Julie Bishop accused of inciting military action against Freedom Flotilla

Greens senator says shadow foreign minister seems to be encouraging disproportionate response from Indonesia

Marni Cordell 5 September 2013

Julie Bishop says she would not seek to withdraw consular support for Australians in the Freedom Flotilla, but that there are strict limits to what she can do if they break Indonesian laws.

Greens senator Richard Di Natale has accused shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop of inciting the Indonesian military to act against the West Papuan Freedom Flotilla.

The flotilla of Australian and West Papuan activists is sailing from Cairns to West Papua to raise awareness of human rights abuses under Indonesian rule.

Di Natale wrote to Bishop this week to express concern about her public comments on the flotilla. "This peaceful protest does not pose any threat to Indonesia and to imply otherwise has the potential to put Australian lives in danger," he wrote. "Your comments run the very real risk of inflaming an already tense situation given the threatening language already used by senior members of the Indonesian security forces."

He told Guardian Australia: "I'm concerned that Julie Bishop, who looks likely to be the new foreign minister after Saturday, is inflaming tensions and seems to be inciting the Indonesian military to act in a way that is completely disproportionate to what's being done – which is basically a peaceful protest in Indonesian waters.

"The language that was used by Julie Bishop was not befitting somebody who is likely to become the next foreign minister."

Bishop said last month that Indonesia was "entitled to use whatever means it wishes" to repel the flotilla.

The Greens senator's letter, a version of which was also sent to the foreign minister, Bob Carr, calls on whoever is foreign minister after Saturday's federal election to offer full consular assistance to the flotilla participants.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said the group of activists sailing to West Papua to highlight the fight for the human rights issues will receive no consular assistance whatsoever if they are jailed.

Carr said last month that Australian diplomats had no obligation to support the activists since they were warned before departing Australia of the dangers of entering Indonesian territory illegally.

In his letter to Carr, Di Natale says he is not aware of any other cases in which consular support has been pre-emptively withdrawn from Australian citizens engaged in peaceful protest.

"Your actions are extraordinary in this regard," he writes. "Your statements are especially concerning given the threatening rhetoric from senior members of the Indonesian security forces in relation to this protest."

Julie Bishop told Guardian Australia by email that if elected to government this Saturday she would seek advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs on the issue – but would not seek to withhold consular support. However, she added: "It is important to note there are strict limits to what can be achieved through consular channels when Australians break the laws of another nation, as they are subject to the full impact of those laws.

"The so-called flotilla has indicated its intention to deliberately breach Indonesia's territorial sovereignty, thus placing themselves at risk of interception and arrest by the Indonesian authorities. I urge Indonesian authorities to respond proportionately to any breach of their sovereignty by this flotilla."

The foreign minister did not respond to questions by deadline.

Arabunna elder Kevin Buzzacott said this morning, “We are exerting our ancient authority for this journey. The Australian government and Indonesian government are refusing to accept our original nation passport why should we accept theirs? We are from an ancient time before these border were created, when we where one people.”

Di Natale told Guardian Australia that a change of government this week would probably have no impact on Australian foreign policy on West Papua.

"Unfortunately, I think the current foreign minister has been far too willing to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses that are going on in West Papua, and I don't see any sign that that's going to change with a change of government," he said.

"This also needs to be seen in the context of the four people in Indonesia who were supporting the flotilla and have now been charged with treason – a penalty that carries a 20-year sentence for doing nothing other than supporting this peaceful protest.

"I think that tells you everything you need to know about the situation in West Papua."

The flotilla is currently docked on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. The activists plan to land in West Papua later this month.

The Freedom Flotilla Will Go Down In History
By Shirley Shackleton, the veteran activist for East Timor and widow of Greg Shackleton, one of the five journalists killed in Balibo in 1975.
New Matilda 3 September 2013