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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12851


Mr RUDD (5:28 PM) —I rise in the debate in order to speak on my recent visit to refugee camps in West Timor, to table my report on that visit and to comment on what has transpired in the four weeks since then and what must now be done in order to prevent a large-scale humanitarian disaster. Between Saturday, 30 October and Wednesday, 3 November, I visited West Timor, including the provincial capital, Kupang, the regional centre of Atambua, as well as the northern port of Attapupu. During this visit, I had extensive discussions with the provincial government officials in Kupang, representatives of the Indonesian military and police, as well as representatives of a large number of UN agencies and NGOs currently in the field in West Timor.

I was accompanied during this visit by three officers of the Australian embassy in Jakarta: Mr Les Rowe, the DCM; Mr Jo Leong, the Third Secretary; and Mr Titon Mitra of AusAID. I would like to thank the minister for making these officers available for the purposes of my visit. I would also like to pay tribute to the professionalism of these officers in the way in which they discharged their responsibilities while accompanying me in West Timor.

The purpose of my visit was to investigate first-hand the conditions in the refugee camps in West Timor, currently accommodating—or at least at that stage accommodating—a quarter of a million East Timor refugees. My other objective was to examine the current operation of the repatriation agreement between the Indonesian government and the UNHCR for the return of refugees to East Timor. I would like to thank the Indonesian embassy and the government of Indonesia for providing me with the necessary approvals to travel to West Timor and the necessary levels of physical security for the duration of my visit.

Upon my return to Australia I completed a report, a copy of which was provided to the Minister for Foreign Affairs on 12 November. Broadly, its findings were as follows. First, while UN agencies are generally satisfied that there is no immediate food crisis in the 135 or more camps across West Timor, there is a grave and mounting concern about general health conditions in those camps. There is a scarcity of clean water, sanitation is negligible, immunisation levels against diseases such as measles are exceptionally low and, with the onset of the wet season, there is a grave concern about the further deterioration in these conditions, particularly when added to the normal resurgence of malaria and dengue fever at this time of the year.

Second, on the question of the repatriation of refugees three major problems emerged. First, the continuing problem of military harassment and intimidation of those refugees seeking to return to East Timor; second, at that stage the absence of an effective cross-border agreement between INTERFET and the Indonesian military to allow large-scale road convoys to return refugees in large numbers; and, third, misinformation and disinformation within refugee communities about conditions back in East Timor, particularly in relation to the level of security and the availability of food and shelter upon return. The immediate dilemma is this: if the UNHCR fails to repatriate those 150,000 or so refugees currently in West Timor who wish to return to East Timor before the substantial onset of the wet season, there is a grave risk of a significant outbreak of disease in the refugee camps. World Health Organisation officials are particularly concerned about the impact of these diseases on the 50,000 children among the overall refugee population. Children, in particular those under five, are of course the most vulnerable.

My report makes a number of recommendations about what needs to be done on each of these issues, and I have just received a reply from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Downer, on each of these recommendations. I doubt that embassy officials who accompanied me on my visit would have drawn different conclusions from those which I drew myself. For part of my visit I was also accompanied by the British and American ambassadors, who it is likely drew similar conclusions to my own. Mr Deputy Speaker, I now seek leave to table my report.

Leave granted.


Mr RUDD —It is now four weeks since I returned from West Timor and, based on press reports, there does not appear to have been any radical improvement in the conditions which I described in my report. As far as humanitarian needs are concerned, an Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs appeal was launched globally for the requirements of the continued humanitarian effort in West Timor and East Timor. I note this government's recent announcement of its response to that appeal.

On the critical question of militia violence, there have been a number of detailed press reports since my visit of semiautomatic weapons being used against refugee convoys on the road between Atambua and the port at Attapupu which I visited several weeks ago. These attacks have reportedly resulted in a number of casualties. It is also important at this time to reflect on the courage necessary for UNHCR officials to do their job properly under these trying circumstances.

One positive development in the last fortnight has been the visit to Jakarta, West Timor and East Timor by the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke. Mr Holbrooke's conclusions, having visited West Timor the weekend before last, seem remarkably similar to my own conclusions of several weeks ago. Mr Holbrooke appears to have succeeded in concluding a new cross-border agreement between the Indonesian military and INTERFET, and this is to be welcomed. The bottom line is that, if large numbers of refugees are to be returned to East Timor successfully and safely, ferries and aircraft will simply take too long and disease will spread through the camps. However, opening the border does not of itself solve the problem of the militia physically preventing refugees from leaving the camps. Ambassador Holbrooke raised this issue with the Indonesian government in Jakarta the weekend before last. According to press reports, he received a positive reaction, although we still do not see concrete evidence of a change in policy on the ground.

Where the rubber hits the road on this issue is as follows. The Indonesian military on the ground in West Timor must act against the militia now if the UNHCR is to have any chance of doing its job. As Ambassador Holbrooke also noted, the international standing of the new government in Jakarta is increasingly at stake on this issue. I arrived in Jakarta on the very day that President Wahid's new cabinet was being sworn in. His government is now barely three weeks old. The government has made a number of positive policy statements on the issue of the repatriation of refugees to East Timor, and these are to be welcomed. However, both the United States and the rest of the international community recognise that we are at a critical juncture at this very moment in managing the return of 150,000 human beings safely to their homes in East Timor.

Plainly there was a problem under the Habibie administration when the Indonesian government would announce a policy in one direction only to find elements of the Indonesian military effectively undermining that policy in another direction. It is critical that we do not see a continuation of this dualism in the future. President Wahid leads a reformist government and his policy pronouncements have been enormously encouraging in relation to the normalisation of public administration in Indonesia. That process must include an appropriate response by the Indonesian military to the government's stated policy of rapidly facilitating the return of refugees to East Timor.

I note from the Prime Minister's statement on this matter during the last sitting week that `the government will pursue this issue vigorously with the Indonesian government, the UN Secretary-General, other governments and appropriate relief agencies'. My question to the Prime Minister and to his minister is, however: what specific actions have now been taken by the government in these various capitals to ensure that the UNHCR can properly discharge its mandate. The UNHCR has a responsibility in this respect as well. Because the rains have already started, if the UNHCR cannot now give proper effect to its international mandate to return refugees safely across the border, it must bring this matter to a head in the relevant international fora.

We cannot simply allow diplomatic niceties to get in the road of saving people's lives, particularly as this country, Australia, has played such a significant role in the events of East Timor in the period since the independence ballot of 30 August. In this context, I note with interest Ambassador Holbrooke's reported statement of 23 November that the civilian leadership of Indonesia:

. . . all wanted us—

that is, the United States—

to put public pressure on the Indonesian military to solve this problem . . . They do not regard this as outside interference. They encouraged it. They welcomed it. They asked us to do it.

There is a grave danger that in this country and elsewhere in the world international focus on the problems of Timor, both East and West, will simply fade away now that the novelty of it all has passed. Sound foreign policy, however, not to mention the requirement of international law, requires that we in this country do not simply fade away on this issue.

We have a responsibility in Australia in relation to events in East Timor. We have been instrumental in a range of developments leading up to the emerging independence of that state. We therefore have a consequential public obligation, an obligation of public morality, to ensure that we do not walk away from the consequences which flow from that—and that includes the people in refugee camps in West Timor as well. (Time expired)