In the wake of the government’s withdrawal of its refugee bill, Paul Kelly today tries to assess its implications. His basic claim is that the 1951 Refugee Convention was always a political device as well as a human rights instrument, and that it “would not be ratified by Western nations today” because its provisions are no longer seen to work in their political interests. He points to “the need for a national interest rationale to sustain public support for refugee policy”.

This is an interesting idea, worth debating. But its relevance in the present case depends on the assertion that, because the 43 West Papuan refugees were “agents of the Papuan independence campaign” (as they clearly were, although Kelly says some unnamed people are “in denial”
about that), giving them asylum worked “against the foreign policy interest.”

How, precisely, is the policy of continuing to sweep West Papua under the rug supposed to be in Australia’s interests?

We are fortunate to have as close to a laboratory experiment as you ever get in international relations, in the closely analogous territory of East Timor. For 20 years, Australian governments pretended that problem did not exist, hoping it would just go away. It didn’t. Instead of being able to broker some sort of peaceful transition, Australia therefore had to deal with the violent consequences.

We should learn from that experience when it comes to West Papua, and take every opportunity to push Indonesia, politely but firmly, down the road to self-determination. But Kelly and the Jakarta lobby want us to make the same mistakes all over again, even closer to our doorstep.

By contrast, at the other end of the Javanese empire, the province of Aceh is celebrating the first anniversary of last year’s autonomy agreement. Although there are outstanding issues that will one day have to be resolved, the agreement has been a striking success; as Mark Forbes reported yesterday, the commemoration took place “in scenes unimaginable two years ago”. It’s certainly a big improvement on the alternative.

Perhaps West Papua needs a tsunami to focus people’s minds.