The arrest of Care Australia’s Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace by Serb authorities
exposes more than the risks faced by aid workers in a war which masquerades as
"humanitarian relief". It also reveals the perils faced by good people as a
result of their own government’s stupidity.
If we dismiss Serbian claims that they were Western spies, Pratt and Wallace were
arrested either (a) because they were easy targets and possibly useful as bargaining chips
in halting NATO’s bombardment, or (b) because they were Australian. My hunch is that they
were victims of their nationality.
Despite being irrelevant to the conflicts in the Balkans and having no influence on
either side, the Australian Government’s fulsome support for NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia
was as predictable as it was consequential. Instead of being able to go about their work
as nationals of a neutral party to the dispute, Pratt and Wallace were presumably seen by
Serbs as citizens of a state whose government reflexively endorsed an illegal and brutal
attack upon their homeland. Would they otherwise have been of any interest to Belgrade?
The Australian Government has not only been unable to protect its nationals abroad, it
has, in fact, made two of its most altruistic citizens unnecessary targets in a propaganda
war which it has nothing whatever to do with.
There is considerable irony in the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, now
crowing about enlisting Kofi Annan’s support for the release of Pratt and Wallace. It was,
of course, the United Nations which NATO conspicuously bypassed in order to launch its
attack on Yugoslavia – a strategy which drew no complaints of any kind from the Australian
Government at the time. The Secretary-General is probably too polite to remind Canberra of
Meanwhile closer to home, the Australian Government is reaping another bitter policy
harvest. In East Timor, private militias are killing any Timorese suspected of being
sympathetic to the struggle for independence. These militias are armed and paid by ABRI,
Indonesia’s military forces, and are doing everything they can to thwart a UN sponsored
ballot on independence, provisionally scheduled for early July.
The Australian Government, alone in the world in recognising Indonesia’s sovereignty in
East Timor, argues that Jakarta is responsible for law and order in the disputed
territory. In other words, the very organisation that committed the worst slaughter
relative to a population since the holocaust between 1975-8, should now be relied upon to
pacify East Timor in preparation for the UN ballot. Unsurprisingly, the act of
self-determination which both Jakarta and Canberra opposed for so long, looks certain to
be postponed. The East Timorese have been cruelly betrayed yet again.
The Howard Government also accepts the Habibie Government’s denials that it is backing
the militias, claiming instead that the latest massacres in Liquica (+60 dead, 8 April)
and Dili (+30 dead, 17 April) were sponsored by ‘rogue elements’ in the Indonesian
military. Even if this was true, and it is highly improbable, what does this say about
Canberra’s confidence in ABRI’s ability to maintain law and order in East Timor? More
importantly, when will foreign policy in Australia recover from its present paralysis and
move towards supporting UN intervention in what will soon be, one way or another, a new
independent state? After all, we can’t just sit back and do nothing while people are being
slaughtered, or can we?
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian and International Studies
221 Burwood Highway
Burwood Victoria 3125
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