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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 30439

Radio Interview with Matt Peacock, AM Programme

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: 16/09/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 30439

Subject(s): Security Council resolution, humanitarian aid, food drops, West Timor, war crimes investigations,

16 September 1999

Subject: Security Council resolution, humanitarian aid, food drops, West Timor, war crimes investigations,

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

PEACOCK:

Prime Minister, you say that you got what you wanted out of the Security Council, but it is still going to be a dangerous operation. How much of a target do you think Australian troops might be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it will be a dangerous operation and I’ve never pretended otherwise. And I think the Australian public must prepare itself for all of the consequences it could be involved in an operation like this. It’s not a war in the conventional sense, but they are going into a part of the world which has gone through an enormous trauma. There’s been a complete breakdown of law and order. That’s why they’re going in there. So there is a high degree of risk and I’ve never tried to camouflage that fact, and I don’t now. And inevitably things are going to be said from the Indonesian side, or from sections of the Indonesian side. That’s understandable.

PEACOCK:

Not very helpful though, [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we are dealing with what I might, in a very understated way, say is a very unhelpful situation. And that’s why we’re talking about sending Australian forces there. It is self-evident that there is risk. Now I don’t want to magnify it but I certainly don’t want to play it down.

PEACOCK:

But Australian lives will almost certainly be lost.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there is a risk of casualties, of course there’s a risk of casualties. We all hope and pray that that doesn’t occur. But whenever you commit forces, even in a peacekeeping operation, there is an element of risk. That’s why we tried very hard to make certain that the degree of risk was as low as possible. We believe we have achieved that but there comes a point at which you can’t deploy a peacekeeping force without accepting a degree of risk.

PEACOCK:

Well it’s not just keeping the peace, it will be peace enforcing. It’s a very wide mandate.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, it will be peace enforcement.

PEACOCK:

Will that be the priority?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is for the men on the ground to decide. That’s an operational matter. The mandate is facilitating humanitarian aid, restoring peace and order, protecting the UNAMET operation. They’re the three principle responsibilities under the United Nations’ resolution.

PEACOCK:

Okay. But, so if we take just one of them for a start, facilitating humanitarian aid, we’ve had people in Jakarta talking for a couple of days I gather about getting food airlifts in. Still no joy from the Indonesians. They’re not actually guaranteeing the safety of those….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we are making progress, but we haven’t got every loose end tied up. We’ve received political approval on that but we want to satisfy ourselves in relation to security, or relative security on the ground. We don’t want a situation arising where some of the refugees are exposed to enormous danger and possibly death as a result of the food supplies being dropped. So look, it’s an agonising balancing act and we all want to get it in as soon as possible. But we can’t afford to take an unnecessary risk with the aircraft that are flying the food in or with the refugees. And I can assure the public of Australia, and I know are interested in this, that we are working every hour of the day and night to get all the necessary agreements we can. We had hoped that might start today. Indications are now that that’s quite unlikely and it’s more likely to be tomorrow.

PEACOCK:

Cause we’ve been down this path before. We had all the assurances that were necessary to guarantee the safety of the UNAMET structure there in Dili, and look at the attacks that it….

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, well I’m not suggesting the situation is otherwise.

PEACOCK:

Can they be trusted?

PRIME MINISTER:

You’re really underlining the need for us to take great care before we use valuable aircraft to fly in food supplies. I mean you’re really making my argument. It is a difficult situation Matt. I mean self evidently there’s been a break down of trust. Self- evidently assurances that were given didn’t materialise. But in a sense, I mean that just underlines why a peacekeeping force is necessary.

PEACOCK:

So now our troops and others from ASEAN will be going in there and working alongside the what, 20,000 or so TNI troops that are currently there. If we got an agreement to allow the peacekeeping, peace enforcement mission in, did we get an agreement for the withdrawal of the TNI?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think you’ll find initially there’ll need to be some on the ground cooperation and then I would expect, and don’t ask me what time this will be because I don’t know at this stage and it’s not possible to know until we’re actually in there, I would expect a wind down of the Indonesian forces.

PEACOCK:

But, so there was some kind of agreement for their withdrawal but no timetable?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the resolution didn’t specify a timetable but there are discussions going on.

PEACOCK:

Is that important?

PRIME MINISTER:

What?

PEACOCK:
To have a timetable.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s important to give flexibility in the resolution otherwise people will say if it hasn’t occurred by the given date then the whole thing’s fallen over. But there are discussions going on. I can’t really go any further than that. From a commonsense point of view if they can cooperate initially that will be a good thing. But I would expect the role of the Indonesian forces to diminish quite rapidly.

PEACOCK:
So now our troops will be working alongside some people who almost certainly are guilty of some terrible crimes against humanity.

PRIME MINISTER:
Well Matt, initially there’ll need to be some on the ground cooperation. I mean there always is when the domestic army hands over to the international army. I mean that’s happened in every peacekeeping operation. It happened remember in Serbia. So I mean let’s not suggest that there’s something unusual, bizarre or macabre about that. I mean it always happens. As to the question of war crimes and so forth, well there are some established international procedures and tribunals and they should be allowed to take their course.

PEACOCK:Do you think that those proceedings, I know you didn’t want to discuss this until we had permission to send in a peacekeeping force, but now are you prepared to say that from the evidence that you’ve seen, you think that those war crimes investigations [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, everything should be pursued but the question of whether people are guilty or not guilty of crimes is a matter for proper evidential procedures. I’m not going to make some declaration that people are guilty of war crimes. What I’m saying is that of course it should be investigated, but please, I can’t sit in judgement on that. I haven’t seen any evidence, I’ve not spoken to a person. It is unrealistic to ask me to form a personal judgement.

PEACOCK:

What about assisting the evidence though in the sense….

PRIME MINISTER:

We will do what ever is appropriate.

PEACOCK:

So you’d be prepared to….

PRIME MINISTER:

We will do whatever is appropriate Matt.

PEACOCK:

Has there been a failure in Australian intelligence, as some commentators are saying, in not predicting a lot of the strategies of the TNI and the militias?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I don’t believe there’s been a failure in Australian intelligence at all. This criticism proceeds on the basis that we should have insisted on a peacekeeping force being in place before the ballot was held. Now if the world had done that there would have been no ballot. And if the ballot had been called off there’s no way in my opinion that the Security Council would ever have passed the resolution it passed yesterday. I can’t imagine that countries like China and Russia would have allowed that resolution to go through, and they have vetoes on the Security Council. The thing that really gave that resolution moral authority and moral momentum, certainly the events that occurred after the ballot did, but the other thing was the 78.1% vote for independence. Now you needed to have the ballot to demonstrate through that result to the world how much the people of East Timor wanted independence and were prepared to take risks in order to secure it. Now there’s no way you’d have got that ballot if we’d had been running around saying we want a peacekeeping force there before the ballot. I mean I raised that issue myself on two occasions with the Indonesian President. I raised it in Bali when I saw him. I raised it again of course before the ballot result was announced, and I raised that. And he made it, you know, he just absolutely without any argument, Indonesia was….

PEACOCK:

Thumped the table?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he made it very clear he wasn’t going to agree to it. And you know how difficult it was after everything that had elapsed. Now for people now to be saying well of course you should have inserted a peacekeeping force. I mean that is being wise after the event to a completely demented level. I mean it just lacks credibility and it is of course coming essentially from a group of people who when they had the reigns of power in this country never even raised the question seriously of having a ballot on self determination.

PEACOCK:

Do you think there’s an Indonesian spy in our midst, as is reported in the Financial review?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I saw that report. Obviously it’s of interest to me. I don’t comment on intelligence matters, but….

PEACOCK:

It would be of concern?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well anything like that, of course it would be of concern. But you often get those reports. Sometimes they have substance, sometimes they don’t.

PEACOCK:

Now the quite impressive support from the ASEAN countries, and as you say China and Russia for example, that was mustered during the APEC conference. How solid a coalition do you think that is? It was put together in about a week and yet this operation is likely to go on years, up to ten years even.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t know if ten years. I don’t know exactly how long Matt. I would hope the peace enforcement operation doesn’t take anywhere near that length of time.

PEACOCK:

How long do you think it might?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can’t say, but it will take some time. But I really can’t say. I mean it may turn out to be quicker than we think. Look, in relation to the resolution, it was really passed in a world record time. The United Nations has never moved as quickly as it has on this occasion and that’s a great credit to the Secretary-General for what was achieved. I would hope that the coalition holds together. It is for others to determine that, not me. I mean I will do my best to hold it together. I think if it works effectively, and it is seen to deliver results, then it will hold together. Now that’s always been the case in the past. I deal in good faith with the leaders of other countries. When they give assurances and commitments to me I tend to accept them, although sometimes you may have reservations here and there as I have in the past about some, with good reason. But I’m optimistic. But our problems are not over. I mean we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, and there’s a lot of optimism that we can now do something to turn around an horrific situation. But there are a lot of hurdles ahead of us.

PEACOCK:

You haven’t been able to telephone President Habibie since last weekend. Is that ominous?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven’t spoken to him for a number of days. There’s no particular purpose at the moment in my speaking to him.

PEACOCK:

Have you tried?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, I did try last weekend and he was not available. Now that’s all I’d say. I mean I understand that. I mean there are some, obviously there may be sensitivities but in a sense the time….events have moved on. The peacekeeping force is going in. I’d take the opportunity of saying again I respect what Dr Habibie did. I mean he did allow a vote on self-determination. He did turn around Indonesian policy. He did move the country towards democracy and he does deserve more credit than he’s received for doing that. And despite everything that has happened I think that is appropriate to say. I think it’s also important for me to say that we don’t have any long-term argument with the people of Indonesia. In fact we don’t have a short-term argument with them. I think there are a lot of people in Indonesia who agree with the stance Australia has taken. There are 211 million people and you’re therefore going to get quite a variety of opinion. But a lot of them are not happy with what occurred in East Timor over the past few weeks, Indeed in years before that. And they would privately applaud the stance that Australia has taken.

PEACOCK:

Now whether it comes from Jakarta, or whether it’s the so called rogue elements of the Indonesian Army, there have been clear strategies over the last several weeks and maybe even longer. There are consistent reports coming out of there now that young men are being separated from the refugees that have been transported over to West Timor. There are consistent reports and word for months that the fall back position of the militias would be a partitioning of East Timor. How concerned are you about that now, and given especially that our peacekeeping peace enforcement mission won’t be able to go to West Timor where a bulk of refugees are now in critical condition?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I remain concerned about the whole situation, and we won’t know the full ramifications of it, and perhaps not even then, until our people go in and they’ve had a chance of assessing the situation on the ground. The reports that we get are mixed. I mean they’re all….you know the situation is very bad. I mean let me make that clear. It’s not mixed to that extent. But as for numbers and all that sort of thing it varies enormously according to who you’re talking to and where the information comes from. All I can say in relation to that Matt is that the sooner we get the peacekeepers in the better so that we can at least start to establish a bit of security and stability. We can find out what is happening. We’ll naturally try and create the situation where people can move freely between East and West Timor. We can’t as you say go into West Timor. That’s Indonesian Government territory, and we don’t have any authority to go there and we won’t try because that will only complicate the situation and make it much worse for the people involved. But we’ll try and persuade the Indonesians to allow free movement of people. We’ve given $3 million of aid to the United Nations and other relief agencies, and that is being used specifically to help people in West Timor, the very refugees of which you’ve spoken. We will clearly be giving more aid, and we’ll be working very hard to establish, you know, some kind of arrangement where by people can freely move back into East Timor if that is there wish. I mean some of the people that have gone to West Timor I think probably have gone there of their own free will. Others not. And what we want to do is create a situation where those who haven’t can be allowed to come back. But they won’t come back unless the situation in East Timor is better and that is of course the cask of the peacekeeping force.

PEACOCK:

And there’s these ominous reports of the separation of the men folk.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, there are so many reports that are ominous, and many of them will no doubt tragically turn out to be accurate, some won’t. And there’ll be some variation in the degree. We just can’t establish that fully and comprehensively until we get there. And that’s why I have been so single minded about getting the resolution and now the resolution is through, about actually getting the men on the ground so that we can start to secure the place and see what can be done to help the poor people of the province.

PEACOCK:

And Prime Minister, when will you be going to Darwin to farewell the troops?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well when I know the time of their departure I’ll go, yes, certainly.

PEACOCK:

Prime Minister, thanks very much for joining us.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 30439