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Transcript 30442

Speech to Parliament - East Timor

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Howard, John

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

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

Release Date: 21/09/1999

Release Type:

Transcript ID: 30442


Date: 21 September 1999 (14:00)

Mr HOWARD (Bennelong--Prime Minister) (2.00 p.m.)--I move:

That this House:

(1) notes the overwhelming choice for independence exercised by the East Timorese people on 30 August;

(2) welcomes United Nations Security Council Resolution 1264 authorising a multinational force to restore peace and security in East Timor, protect the United Nations' mission in East Timor and facilitate humanitarian assistance;

(3) endorses Australia's agreement to the United Nations Secretary General's request that Australia contribute to and lead the multinational force;

(4) expresses its full support for the Australians serving with the multinational force and its full confidence in them; and

(5) looks forward to their safe return home.

Mr Speaker, it is appropriate that the parliament at the first opportunity have the chance to debate this motion, because there is no more serious decision that any government takes than to commit Australian military forces abroad. It is therefore essential that the reasons for that decision be made plain to the parliament of Australia and that the representatives of the Australian public have a full opportunity to debate those reasons.

Yesterday the first contingent of Australian forces was deployed in East Timor. We are deploying those forces as part of a multinational force which Australia is leading and that has been sponsored by a United Nations resolution. As of this morning, there were about 1,500 troops from Australia and other countries on East Timor. By tomorrow morning there will be about 2,500.

On Sunday and Monday, accompanied by the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Australian Democrats, I had the opportunity of meeting and farewelling many of the men and women who are now in, or about to be deployed in, East Timor. It is fair to say that we were all tremendously impressed by their state of readiness, their eagerness, their understanding of the importance of the mission and their commitment to the goals and values of the Australian community which underpins the decision taken by the government to commit Australian forces. It was appropriate that they be seen and farewelled not only by the Prime Minister but also by the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Australian Democrats, because we should remember that when Australians go abroad as an armed force, they do not go in the name of the government of the day, they go in the name of Australia. It is therefore important that all of them understand that.

Sharing dinner with many of them in Townsville on Sunday evening, my wife and I were struck by their cheerfulness, their professionalism and their commitment to their task. I was also very deeply warmed by the characteristic Australian responses. One of them looked at me as we ate and said, `Well, John, now I've got you, let me tell you what's wrong with the Army.' It was so Australian; it was so reassuring; and it was a reminder of the sorts of values that are important to the Australian community.

I now report to the parliament therefore on the reasons for their deployment, what their task is and what the decision means for Australian defence and foreign policy. In the course of doing that, may I record my deep appreciation to my two colleagues, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Defence, both of whom throughout this entire episode have behaved with impeccable professionalism. They have played a major role in bringing about a state of affairs where I believe the overwhelming majority of the Australian community is immensely proud of the role that Australia has played on this issue.

It is important as we analyse this commitment to understand that Australia carries on this occasion the special burden of leadership of this group. We have participated in the past in peacekeeping, peace enforcement and other operations, but on this occasion we carry the special responsibility and the special burden of leadership. As the House will know, on 15 September the United Nations Security Council unanimously authorised the establishment of a multinational force in Timor. The resolution gives the force three tasks for its mandate: first, to restore peace and security to East Timor; second to protect and support the United Nations Mission in East Timor and; third, to facilitate within force capabilities humanitarian assistance operations in East Timor.

The multinational force has been authorised by the United Nations Security Council, under chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, to use all necessary measures to achieve its mandate. The multinational force will prepare the ground for the United Nations to complete its task of managing East Timor's transition to independence. This will involve the arrival as soon as possible of a fully-fledged blue helmet UN peacekeeping operation and the establishment of a UN transitional administration.

The Australian government will be doing everything it can to ensure that the UN transitional administration is ready to take over when the Indonesian parliament ratifies East Timor's independence. The government's expectation is that the multinational force will be about 7,500 strong. Australia is initially deploying 2,000 troops, increasing up to 4,500 if necessary. Australia will provide the force commander, Major General Cosgrove and Thailand will provide the deputy force commander, Major General Songkitti.

We estimate that the cost of Australia's contribution will be in the order of $500 million in the financial year 1999-2000. Under the terms of the Security Council resolution, costs will be borne by participating states or met from voluntary contributions to a special trust fund that has been established by the United Nations.

We have firm commitments to participate from more than 12 countries. These include Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, from within ASEAN, and New Zealand, Britain and Canada are making valuable contributions. The United States will provide significant support, including airlift capability, communications, intelligence, engineering support and helicopters. There are many other contributions, including from Korea and China. The defence minister will provide details separately. Some countries that are not contributing troops will contribute financially to the UN trust fund, and I welcome Japan's offer of a substantial contribution.

I want to take the opportunity to express my deep appreciation to the leaders of all of the nations that are contributing troops or financial assistance. I would like in particular to thank my regional colleague the Prime Minister of Thailand, Mr Chuan, who so promptly responded to my request for assistance in providing a substantial military contingent as well as the Deputy Force Commander. I also draw the attention of the House to the very strong support offered by President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea during his recent visit and, likewise, President Estrada of the Philippines and other regional leaders have given strong support to the UN multinational force.

Australia is not alone in this venture. The region has responded readily and promptly in creating this force with us under the umbrella of the United Nations. The government has every confidence in the professionalism of the Australian Defence Force and its preparedness for this operation. The units have inspired confidence by the speed with which they have got themselves ready and the proficiency with which they are being deployed. I congratulate the Defence Force and their commanding officers on this excellent response.

The tasks that our men and women face will not be easy. We hope it will be accomplished soon, but we have to be prepared for the possibility that it will be long and protracted. The risk of casualties is a serious one; this is a dangerous operation. The rules of engagement for Australia's forces will allow them to use lethal force to achieve their mandate to restore peace and security. Our troops will not be sent into danger with one hand tied behind their back.

It is important to insert here the recognition that the rules of engagement are broader, fuller and more robust than was the case in rules of engagement in other peacekeeping operations that produced the agonisingly frustrating situation of heavily armed peacekeepers literally having to stand by and see atrocities committed before their very eyes. I think all of us in Townsville and Darwin were encouraged by the detailed knowledge of the rules of engagement of all of the serving personnel and their satisfaction that the rules of engagement were adequate and appropriate to all of the possibilities and all of the tasks that might lie ahead.

Indonesia has undertaken to cooperate with the multinational force. I welcome the fact that the force commander has been able to report that he has enjoyed good cooperation on the ground from the Indonesian commander in East Timor. However, the multinational force could be a target of attack from the pro-integration militias. It would be foolhardy of us to plan on any other basis. In the past the militias have been supported by elements in the Indonesian armed forces. We hope that all parts of the Indonesian armed forces understand that it would not be in the interests of their country to continue that support.

The formation of the multinational force is a result of strenuous efforts on the part of many, including the UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, for whom I would like to express my highest regard. Throughout the recent negotiations to establish the peacekeeping force he has displayed great diplomatic skill, patience, determination and a clear understanding of the issues at stake. The speed of the international community's response is due in no small measure to his commitment and skill.

Australia's leadership of the multinational force is the most recent step in a sustained effort by the government to help resolve the East Timor issue. Apart from the human toll from the conflict in East Timor during nearly 25 years, the issue has held Indonesia back internationally and has been a cause of tension in Australia's relationship with Indonesia.

The resignation of President Suharto and the moves towards democracy last year in Indonesia opened the door to a possible resolution in East Timor. Moreover, as members will know, the conflict in East Timor was worsening. I therefore wrote to President Habibie in December last year, encouraging him to take a different approach to East Timor. I suggested to him that he negotiate directly with the East Timorese and consider the option of autonomy for East Timor with an act of self-determination after a substantial period of autonomy.

It has to be recognised frankly that, for a quarter of a century, governments of both political persuasions in Australia had reluctantly acquiesced in Indonesia's policy towards East Timor. Although the issue was raised from time to time, Australian governments were not prepared to see the relationship with Indonesia put under strain for the sake of making progress with East Timor. My letter and the policy changes embodied in it therefore represented a significant change, after a quarter of a century, in the policy approach of this government towards Indonesia in relation to East Timor.

Subsequently, in January of this year, President Habibie took the bold and principled step of agreeing to a UN-supervised ballot on independence for East Timor. I indicated at the time that Australia would have preferred a longer period of substantial autonomy for East Timor before a ballot was held. We recognised, however, that once the decision had been taken to hold a ballot, the dynamics in East Timor and internationally had changed forever. The best and only realistic course of action was to help the United Nations ensure as safe a ballot as was possible. If we had argued for a delay, the opportunity could well have been lost entirely. Australia was not a party to the agreement between Indonesia, Portugal and the United Nations on the holding of the ballot and subsequent transition arrangements. This agreement was based on a promise by the Indonesian government that it would secure conditions in East Timor throughout the process.

The Australian government, well aware of the links between the Indonesian armed forces and the East Timorese militias, mounted a sustained international campaign to press Indonesia to adhere to the commitment to provide security which it had made to the United Nations. In order to secure an environment as free as possible of violence and intimidation, the Australian government argued for and insisted upon an increase in civilian police advisers, to some 300, before the ballot. We insisted that these numbers be again increased for the period immediately after the ballot, which we were aware was potentially dangerous.

Australians can be immensely proud of the performance of our Federal Police, ably led by the United Nations civilian police commander, Alan Mills. Australian military liaison officers, the staff of the Australian Consulate, and many Australians, including from the Australian Electoral Commission, helped ensure a fair ballot. On behalf of the government, I want to acknowledge their dedication and their bravery in such difficult conditions.

In the end, on a day that passed without major disruption, the outcome was decisive. The East Timorese voted by a margin of four to one for independence. The turnout--with 98.6 per cent of those registered casting a vote--and the integrity of the process vindicated the United Nations' judgment to proceed with the ballot despite threats from the pro-integration militias. The conduct of the ballot was a tribute to the work of UNAMET and the leadership of its head, Ian Martin.

After the ballot, however, Indonesia's armed forces proved unwilling or unable to maintain security in East Timor. We have all been horrified by the violence against the people of East Timor, the mass flight of people within the territory and from it, and by the scale of the destruction of property and infrastructure. This was the background to Australia's efforts to establish a multinational peacekeeping force under the United Nations and to convince Indonesia to invite one in.

In numerous telephone conversations with the UN Secretary-General, President Clinton, President Habibie and other leaders before, during and after the APEC meeting in Auckland, I emphasised the need for decisive international action to restore peace to East Timor, to deal with the looming humanitarian disaster, and to create the conditions for the transition to independence for East Timor. It is to the great credit of President Habibie that he agreed to invite in international peacekeepers. It would not have been an easy domestic political decision for him, either personally or otherwise. Ours has been the correct and only responsible course of action. Some have argued that Australia should have insisted--

Opposition members interjecting--

Mr HOWARD--I will say that again. Some have argued that Australia should have insisted on a United Nations peacekeeping force before the ballot or should have argued for a delay in the ballot. Let me emphasise that there was never any prospect that Indonesia would have accepted a peacekeeping force before the ballot. I raised it directly with President Habibie in Bali when I met him earlier this year. He made it clear in the discussions we had that any such proposal was totally and completely unacceptable to him and to the Indonesian government.

I think it is also worth while my informing the House that, on three other occasions, I raised with the President of Indonesia the question of the intervention of international peacekeepers. On 29 August, which was the day before the ballot result was announced, I rang President Habibie to discuss what might happen when the announcement of the ballot was made. I sought assurances from him as to the safety of Australian personnel in East Timor and generally of the security situation. We discussed the possibility of peacekeepers. He made it clear that he would only be prepared to contemplate peacekeepers going in after the transition to independence had taken place--in other words, after the Indonesian National Assembly had voted in favour of the separation of East Timor from the rest of Indonesia. I rang him again over the weekend after the ballot result had been announced, and he again made it clear that peacekeepers were simply not possible until after the National Assembly vote and the UN transitional administration was in place.

On 6 September I rang him again to discuss the deteriorating situation in East Timor. He indicated then--and this was after contact had been made by the Secretary-General with me and also between the Secretary-General and Dr Habibie--that he would declare martial law in East Timor and if that did not work he would consider inviting in a peacekeeping force. And it so transpires that that is precisely the course of events that were subsequently followed. It is therefore clear that any suggestion that peacekeepers could have been inserted before the ballot was held had no contact at all with the reality of the situation.

Insisting on a peacekeeping force would have meant no ballot. Insisting on a delay in the ballot could well have meant no ballot. Many in President Habibie's government and much of the Indonesian leadership opposed the ballot. Indonesia had resisted any change in East Timor for nearly 25 years. Nor would the international community have been ready to form a peacekeeping force. An international peacekeeping force has only now become possible because the world has seen 78.5 per cent of East Timorese vote for independence and is not prepared to see them denied the independence they so clearly voted for. The United Nations made the decision that the ballot should go ahead on schedule. As the United Nations Secretary-General has said, if the UN had not accepted a ballot in the circumstances available the ballot probably would never have happened. We did not have the right to take that away from the people of East Timor.

In the face of the violence after the ballot a few people in this country called for Australia to send in troops to East Timor without the consent of Indonesia. That would have been tantamount to declaring war. It was an option no responsible government could have contemplated, despite the distress that we, along with all Australians, felt about the terrible events in East Timor. I think that this has been recognised by the Australian people. Nevertheless, the international community has moved faster than in any other case I am aware of to form a peacekeeping force. This has happened because of the leadership that Australia has shown in forming a coalition of countries under the United Nations umbrella. It has also happened only because the government, aware of the potential risks, took the precaution early this year of bringing an extra brigade of the Australian Army to a higher level of readiness in order to respond to any peacekeeping needs. If we had not done so, Australia would not have been able to respond immediately to the request of the United Nations not only to participate in the peacekeeping force but also to lead that force.

Developments in East Timor reaffirm some of the home truths about Australia's place in the region to which we pointed when we came into office in 1996. The first truth is that foreign policy needs to be based on a clear sense of the national interest and on our values. As Palmerston famously observed, `Nations do not have permanent friends but only permanent interests.' This government has from the beginning put a clear sense of the national interest at the core of the government's approach to foreign and trade policy. We should not delude ourselves that relations between countries turn on the personnel rapport of leaders, the sentiments of governments or so-called special relationships. Our relationships are most productive when they are realistic, concentrating on mutual interests, building on those areas where cooperation is possible and openly recognising, where they exist, differences in values and political systems.

The second truth is that in occupying what I have called a unique intersection--a Western nation next to Asia with strong links to the United States and Europe--Australia deploys unique assets in our relationship with the Asian region. These links in our history are not an embarrassment to be lived down--quite the contrary. We have stopped worrying about whether we are Asian, in Asia, enmeshed in Asia or part of the a mythical East-Asian hemisphere. We have got on with the job of being ourselves in the region. In turn, the region has recognised that we are an asset and have a constructive role to play in it. Australia's global links have enabled us to work with the United Nations, the United States and others to persuade Indonesia that its best interests would be met by inviting in a multinational force. Moreover, our defence links with all these countries through ANZUS, the five power defence arrangements and our bilateral defence cooperation programs provide us with the capacity to cooperate effectively with them and lead a multinational force.

The third truth is that Australia's alliance with the United States clearly works very effectively. The results reflect the effort the government has put into strengthening the alliance since we came into office. Neither Australia nor the region looks to the United States to solve the East Timor problem for us, but the alliance relationship has underpinned a visible and operationally significant US contribution to the peacekeeping force. We are completely satisfied with the scale of the US contribution.

Fourthly, the government has been right to exempt defence spending from the necessary budget cuts of our first term. The defence reforms we have pursued have put more resources into the combat capability of the Australian Defence Force. I have already foreshadowed the need to examine an increase in defence spending. Australia faces an uncertain regional security situation; the resource and force structure implications of this will be significant. The government's next white paper on defence will examine the likely demands on the ADF for regional peacekeeping, the evacuation of Australian nationals under difficult conditions and the capacity to participate in coalition operations. While the Defence Force must be equipped to defend Australia from direct attack, it must also be able to respond to other more likely contingencies. In other words, the Australian community must face the need for a significant increase in defence commitment in the years ahead.

Finally, national interest cannot be pursued without regard to the values of the Australian community. Australia has no quarrel with the Indonesian nation. Both countries have an interest in getting on with the other. We share important common interests; we are neighbours. Indonesia is the largest country in South-East Asia. How it develops and behaves will influence the strategic balance in our region. It is a significant economic partner for Australia.

Australian policy approaches need to take account of the changes that are taking place in Indonesia. We welcome the transition towards democracy that is occurring in that country. In time this will strengthen Indonesia and our capacity to work with it. We recognise the enormous difficulties that Indonesia faces as it responds to the most serious economic crisis in decades and traverses this political transition. Indeed, my government has been in the forefront in helping Indonesia manage those difficulties and in garnering greater international support and understanding for Indonesia's problems. We also recognise the complexities of governing a nation of over 200 million people spread over thousands of islands. Successful economic and political management by Indonesia of a united but diverse nation is important for Indonesia's own future stability and prosperity. It is also in the interests of Australia and the region.

But none of this means that Australia's objective can be to maintain a good relationship with Indonesia at all costs or at the expense of doing the right thing according to our own values. We seek a relationship of mutual respect and mutual benefit with Indonesia. On that basis, we look forward to working closely with the new, democratically elected government of that country to be formed in the near future.

Events in East Timor have put our relationship with Indonesia under great strain. It would be foolish to imagine that things could have been otherwise, given the stance of Australian foreign policy on East Timor over the last 25 years. Some resent Australia's efforts to help in East Timor or seek to use us as a scapegoat. But we should keep this in perspective. The criticisms of Australian foreign policy that we have seen and heard in Indonesia are not the only Indonesian voices. There are many people in Indonesia who identify with democracy and support the steps that Indonesia is taking in this direction. They are also appalled at the total breakdown of security in East Timor. They will understand and sympathise with the response from Australia and the rest of the international community.

In this context, I ask those in Australia who exercise their legitimate right of protest to refrain from violence against people and property and not to impede people going about their normal business. Such behaviour is unlawful and will be treated as such. It damages the interests of our citizens and has a counterproductive effect on Indonesian attitudes.

The government is encouraged by the commitment of so many of Indonesia's political leaders to respect the vote cast by East Timorese. We look forward to the new Indonesian parliament formally deciding to allow East Timor to separate from Indonesia. I was greatly encouraged by the remarks made by President Habibie in his address to the Indonesian parliament only a few hours ago when he recommitted the government of his country to accept the outcome of the ballot that was conducted in East Timor.

When this government came into office, some commentators said that Asia would not accept us. The comment was revealing in its assumption that Australia had to be invited into a regional framework. It was a view of Australia that underestimated the strengths of Australia's institutions, our economy, our capacity and our will to achieve national goals. Our safe passage through the Asian economic storm makes that view even more dated, irrelevant and erroneous. The truth is that our economic, military and other credentials are respected and give us a capacity to help and constructively participate in the region. Just as we were in a position to assist our neighbours during the Asian economic crisis, so also on East Timor we have shown that we have the capacity under the United Nations to work with our regional partners in putting together a multinational peacekeeping force. It is an example of both our commitment to the region and our capacity to make a constructive and practical contribution to its affairs.

The deployment of Australian troops to East Timor meets the test of national interest in two respects. First, in the spirit of Australia's military tradition, our troops are going to defend what this society believes to be right. They are not going to occupy territory, to impose the will of Australia on others or to act against the legitimate interests of another country. They are going at the request of the United Nations and with the agreement of the Indonesian government. They are going to defend the choice of East Timorese who have exercised that choice in favour of independence in a free vote granted to them by their government with the blessing of the whole international community. They are going to facilitate the humanitarian relief that is so desperately needed for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in East Timor. No-one who has met the East Timorese evacuees in Darwin, as I did at a moving occasion in Darwin yesterday, could help but be deeply touched by their plight.

Second, our troops are going to East Timor to put an end to the sort of violence that we have seen in recent days. Apart from the human cost, this scale of violence undermines Australia's own interest in a stable region. Our troops will prepare the way for the United Nations to undertake the vital task of developing a transitional political and administrative framework for East Timor. For East Timorese, this offers the hope of reconciliation among groups that have fought each other for decades and the opportunity to create their own future. They have a responsibility to come to grips with these issues. For Indonesia, it will more readily be able to concentrate on its nation building task, with the full support of the international community.

Australia's contribution to the peacekeeping force in East Timor is the biggest commitment of Australian military forces in over 30 years. Our men and women go well-trained, well-led, and in a just cause. At this time our thoughts and prayers are with those in the field, as they go to help restore peace and security to a people who themselves once helped Australian soldiers at a time of need and who have suffered so much in recent times. At home we undertake to give them our support and to watch over their families while they are away. We wish them safety and a safe and early return home. I commend the motion to the House.


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