Bribery allegations cast a shadow on Australia′s relationship with Indonesia | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 19.06.2015
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Bribery allegations cast a shadow on Australia's relationship with Indonesia

Australia's government has evaded accusations that authorities bribed people smugglers to return to Indonesia, but questions of illegal conduct remain, as Jack Fisher reports from Sydney.

The government in Canberra is refusing to be drawn on allegations that Australian authorities paid people smugglers over $30,000 US (26,500 euros) to turn their boat back to Indonesia.

Allegations emerged last week that Australian authorities intercepted a boat carrying 65 refugees in May and transferred the passengers onto two boats to be turned around.

Australien Premierminister Tony Abbott

'By hook or by crook,' perhaps not the ideal turn of phrase for a head of government to employ

Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to deny the allegations, stressing that the government would stop the people smuggling trade "by hook or by crook."

As part of its "Operation Sovereign Borders," the Australian Government has maintained that it will continue to turn boats around "when it is safe to do so."

Since 2013, Australia has taken a hardline approach to "unauthorized maritime arrivals," overseeing an immigration detention program on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island in which resettlement in Australia is not an option.

The controversial program was subject to a scathing Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry earlier this year, while the government ordered its own review of sexual assault allegations from the Nauru detention facility last October.

Earlier this month, it emerged that Australia's former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison knew about the sex abuse allegations nearly a year before the government instigated that review.

Violation of laws

There are a number of laws - Australian, Indonesian and international - that Australian officials may have violated if the allegations of payment to people smugglers are proven true.

Paying and assisting people smugglers is a violation of the Australian Criminal Code Act.

Donald R. Rothwell, professor of International Law at the Australian National University, says that prosecution for people smuggling can only occur with the consent of Australia's Attorney General or the Commonwealth.

Furthermore, Australian intelligence officers, who are alleged to have paid the bribes, enjoy immunity from prosecution under Australian criminal and civil law, provided they are undertaking their lawful duties.

There is a question of whether the alleged payments would constitute a contravention of the International Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, which Australia is party to.

Flyer - Australien No Way

Abbott's government is seeking a no-nonsense approach to boat migrants

"The alleged activity clearly sees Australia in contravention of that protocol in terms of making payments to people smugglers - which is effectively engaging in a people smuggling activity - and failing to engage in co-operation with a regional partner to whom the people smugglers had been directed to take persons - in this case, Indonesia," professor Rothwell says.

"It would depend upon Indonesia as the aggrieved country seeking to take action against Australia for breach of the treaty provisions. So the ball is very much in Indonesia's court."

Roller coaster relationship

Dr. Jonathan Bogais, adjunct professor at the University of Sydney, describes the Australian-Indonesian relationship as "a car on a roller coaster."

"It goes up and it goes down and that's been going on for well over 60 years now."

Vedi Hadiz, professor of Asian Societies and Politics at Murdoch University in Australia, agrees: "Because of the mutual needs of the two countries and their geographical proximity, they tend to go back to business as usual. The last couple of years have been particularly notable for the seriousness of a successive number of events that have contributed to a spiralling of the relationship."

Myuran Sukumaran Andrew Chan Indonesien Todestrafe

The executions of Andrew Chan (r.) and Myuran Sukumaran (l.) on drugs charges also strained bilateral ties

Those events have included 2013 revelations that Australian intelligence agencies had tapped the phone of Indonesia's president, naval breaches by Australia into Indonesian territorial waters, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott's request that Indonesia reciprocate for Australian aid by sparing two Australians from execution.

Dr Bogais says: "Indonesia was scandalized by the revelation that Australian secret services were spying on the wife of the former President. Indonesia tends to look at Australia as a country that is lecturing them into how to run their own affairs - a Western nation with no regard for their sovereignty."

After international outrage was sparked by Indonesia's April execution of seven foreign nationals, including two Australians, Australia's ambassador returned to Indonesia days before the bribery allegations surfaced.

Professor Hadiz says: "The Indonesians are now saying, 'Look - the international community, with the prodding of Australia, has criticized Indonesia for the executions, but look at what Australia has been doing.' Australia has been turning back boats with little mind for the safety and fate of these refugees. It has put people in detention in conditions that have been reported as being fairly deplorable."

Compounding this, Hadiz says, are the allegations that Canberra "may be paying criminals" in order to achieve its policy goals.

"Indonesia is now saying, 'which one of the two governments is transgressing international norms?' It can't just be Indonesia. It's obvious both are doing so in their different ways."

Dr Bogais says that 20 years ago Australia was considered "the international citizen," but this has radically changed under Abbott's administration. Furthermore, the professor notes how "part of the Australian population actually supports this very radical way," on the basis that they would rather keep the refugee problem beyond the country's coastline.

"So if people die at sea: 'Well that's not okay, but as long as they don't die near the coast of Australia, that is much better.' I think that's something that the Indonesians are taking offense at, and not just the Indonesians either - that is a view all across the region."

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