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Transcript 11045

Interview with Kerry O’Brien, 7.30 Report, ABC TV

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 14/09/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 11045

Subject(s): East Timor, emergency aid, food drops, peacekeeping, UN talks

14 September 1999

Subject: East Timor, emergency aid, food drops, peacekeeping, UN talks

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

O’BRIEN:

John Howard, while you wait to have the final role of the peacekeepers thrashed out in New York, how concerned are you about what’s happening in West Timor with those at least 100,000 refugees apparently prey not just to starvation, to disease, but also to the militia attacks again.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Kerry, I’m concerned about the situation. And it’s occupying all of my waking hours and more, and I won’t be without that concern until we have the peacekeeping force in and it’s established the fullness of its mandate. We’re worried about the situation in West Timor. That’s why we’ve provided as a down-payment the $3 million of emergency aid. And that is specifically directed towards helping the refugees in West Timor. It’s why we’ve been willing to airlift quite remarkably today some 1500 refugees, and these were all carried on Royal Australian Airforce, and one Royal New Zealand Airforce transport plane out of Dili. Look, we as you know, are ready. I don’t think there’s any country in the world more ready than Australia. There is none more ready than Australia to discharge a peacekeeping role. There are certain things that have got to be tidied up in New York, and we are ready once again and we are anxious for those things to be tied up but there are other nations involved and we naturally want that process completed as soon as possible. By the standards of how long it took to get things established in Yugoslavia and other parts of the world this has moved very quickly indeed but I understand the sense of frustration that people feel. We’ve got agreement. We want to see the thing set up without any delay. That’s our goal and we are ready and we’re naturally encouraging others to move with all maximum dispatch so that we can get the peacekeepers in and we can start establishing better conditions.

O’BRIEN:

President Habibie apparently gave the go ahead for airdrops into East Timor to help those refugees who fled to the hills and many of whom apparently are starving or close to it. Can you understand why the delay in actually getting those food drops going - we’ve been told by AUSAID that they’re hoping for Thursday at the earliest?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, well I’ve checked that out. I mean, to start with the planes that we had were all used today to carry refugees out of Dili. There are discussions going on between the Defence Department and AUSAID at the moment. The aim is to start the drops on Thursday. You do need to be completely satisfied of the right conditions on the ground, including removing any possibility of the planes being fired at because we can’t afford to lose them and we don’t want to lose them. Now, all of that is being done, so I’m told, as recently as half an hour ago, with all dispatch as quickly as possible. Once again, I understand how people feel. I react in the same way. I’m a human being. I’ve watched the news reports. I am distressed like anybody else.

O’BRIEN:

John Moore seemed to be saying a little earlier that it would need some kind of network on the ground to make sure the food was properly distributed. I imagine that in the end it would be worth taking the risk if it’s dropped into the hills roughly where you know refugees are and if there are tens of thousand of them - if some of that food reaches some of those people it’s worth doing, isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it is and I don’t think anything John said suggested otherwise but we do want to be satisfied that it’s not immediately grabbed by the militias or the refugees going for it aren’t shot by the militias.

O’BRIEN:

Given that Kofi Annan had expressed the view or the hope that the talks in New York would be wrapped up in 24 hours to get this thing going, and we’ve all heard the reports that it looks like it will now go on certainly some time beyond the 24 hours, are you concerned at the early reports that Indonesia may be going into those talks to delay the process?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, the information I have is that although there are natural and predictable Indonesian sensitivities that they’re not imposing any conditions in relation to the composition or the leadership of the force. And that is the view of the Americans and the others who have influence at the UN and it’s certainly the view of the Secretary-General. Now, these things always involve 24 hours or 48 hours more than you would want. I do know that everybody is saying publicly and privately that they want the peacekeepers on the ground as soon as possible. I heard Ali Alatas, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, say that this morning. So, sure I would like the resolution to have been passed yesterday. I hope it’s passed tonight and I’ll be waiting to hear. But we are ready and we’re urging everybody else to get it passed as quickly as possible. But in the nature of things it always does take a day or two longer than everybody would like.

O’BRIEN:

Do you now have a better understanding and do you feel confident that the rules of engagement will be strong enough to allow the peacekeepers to do what they have to do to enforce a peace?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

O’BRIEN:

How much are you able to tell us about what those rules of engagement might be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t for reasons you will understand want to go into a whole lot of detail but there’s no way that I will allow Australian forces to be exposed to an unreasonable level of risk. There will be a danger. There could be casualties and the Australian public should understand that. It is a serious, dangerous operation but if we have a complete mandate from the Security Council and if we establish, as best we can, some kind of working relationship with the Indonesians – you’ve got to remember initially there’ll be some contact and there should be between the UN forces and the Indonesians. Look, all I can say is this, Kerry, that they’ll be given adequate legal authority to defend themselves and to take whatever action is necessary to implement their mandate and I have no doubt that the Australians taking part will bring enormous credit to our country as they always have in the past.

O’BRIEN:

What is Australia’s position on what is a reasonable time for Indonesian forces to remain alongside the UN peacekeeping force?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that is a question of operational negotiation and discussion. I don’t think I can say, as a non-military person without a military appreciation of the conditions on the ground, and it’s very hard to get a complete military appreciation of that until you’ve got a headquarters taskforce there, to sort of assess the situation. And I think for me in a Canberra studio to say, well look, it ought to be done by such and such a time would be quite silly.

O’BRIEN:

Diplomatic niceties…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, that’s not diplomatic, that’s realistic.

O’BRIEN:

No, I’m coming to the diplomatic niceties – diplomatic niceties aside, you must have real concerns given the complicity, the clear complicity of the Indonesian military’s role in East Timor and their closeness of their connections to the militia, you must be nursing real concerns about how that’s going to work out on the ground while ever the Indonesians are operating alongside the peacekeepers to disarm the militia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Kerry, my total aim and focus at the moment is to get the peacekeeping force into Timor without any delay. And I don’t know that I want to go into a detailed analysis of my state of mind about this or that situation beyond saying that we’re confident that once the mandate is given by the Security Council we will be able to move very quickly. We naturally expect other countries to be involved. We want a broadly based ASEAN participation in the peacekeeping force. And we don’t discount the danger. There will be danger. There will be risk to life and property and that’s the nature of the operation. But if we can get it done correctly and if there are sensible discussions on the ground then that risk can be reduced, if not totally eliminated.

O’BRIEN:

How soon do you now believe it will be possible to get that peacekeeping operation rolling on the basis of what you now know from New York and so on?

PRIME MINISTER:

The best I can say is that I’m hopeful that it will be wrapped up in New York in the next day or two. I can’t any more positive than that because…

O’BRIEN:

But how soon after that would you expect the troops to start leaving Darwin?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we would be ready to go within a matter of 24 or 48 hours. I mean, it has to be said that the ADF has done an incredible job of getting ready and I congratulate the Australian defence forces. I congratulate the Minister in the Department and the CDF, Admiral Barrie, for the high state of preparedness. I mean, we did anticipate this months ago when we decided to raise the brigade, extra brigade and we are in a high state of readiness. And I think it’s fair to say that the ADF is keen to get on with it and that is in the nature of professional soldiers in a situation like this.

O’BRIEN:

Will you have to wait until other contributors to this peace force arrive in Darwin, you know, will you need other soldiers beside you when the Australians go in?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I mean, we obviously have to pay some regard to the view of the United Nations on that but our view is that the best thing is for the resolution to be passed as soon as possible and whoever is immediately available should go in immediately that resolution has been passed.

O’BRIEN:

Bishop Belo says he believes now that at least 10,000 people have been killed in East Timor. Other informed estimates say that could be 20,000 or more. What is your understanding of the extent of the killings?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s very hard to know. It’s impossible until you’ve had people there and you’ve talked extensively to refugees and you’ve talked to the UNAMET people in detail. And can I say what a tremendous job I think Ian Martin and the UNAMET team has done. And I greatly admire those who are still there in Dili, which includes incidentally two Australian military personnel, they are amongst a dozen members of the UNAMET team who are still in Dili. But until you actually have the opportunity of talking to people at length and getting there and moving around the place and talking to the people on the ground it’s very hard. But, I mean, we all know that there have been many murders, many people have been killed. There has been torture, there have been atrocities. We know that. The dimension is hard to measure and I think it would be impossible to be dogmatic about it until we actually get in there and talk to people over a period of weeks, even months.

O’BRIEN:

UN Human Rights Commission, Mary Robinson, wants a commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes in East Timor, do you support that process?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, I support any of the UN processes but, I mean, my main focus at the moment is the more immediate one of getting people in as quickly as possible because as soon as that occurs you automatically reduce the possibility of further things being done.

O’BRIEN:

What are the lessons for Australia to learn out of this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think there are a number of lessons. I think one of them is the importance of having a defence force that can be got ready quickly and deployed rapidly. I think we’ve demonstrated a capacity to do that. And I congratulate the defence forces on their state of readiness. I think there’s a reminder in this that your relationships with other countries can change as circumstances can change and change quite sharply. I think I said yesterday in New Zealand that I think this notion that we have special relationships with scores of countries around the world is something that is dropped too frequently from the lips of too many Prime Ministers over the years. I think you have to understand that to bury that famous injunction of Lord Palmerston that you don’t have permanent friends, you have permanent interests.

O’BRIEN:

Perhaps the most special relationship we’ve had since the end of the Second World War has been that with the United States. Does that rule apply to them now too?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think the events of the past few days, Kerry, have demonstrated that the relationship has worked. Because it’s fair to say that if on any objective analysis the Americans should have responded more quickly and more directly then they certainly listened to the concerns that we expressed. And in New Zealand President Clinton’s intervention and President Clinton’s statements were quite crucial to bringing about the outcome. I mean, they wouldn’t have been enough on their own without Australia’s contribution and I would be the last person in the world to play down the significance of the leadership role that Australia has taken in this matter. But President Clinton was very strong and very supportive and very helpful. And the American involvement over the past few days has been very valuable. Now, if our reaction a few days ago played a role in that occurring then that is an illustration that the relationship has worked, not the opposite.

O’BRIEN:

With hindsight and looking again at all the intelligence that you were seeing that was reporting the Indonesian complicity with that scorched earth policy, there were the leaked documents which actually attributed a scorched earth policy to the Indonesian Government, the Indonesian military, given all of the information that was coming out, do you think, with hindsight, that the vote should have been postponed to allow you and other countries to ratchet up the pressure on Indonesia to actually do what it had promised?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t, Kerry. I think if the vote had been postponed for any period of time, any significant period of time, it probably would never have occurred. And you’ve got to understand that one of the things that acted as a catalyst for the marshalling of world opinion on this issue was the overwhelming nature of the vote for independence. And that was psychologically saying to the rest of the world, undeniably and without question, the people of East Timor want their independence. Now, if we had run around talking about introducing a peacekeeping force before the vote and if we had been saying to the Indonesians, well, we demand that you accept a peacekeeping force before the vote, I think the vote would have been put off indefinitely and the Indonesians would have been a lot harder to shift. The very overwhelming character of the vote in the ballot is one of the reasons why it was difficult in the end for the Indonesians to do other than to agree to the proposition that there should be a peacekeeping force. But this idea that we could have just got away with getting together a peacekeeping operation and demanding it of the Indonesians before the vote is so unrealistic, is to be surprising to me that people seriously advance it and that’s the view, incidentally, that is shared by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan.

O’BRIEN:

John Howard, thank you very much for talking with us. [ends]

Transcript 11045