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"RESPONSE TO PETER VAN WALSUM's PAPER AT MIALS, 7 FEBRUARY 2002 "
Mr Tony Kevin
Independent Writer and Commentator on
International Affairs and Foreign Policy
MELBOURNE - 7 February 2002
Ambassador Van Walsum's paper is excellent. It is the product of reflection on professional experience of international crisis management by a man of many parts: not only a highly effective former practicing diplomat, but also by a man well abreast of current trends in international peacekeeping law, and finally - no less importantly - by someone not afraid to bring a moral approach to bear on the perennial international relations question of how to balance sovereignty and justice.
I found myself agreeing with almost all of Peter's paper. I would like to offer some additional comments and questions on themes it provokes.
There is a view about the sovereignty of third world nations, but also encountered in contrarian circles in the West, that much of the present drive for UN humanitarian intervention in third world troublespots is nineteenth century evangelical colonialism revisited: la mission civilatrice, the white man's burden, replayed today by men and women wearing blue berets. It's also argued that sometimes, both then and now, this missionary zeal to improve matters cloaked or rationalised elements of economic or strategic self-interest.
This cynical view of modern humanitarian intervention should not be automatically dismissed as foolish or prejudiced. There is sometimes a real case to be answered.
Cambodia's recent history is a textbook example of modern-style humanitarian interventionism taken to extremes: democracy-building gone off the rails. This is relevant to Peter's theme, so I'll spend a few minutes on Cambodia before returning to Indonesia and East Timor, and finally saying something about Australia's present tense relationship with the UN.
Peter recalled a UN low point in the 1980s, when its membership was more indignant about the sovereignty violation involved in the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, which almost all Cambodians experienced as a liberation, than about the three previous years of Khmer Rouge genocide.
After the ensuing 12-year civil war, in which the UN gave diplomatic support to a revived Khmer Rouge insurgency, the UN system got its chance to offer amends to the Cambodian people in its bid to bring peace and democracy to Cambodia through the UNTAC project in 1991-93. Unfortunately the UN chose sides, developing an adversarial relationship with the previously ruling Cambodian People's Party and its leader Hun Sen. Hun Sen was mistrusted because he came out of the losing, pro-Soviet Communist side of the Cold War.
The post-UNTAC coalition government was fragile and ineffective. When the power struggle between Hun Sen's party and Prince Ranariddh's royalist party was conclusively settled in a brief final round of hostilities in June 1997, the United States and the UN led a global condemnation of Hun Sen's alleged coup. Cambodia once again became a pariah state, as it had been from 1975 to 1991. Hun Sen was routinely vilified as the worst kind of dictator and war criminal, and his interim government labelled illegitimate.
Over a few tense weeks following the second national election in June 1998, which CPP won, there were pressures for a Haiti-style military humanitarian intervention in Cambodia to remove the CPP government. Influential voices in Washington, including the major international human rights lobbies, called for harsh sanctions. Some even called for armed intervention. Such interventions would have been profoundly wrong, as Cambodia's subsequent stabilisation and resumption of steady development confirms.
What interests me now is how such a feeding frenzy of cumulative misinformation quickly developed around Cambodia in 1997-98, that bore little relation to the facts of that country's complex and troubled history.
As an example, consider William Shawcross's otherwise excellent book "Deliver us from evil: warlords and peacekeepers in a world of endless conflict", which repeatedly vilifies Cambodia's government, and misrepresents recent Cambodian politics. Shawcross still carries great authority in international Cambodia-watching circles. How could he, and so many others, have got Cambodia so wrong?
A diplomatic struggle continues over Khmer Rouge trials. The UN is still pressuring Cambodia to admit that it is a corrupt country, with inadequate legal competence to take part in conducting these trials. UN senior legal officials continue to find endless reasons to delay implementation of an agreement for joint Cambodian-UN trials management, that was reached between Hun Sen and Kofi Annan in April 2000 after 15 months of difficult negotiations. The UN is still reluctant to get its hands dirty by working together with Cambodian judges and lawyers in these trials: it still strives for total control. The surviving Khmer Rouge top leaders may well be dead by the time this power play is sorted out. And Hun Sen will no doubt, again be blamed by world opinion for such an outcome.
Again, on the human rights front. Every year the Cambodian Government has to defend itself against harshly worded criticisms from the UN Special Representative on Human Rights, that no other comparable country experiences. Let me read a few excerpts from the Cambodian Ambassador to the UN's response to the latest report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights in Cambodia (A/56/209):
"...The said report, as indicated in its summary, is absolutely misleading and full of innuendo, when it states that ‘four fundamental evils, all closely interrelated, continue to affect Cambodian society; poverty, violence, corruption and lawlessness'. That depiction of Cambodian society is far from the truth and unacceptable to any objective observers, including the diplomatic corps and hundreds of NGOs working in Cambodia. Cambodia today is waging a war against poverty, and has made great strides towards its overall stability. With the final demise of the Khmer Rouge, we have finally reached political stability...
Cambodia is now a fast emerging nation, firmly on the path to democracy and the rule of law, and is an honourable member of the United Nations, and of regional and international organizations. It may be one of the poorest countries but it is far from being a lawless country
...It is also clear that this is a report on the human rights situation in a country in the process of development. But the right to development and the right to security are also human rights, and it is disturbing to note that the Special Representative chose to ignore the achievement of the Royal Government of Cambodia in that regard."
(UNGA document A/56/697 of 11 December 2001).
I am troubled by this question: If the leading lights of the international analytical and judicial community can get their assessments of Cambodia so systematically wrong, a country about which I know quite a lot, how do I know if they are right when they make other third world countries favoured targets for humanitarian intervention? Can fashions in international condemnation always be trusted?
When we turn to UN humanitarian intervention in East Timor, I have a different kind of concern: that in the eight months leading up to the September 1999 vote, Australia, Portugal and the UN had become so focussed on their shared objective - to give the people a chance finally to determine their own political future, in a UN-conducted free vote - that they turned a blind eye to huge evils being done to the East Timorese people in that process.
It is the classic problem of ends and means: as the US major in the Vietnam War famously explained, "we had to destroy that village in order to save it".
Through 1999, Australia was determined to use the one-off opportunity presented by the Habibie presidency to lance the 24-year East Timor boil in its relations with Indonesia. Portugal wanted an honourable colonial closure. The UN trusted Australian intelligence, and Australian assurances that the Indonesians would in the end honour their commitments to support the process.
As 1999 wore bloodily on, Australia and UNAMET repeatedly down-played TNI's and the militia's systematic intimidation and sabotage of the process. UN senior officials quietly buried earlier explicit commitments to the Security Council, that a safe and secure environment was a prerequisite before Kofi Annan would certify that the election could go ahead.
This was because Australia and the UN had made a political judgement that, though there might well be a great deal of pro-integrationist violence in the lead-up to and in reaction to the vote, the East Timorese could be relied on to take this one-off chance to vote for independence: and that would create an irresistible pressure on Indonesia to accept the result.
As John Martinkus puts it in his excellent memoir "A Dirty Little War", (page 348):
"In the end, the UN, foreign governments and the media either ignored the obvious warning signals, or figured the violence was a fair price for the East Timorese to pay for their independence."
Australia made no effective independent military preparations for the bloodbath it knew was very possible after the vote. It was never Australia' s intention to risk a bilateral war with Indonesia on its own. The only plans Australia made were plans to evacuate expatriates.
The only way Australia could hope to marshal a strong international coalition, which it could lead militarily, was to lead TNI and the militia into the trap of committing such terrible atrocities in East Timor, that an appalled world would quickly authorise an "international coalition of the willing" peacekeeping force, under UN auspices.
This was the UNSC resolution that Peter so effectively brought to fruition in the crucial week between the announcement of the voting result on 4 September and the resolution endorsing INTERFET on 11/12 September.
I pay full tribute here to Peter's superb achievement in this task. I know that my friend and former colleague representing Australia at the UN, Penny Wensley, would have worked very hard with Peter to help achieve such overwhelming support of 50 member states for the SC resolution. It was essential work, and work well done.
It was a close run thing. With less bold and committed leadership of the UN Security Council than Peter's, and with a less alert and compassionate US President, INTERFET might never have got off the ground.
The Wiranto strategy came close to succeeding. As Martinkus relates, on 8 September the UNAMET leadership in Dili was preparing to evacuate, leaving 2000 East Timorese displaced persons sheltering in the UN compound to their fate. As one UN worker said at the time, "This is like Srebrenica again".
I cannot feel unblemished pride in the way Australia or the UNAMET senior staff handled their responsibilities to the East Timorese people in this period. Australia and the UN offered false promises of security to the East Timorese before and after the election, which we knew could almost certainly not be honoured.
While Australia did not take a single casualty at any stage of its diplomatic and peacekeeping operations in East Timor, and Unamet took very few casualties, the people of East Timor lost almost everything - between 1000 and 2000 killed, 200,000 people forced into exile as refugees; and most of the country's housing and urban infrastructure destroyed.
So this was not a glorious episode of Australian humanitarian intervention. Even though most history is written by the winners, already at least three Australians apart from myself - Jon Martinkus, Bill Maley and Professor James Cotton of ADFA - have already written in ways highly critical of Australia's role in these proceedings.
I hope that a process of searching out the truth will continue, not in any vengeful spirit, but because there may be need for such international humanitarian interventions again in the future. Australia and the UN peacekeeping system need a candid forensic analysis of what we did right, and what we did wrong, in East Timor.
To this point, I've expressed views somewhat sceptical of the claimed merits of UN humanitarian interventionism in small Third World countries. It might surprise you therefore to hear that when it comes to the current issue of Australia's worsening human rights record and increasingly troubled relations with the UN and the system of international law, I have almost an opposite view.
I very much hope that the UN system will exert maximum pressure on Australia to help bring the Howard Government back to its senses on our country's current cruelties towards boatpeople asylumseekers. This policy is contrary to Australia's bedrock human values and is damaging our society, as well as causing huge pain to the asylumseekers and their families.
The Howard Government resents UN interest in monitoring allegations of systematic abuses of detainees' human rights in Australia. It seems to believe that Australia, as a developed Western country, is above the scrutiny or criticism of UN monitoring agencies. It seems to think that it can unilaterally re-interpret its obligations under international conventions governing handling of asylum-seekers' claims, detainees' human rights, women's and children's rights, and rescue at sea.
In taking such recalcitrant positions, Australia - which used to be the standard-bearer of international best practice observance of international treaties and conventions - now seems to be trying to encourage the rest of the world to water down treaty obligations. This is profoundly saddening.
Many Australians like myself feel that we need the interest and moral support of the UN humanitarian monitoring and intervention system, to help us in our efforts to change the present majority Australian view which supports a harsh policy of deterrence through maintaining the suffering of those already here; and which is indifferent to human rights abuses against the men, women and children in mandatory detention.
Just consider some news items from today's (7 February) press:
Today, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) found that Australia's detention of 236 children at Woomera is in breach of the international convention on children's rights.
Visiting HREOC officials found that the average detention time of the 236 children was 7 months, with 9 there for over a year and 70 for over 6 months. Families were becoming dysfunctional. Children were speaking of suicide. Over the past two weeks, the Commission found that there had been one attempted hanging, five lip-sewings, three self-slashings, and thirteen threats of self-harm. Children under 13 were receiving only 8 hours of schooling a week, all in one classroom.
The conditions breached the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in particular the requirement to protect children from violence, injury, abuse and neglect, and to detain them only as a last resort and for the shortest time possible.
The HREOC Commissioner, Sev Ozdowski, said that the main problem was the length of detention:
"Somehow, people when denied freedom, when denied a range of other things, cannot cope after a certain period of time."
Mr Ruddock's office denied the Australian Government was in breach of the Convention.
Mr Howard said he "was not bowled over:" by a request from the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to send a special envoy to inspect Woomera because of growing human rights concerns. Mr Howard said that Australia was meeting its international obligations."
It's a question of ends and means again. While, as Owen Harries said recently, the issues are by no means simple or clear-cut, we need to have a debate in which the word compassion figures more prominently: and in which our moral obligations to people who are not yet Australian citizens or residents, but who come to us seeking refuge from persecution, are not shrugged off.
So I finish these remarks in familiar Isaiah Berlin-type philosophical territory, of a need for uneasy compromises between conflicting goals that are both desirable - a problem democracies often face. Two competing goods - national sovereignty, and the protection of human rights - need to be weighed against each other and balanced. Currently, we in Australia have lost sight of the proper balance.
I am sure that Peter and I would be in agreement on these humanitarian principles, and I would like to thank him again for his excellent paper tonight.
Shawcross, William: "Deliver us from evil: warlords and peacekeepers in a world of endfless conflict". ( Bloomsbury, London 2000).
Martinkus, Jon: "A dirty little war" (Random House, Australia 2001)
Maley, William: "Australia and the East Timor crisis: some critical comments", (Australian Journal of International Affairs 54, no 2, 2000, pages 151-61).
Cotton, James: "Australia’s commitment in East Timor: a review article", (Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol 23, no 3, December 2001, pages 552-68).
Kevin, Tony: "Confronting facts and covering tracks", (Australian Financial Review magazine, Friday 10 August 2001, page 4)
Kevin, Tony: Letter re John Birmingham's essay on East Timor, ("Quarterly Essay" no 3, 2001, pages 79-82).
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