Odious debts and war crimes trials

by

Jay Bulworth

Any meaningful discussion of strategic policy alternatives for Australia must begin with the question of agency: who is going to implement the policy? Certainly not our rulers, who have no intention of taking our advice to spend less on Collins-class submarines and more on health care. They already know that their policies will cause more militarism in the region and more inequality at home.

Those who exercise power already know what they are doing. No amount of intellectual or moral arguments in Overland will change their minds. What will change their minds, however, is resistance from below. Progressive policies are imposed on governments by their populations; they are not bestowed on the public by the goodness of their rulers. This article will therefore concern itself with what we as citizens can do to impose a democratic agenda on our government in the area of defence and foreign policy. For reasons of space, I will limit myself to the subject of Australia–Indonesia relations, because Australian government policy is vulnerable on several fronts.

Since Suharto’s resignation, brought on by the Asian financial crisis and massive public protests in 1998, complex and often contradictory forces have been unleashed. On the one hand, the Indonesian government spends more on debt repayments than it does on health care. Senior army officers who engaged in terrorism against the people of East Timor have not been punished. They have gone on to conduct operations against the people of West Papua and Aceh. Military links with the Australian Defence Force, suspended following the 1999 liberation of East Timor, are being renewed.

On the other hand, there has been an increase in the politicisation of the Indonesian public. There have been mass protests concerning a variety of issues, and a proliferation of political parties. Press freedom has expanded and Indonesian workers are able to organise in ways that were once simply impossible. The US is aware that the Indonesian military is creating instability in order to justify a greater role for itself in a post-Suharto Indonesia. This is why the US ambassador himself travelled to Tokyo and lobbied strongly to help broker a peace settlement between the Free Aceh Movement and the military. Other sections of the Indonesian political elite are also opposed to the military’s operations in Aceh but are unwilling to say so openly, for fear of making a powerful enemy in the lead-up to the 2004 elections.

Australians (and Indonesians) who are interested in changing the situation for the better can exploit these vulnerabilities, which are exposed in ways that were previously unthinkable. There is ample evidence that senior Indonesian military and political figures (with considerable overlap between the two categories!) committed crimes against humanity in East Timor from 1975 to 1999. Many of these unindicted war criminals have real estate and business interests in Cairns, Perth, Melbourne, Darwin and Sydney. Their children are educated in Australian schools and universities. They visit Australia much more frequently than is commonly assumed. We need not wait for a hypothetical UN tribunal to prosecute these individuals, because it never will.

Instead, we can assemble a team of East Timor/Indonesia specialists and members of the legal community. This team can be linked up with East Timorese survivors, of whom there are many. There is no shortage of evidence. We can identify our targets’ assets, ascertain their travel arrangements, and coordinate citizen-initiated arrests, prosecutions and civil suits. Such a program would not rely on support and direction from the government; in fact, it would almost certainly meet with outright hostility from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But that is perhaps a good indication that we are on the right track. At the very least, the apoplectic reaction of Lib-Lab Siamese twins Dudd-Rowner will gladden our hearts. It is also clear that senior Australian personnel collaborated with the Indonesians in the atrocities committed during the 24-year occupation of East Timor. We can use the existing legal system to take steps against them too.

There are many advantages to this proposal. One, it would improve the political climate in Indonesia tremendously by providing more breathing space for pro-democracy activists. Two, financial damages paid out would be used for other progressive causes. Three, it would increase the degree of difficulty for Indonesian military officers contemplating repressive action in future. Four, it does not imply the abandonment of international law, but its strengthening by virtue of public involvement. Five, it would build valuable networks between Indonesians and Australians. This final point is vital. Australians must build relations with the working people of Indonesia, independent of the actions of the two countries’ foreign ministries. International action against Indonesia’s foreign debt is another way of accomplishing this.

The issue of Indonesia’s foreign “debt” is poorly understood, but we can rectify this. Indonesia’s debt crisis is not an economic question but an ideological one. If one adopts the (capitalist) principle that the borrower of a loan should pay it back and the lender lends at his/her own risk, then much of the debt crisis takes on a different light. In Indonesia, debt is more than 140 per cent of GDP. However, the Indonesian people did not borrow this money, and in fact had no say in the matter. The borrowers were the now-notorious crony capitalists associated with the Suharto regime, but they are not paying for the debts incurred. Instead the Indonesian people are being made to pay for it. The lenders were First World banks, which are protected from the consequences of their bad loans by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF, which is funded by Western taxpayers, takes on the bad loans made by the banks and makes the Indonesian people pay for them by way of “structural adjustment policies”. We can end this practice.

The concept of odious debt could — and should — be applied. When the United States invaded Cuba in 1898, it cancelled Cuba’s debt to Spain on the reasonable grounds that the debt was invalid since it had been imposed on the people of Cuba without their consent. Odious debt is recognised within international law, under US initiative. If enough Australians understood this, it would be easier to pressure our elected representatives to implement the concept of odious debt. Lest this be thought far-fetched, it is worth remembering that the former shadow foreign minister, Laurie Brereton, had raised this very issue as a matter of priority in the lead-up to the 2001 election:

    A significant proportion of [Indonesia’s] debt should be classified as “criminal debt”, as loan monies were effectively stolen by powerful political figures, officials and business cronies. (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 2001.)

The Tampa election put paid to his plans, but the situation can be reversed if we are prepared to act. There is no reason why the concept of odious debt cannot be raised, along with lawsuits against war criminals. They would improve the strategic environment tremendously.

(Originally published in Overland Magazine, issue 173, as “Strategic Policy alternatives for Australia”)

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