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Gareth Evans: Retribution warranted, but cutting Indonesia aid wrong

Australia’s diplomatic retribution against Indonesia over the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran needs to be clear and made from the outset, says former foreign minister Gareth Evans.

“A strong response is certainly appropriate,” Evans told The Mandarin. “Australians generally do feel a sense of dismay at the way Indonesia has handled this. It can’t go unresponded.”

Speaking to media this morning, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the government would withdraw its ambassador to Indonesia:

“It is very unusual, indeed unprecedented, for an ambassador to be withdrawn, so I don’t want to minimise the gravity of what we’ve done.

“Ministerial contacts have been suspended for some time once it became apparent that the executions were likely, ministerial contacts were suspended and they will remain suspended for a period,” Abbott said.

Agreeing that the government’s decision to withdraw the ambassador in Jakarta was the right one, Evans says, “normally I’d be quite reluctant to go down the path of withdrawing an ambassador, for the reason that normally you need all lines of communication open.

“But this is not that kind of problem that requires ongoing communication. Withdrawing an ambassador is a symbolic gesture that’s very well understood,” he argues.

The former foreign minister — who faced strained relations during his time in office, including over the Santa Cruz massacre, in which Indonesian forces killed 250 Timorese independence demonstrators — stresses that the government needs to think about the long term.

“There’s the question of when you should send the ambassador back. I would suggest a finite period of three months — and I would leave it that long. The length of time should be established at the outset so they’re not looking for an excuse to send him back down the track.”

He thinks that cutting the aid budget, a move suggested by human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson, “is not appropriate”.

Responding to questions about whether the Australia government would cut foreign aid further in response to the executions, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: “The aid budget is subject to different considerations and any announcement in relation to the aid budget will be made at Budget time in early May.”

Evans adds it’s “very much in our interests to maintain police connections with Indonesia”, though he concedes these “could be cancelled for a finite period” as part of a diplomatic response.

“Beyond that it’s a difficult situation. The thing has been handled so insensitively by the Indonesians … The government should be measured and thoughtful, but quite firm.”

Professor Richard Tanter, an expert in Indonesian relations at the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Studies, believes that the controversy will “poison” the relationship between Australia and its northern neighbour.

“We have a very bad relationship with Indonesia. It’s thin, uneven, volatile, asymmetrical. The relationship consists of government to government and military to military links, but not many business ties, and not many social connections other than with Bali,” says Tanter.

“When this is freighted with so many other issues — corruption, lack of transparency, double standards, this is going to be something that lays on the relationship with Indonesia more than anything in the past, other than East Timor.”

But, he argues, the effect on tourism in Bali may be minimal, given that “Bali is largely excised from Indonesia in the Australian imagination”. One-third of Australians reportedly believe Bali is not a part of Indonesia.

One side effect of the saga, thinks Tanter, is an enhanced understanding among Australians of the problems of affecting the Indonesian justice system.

“Because of the involvement of Australian lawyers working with Indonesian lawyers in this long-running case — and I don’t imagine it’s a trouble-free relationship, but it seems to have been sustained over a long time with highly competent people – this has given an insight into the Indonesian legal system, at least among the public.”

Part of the problem, he believes, is “a global prohibitionist regime on narcotics which has been driven primarily by the United States for around 50 years. The US has pressured Indonesia, the United Nations, and countries in Europe that have tried to decriminalise.

“Beyond the immediate matters, Indonesia has been doing what its allies have been asking it to do for a long time. This case makes it very clear what the perverse consequences of that prohibitionist policy are.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.