risk and imposed great costs in relation to fracturing relations - which is connected to the dramatic increase in unauthorised arrivals in the early 2000s. The outpouring of support during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami went a long way to rebuilding trust, as did signing the 2006 Lombok Treaty.

During the election, the Coalition’s foreign policy statement noted:

We will build on the Howard government’s Lombok Treaty with Indonesia to broaden an deepen security ties.

Further, the Rudd and Gillard government’s “inept” handling of offshore processing and live cattle exports were singled out, and repairing Australia’s relationship with Indonesia was highlighted as a key foreign policy priority. The new government is certainly “pivoting” to Jakarta.

Tony Abbott will again meet Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyno this week, but the issue of West Papua is almost certain not to rate a mention. EPA/Romeo Gacad

West Papua won’t even be an elephant in the room when Abbott meets Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the APEC Summit this week. Historically, Labor governments have used foreign policy to foster liberal ideals, although the Rudd and Gillard governments increasingly compromised these goals in the national interest (in the case of Burma, for instance). On his last visit to Indonesia, Rudd reiterated Australia’s support for Indonesian sovereignty and Abbott did likewise on his first visit to Indonesia.

Support for human rights has become more and more the purview of AusAID rather than the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The key difference with the Abbott government, therefore, is that it doesn’t claim to use foreign policy to support human rights. This is clear in the move to bring AusAID more closely under the control of DFAT, and to more tightly focus aid on the national interest (such as promoting trade).

So, the Coalition’s aid policy will continue to focus on capacity building in Indonesia, but it will continue to be responsive to Indonesian sensitivities about sovereignty in West Papua.

For the Coalition government, West Papua is not a “problem”. The Abbott government is unlikely to make any moves on West Papua that could threaten more pressing national interests, such as security and trade. Continuity will be the order of the day, and any appeal to liberal human rights norms will fade further into the background of the declaratory rhetoric.

Of course there will be embarrassing blips, such as the protestors “visiting” the consulate in Bali or the asylum seekers arriving by canoe in 2006, but the policy will not change unless a radical departure from the status quo can be painted as being in the national interest.

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