Time to send Australia’s Ambassador back to Indonesia.

And edited version of this blog was published in The Conversation on April 30, here.

My brother died in Indonesia last year – albeit in very different circumstances to Sukumaran and Chan recently executed. I know what it is like to have to fly to Bali, grieve for a sibling, and then organise for him to be brought home. It is tough regardless of the circumstances of death and it is members of the Australian diplomatic staff who make the difficult circumstances less hard deal with.

This is but one of several reasons why it is time Australia sent the Ambassador back to Indonesia.

I know the government has just recalled our Ambassador. But rather than drag out the pretence of protest, the Ambassador should be met on return at Canberra airport, given a shower, toasted sandwich and coffee and sent straight back.

It might be harsh to say so, but the Australia/Indonesian relationship is far more important than the protest over two executed drug traffickers. Before people jump down my throat as a heartless pragmatist, think first about what our diplomatic staff do and who really suffers when the diplomatic post is weakened.

An Australian dies in Bali each nine days or so – let alone the rest of Indonesia. Each nine days in Bali a family has to go through the grief of pain and suffering that accompanies losing a loved one. While the circumstances were different Australia’s Consul General gave both great support to our family when we needed it, and the families of the Australians executed as they have needed it.

Regardless of the circumstances of death, each time an Australian dies members of the Australian diplomatic staff are on hand to help. The Ambassador and Consul General lead the staff who provide this support.

Australians suffer when this support is weakened.

Australia’s fourth largest export is international education, where Indonesia is one of the critical markets. Beef, resources, manufactured products and other goods are sold into that market. Australian diplomatic staff assist, help and encourage our trade. Australians suffer when the diplomatic post is weakened.

Australian joint training with Indonesian military forces has come along way since mid last century. Indeed many people credit the joint training as assisting in the de-escalation of a number of tense moments in the INTERFET deployment in East Timor. Weakening diplomatic ties harms Australia’s security.

Police cooperation in people and drug trafficking has helped reduce the flow of trafficked women, asylum seekers and drugs into Australia. Whilst there is a legitimate question to ask about how the AFP acted in the Bali Nine case, weakening Australia’s Diplomatic mission makes Australia more vulnerable to people and drug smuggling.

Australians are upset that two Australians have been executed. But do we really want Australia weakened in trade, security and lessen the ability of our diplomats to assist families in grief or businesses seeking to trade for the sake of a relatively minor protest which some may say is just a tad specious?

If one bases the execution protest on human rights, them Australia is on shaky ground. Human Rights law is said to be ‘universal’. If this is one’s basis for being upset then the protest should be equal regardless of who is executed and where the executions take place. The protest should be the same regardless of whether it is in the US, or Indonesia, or if the person executed is Australian or of another nationality.

Can Australians name the Australian executed in Singapore in 2005? Did Australia withdraw its Ambassador to Singapore in 2005? Australia very rarely protests against US executions – even when the executed is Australian. If I were Indonesian I would have to query an apparent hypocrisy in the differing positions based on nationality.

Likewise, while most Australians can name the two Australians killed, can they name the others killed at the same time who do not share our passport?

I accept that there is a ‘doctrine of proximity’ in which people feel more strongly about events that are perceived closer to them. Killing one ‘of ours’ will also mean more to Australians than killing someone else. That is why we were more concerned at Monis holding siege in Sydney than the 140 school children and teachers murdered by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan on the same day. One teacher murdered was the aunt of a friend of mine so I felt those deaths more than I did those in Sydney where I had no personal connection.

But if we are protesting based on proximity, lets not hide behind ‘universality’ of human rights when really many only care about Australians killed, and tend to only protest when Indonesia does the killing.

Australia has a complicate relationship with Indonesia. It is such a shame that it is not a relationship based as much on trust and collaboration as it could be – hence why the recall of the Ambassador is an important step. But is it as big a deal as it has been said?

Tony Abbott claims the recall of the Ambassador is an ‘unprecedented step’ that makes Australia’s protest clear. This is simply not true.

Recalling ambassadors is quite common in diplomatic circles. It happens for all number of reasons and is one of the more mild levels of diplomatic protest. The trick in an ambassadorial recall is not the withdrawal, it is to decide when to return the Ambassador – especially if the circumstances that triggered the withdrawal do not change.  The longer a country drags out the process, the harder it is to send them back.

The people who suffer in this withdrawal are Australians more than Indonesians. Why make our own people suffer for a largely toothless protest? Lets get over it and send the Ambassador back now.

Andrew MacLeod is a visiting professor to Kings College London, a non executive director to Australian and US companies, a former high level UN official and international lawyer.

4 Replies to “Time to send Australia’s Ambassador back to Indonesia.”

  1. I agree with you and appreciate someone has voiced this. It was my first thought on reading the news today.


  2. This was also my first thought this morning when I heard the news. First sign of personal trouble for an Australian traveller in Bali and they would expect to be rescued and have the support of the Consul. Are you offering to make the toastie?


  3. I can’t agree with you more.

    Indonesian government wouldn’t change its law system merely because there were two Australians in the death penalty list. People like to talk about human rights…but they don’t see the variances in perceptions of human rights in countries which need to be traced back to their tradition, history and religion. Is it humane to cut someone’s hand off if she/he steals in Dubai? I definitely don’t think so same as the fact that i don’t agree on death penalty. But people there? I can’t say.

    Apparently different parts of the world have their own perception and they can’t be changed easily. Playing the political card of calling the Ambassador back is not going to change much of that but to put negative influences on business and trades, education export and culture exchange, not to mention all the assistance the Ambassador could do to help desperate Australians in Indonesia.


  4. Utter rubbish. Do you really have no idea of how Indonesian political culture works? A political gesture was essential. Mendingan mempelajari dulu situasinya sebelum berkomentar.

    Liked by 1 person

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