Shadow immigration spokesman Richard Marles' thought bubble on the success of the Federal Government's "turn back the boats" policy on Sunday has raised the prospect of bipartisan unity on a policy that has angered Australia's large near neighbour, Indonesia.
The appointment of a career diplomat, Retno Marsudi, as Indonesia's new foreign minister is only likely to formalise Indonesia's opposition to Australia's controversial asylum seeker policy.
Indonesia's previous foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, was blunt in his criticism of Australia's policy of turning back asylum seekers attempting to leave Indonesia for Australian waters. He was especially forthright about the issue when it included Australian ships entering Indonesian territorial waters.
Timor-Leste’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, has deferred his decision to step down as his country’s leader until April 2015. He had announced earlier this year that he intended to leave office firstly in September, then in October. He has since said that he wishes to stay on to oversee negotiations with Australia over a resolution to the Timor Sea dispute.
If one was to believe the reporting on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations, especially the reporting in Hong Kong, one could be mistaken for believing that it was all but over. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
There is no doubt that the numbers in Hong Kong Central have diminished, especially during the day, but they continue to bounce back at night, when ordinary Hong Kongers have finished their day’s work or study. So, too, at the Mongkok protest site in central Kowloon.
At both sites, traffic continues to be blocked and the barricades erected from street furniture over a week ago remain entirely intact. The few police roaming around appear to have no interest in taking down the barricades, even though the protesters are hundreds of metres away.
There was some hope that talks scheduled for Friday would make some headway towards resolving the protests. But no-one on either side believes there could be any meaningful movement on the protesters’ central demand to freely nominate and elect their chief executive in 2017.
Despite believing they were promised such an outcome in 2012, more recently the residents of Hong Kong were told they could vote only for a candidate that had been vetted by a pro-Beijing committee.
There is a view, too, that most Hong Kongers, as they call themselves, are sick of the disruption to their daily lives. Shopkeepers are reported to be complaining about loss of business.
Yet little business is disrupted and what is more evident is the goods that have been freely given by businesses all over Hong Kong to support the protesters. There have been donations of crates of water and other drinks, free food, tarpaulins and even tents and other forms of shelter, along with first aid supplies stockpiled at emergency care centres for those protesters who were tear-gassed or attacked by thugs believed to be paid for by interests close to the governor.
What is clear is that, rather than the pro-democracy protests just fading away, they have polarised Hong Kong society. There are very few Hong Kongers who now do not have a strong opinion on the issue.
Broadly speaking, the city’s business elites tend to be pro-status quo, with the working class. tending to be more divided. Hong Kong’s large and influential middle class, however, appears to be strongly pro-democratic. Unofficial but reliable surveys undertaken by a respectable institution (which cannot be named in what is a subtle climate of retribution) says that between 60 and 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s resident are in favour of having a freely nominated and elected chief executive.
Against these pro-democratic tendencies is not just Hong Kong’s business elite but, of course, the government of China. No matter the extent to which Hong Kongers like to think of themselves as a people and a place apart, they are Chinese and Hong Kong is a part of China.
The Chinese government believes it cannot afford to allow Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest to be successful. Should it be so, it will show the rest of China that peaceful street protests can produce political change.
China may have moved on from the bad old days of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or it may not – that is yet to be seen. But the Chinese Communist Party has no intention of relinquishing its very considerable grip on the machinery of the state, and the considerable economic opportunities that come with such control.
Yet the regime in Beijing must tread carefully in Hong Kong, given it is China’s largest source of investment funds and, equally, China is now a major investor in Hong Kong.
Should Hong Kong become unstable and its economy dive, that would be financially disastrous for all involved. And in the end, with China having given up any pretence to being ‘communist’ and Hong Kong being one of the world’s most mercantile cities, money appears to be what is most important.
Yet Hong Kong’s students and others at the protest sites object to being locked in what they consider to be a gilded cage. Rather than damaging business, they believe greater representation and accountability will enhance business. And, more importantly, they increasingly see having a representative and accountable political leader as being a good in its own right.
There is a strong chance that Hong Kong’s public pro-democracy movement will wind down. But it is at least as likely that it will also revive. There is now a common expectation that pro-democracy protests will now come in waves, larger and more frequent as the city moves towards the 2017 elections.
A compromise is possible, saving political face for both sides. But such a compromise will be difficult to achieve.
The alternative is that, the closer the 2017 election comes, the higher the stakes will be for the people of Hong Kong. The stakes, too, will be increasingly – perhaps precariously - high for the government in Beijing.
The stream that leads into the San Sebastian River in the poor and tiny Central American country of El Salvador runs bright yellow, not for the gold in the mine nearby but for the chemical byproducts which leach into the water. That stream is emblematic in a fight between an Australian mining company and the El Salvador government, over whether there should be gold mining in the country.
If El Salvador wins this fight, it will preserve a bipartisan policy on mining, a country’s right to make policy generally, and to protect its main water supply in particular.
If it loses, then a foreign mining company will be able to ride roughshod over the country’s democratic process and prosecute a financial claim that could send its government broke.
Set among dense green foliage and steep hills, the San Sebastian River, La Union department in eastern El Salvador runs a light orange color, depending on the extent of rainfall. It has variously also flowed anything from a pale yellow to a deep orange. The San Sebastian is a ‘dead’ river, in that no life exists within it, and its water is poisonous to drink. The unnatural color of the San Sebastian River is a consequence of ‘acid mine drainage’, which conventionally includes sulfuric acid, arsenic and iron oxide (often referred to as ‘yellow boy’), along with other possible poisonous trace elements. The acid mine drainage to the San Sebastian River derives from a stream the starts among the steep slopes above the village of San Sebastian, adjacent to a formally abandoned gold mine. A visit to the mine site clearly showed where the surface run-off from the mine site occurred, although acid mine drainage also occurs underground and leaches out of the soil along the hillside into the stream.
According to El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the river carries nine times the maximum permissible level of cyanide, approximately 1,300 times the permissible amount of iron (MARN 2012) and an unknown but certainly toxic level of arsenic.
The stream itself was a bright, almost luminous orange color, feeding directly into the San Sebastian River, which itself flows into the Gorascoran River. This river marks the eastern border between El Salvador and Honduras and then flows into the Gulf of Fonseca, also shared by Nicaragua, where it poisons the local fish stocks. Not only is the water from the San Sebastian poisonous, the community of San Sebastian says that it suffers a very high level of quite specific illnesses usually associated with arsenic and metals poisoning (see Zarraga 2014:41 for detailed account of the numerous chronic illnesses associated with arsenic poisoning, also Ventura 2011), and is required to truck in drinking water. For an impoverished community, this represents a great, almost unbearable, expense.
Not only does acid mine drainage seep from the mine above the village but, sitting abandoned in unsecured and deteriorating shipping containers, are approximately 23 barrels containing both sodium cyanide and iron sulfate, also used in gold mining. There is believed to be enough cyanide in the containers to kill approximately a half a million people.
In a country in which there has been little gold mining, the San Sebastian mine and its consequences stand as a stark illustration of what can happen when there is a confluence of a highly toxic industry, a vulnerable topography, high population density and generalized water shortage. It is, in short, a human and ecological disaster, which retains the potential to become very much worse.
A case in point of a possible new and much larger project is the El Dorado gold mining project in Cabañas district, which was initiated by Pacific Rim and upon takeover was assumed by the Australian-headquartered company OceanaGold. As a consequence, there has developed a popular movement against further gold mining – indeed all mining – in El Salvador, now supported by the government, which has by refusing to grant new permits declared a moratorium on the granting of mining permits. The government of El Salvador has to the time of writing refused to issue a permit for the mine to commence exploitation, based on strongly held environmental concerns and the fact that the predecessor company, Pacific Rim, failed to complete the necessary environmental and feasibility studies required by law. These concerns focus in particular on the pollution of both regional water supplies and, via its watershed, the main (64 per cent) water supply for El Salvador of the Lempa River. This moratorium is now confronted by an international mining industry that wishes to pursue mining in the country, regardless of local opposition, and which has taken the country to international legal arbitration in an attempt to force the issue. This paper examines some of the issues that have led to this dispute.
The latest reports of a massacre of dozens, perhaps 300, ethnic Yazidis by fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State has again raised fundamental questions about what can – or should – be done to protect this ethnic minority. The question is all the more pressing as while the Yazidis have been threatened with genocide, the IS has similarly targeted for extermination Iraq’s small Christian community, Shias and any other group that does not immediately submit to its medieval beliefs.
The United States has made some inroads into the IS advances by attacking i from the air. This has, in turn, allowed the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to slow the IS advance. But, having been bloodied for so little reward following the 2003 intervention, the US, like the UK and other allies involved in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ are deeply reluctant to again deploy ‘boots on the ground’.
The problem with the IS, though, is that while hardened Peshmerga fighters may be able to hold the IS from further northward advances, the IS continues to persecute other minorities and even those of its own Sunni faith in both Iraq and Syria that do not subscribe to its fanatical beliefs. Should the IS manage to consolidate, it has further designs on Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the north of Saudi Arabia.
As UK Prime Minister David Cameron has, among others, noted, the IS represents a threat not just to those fleeing from its immediate terror, but much more widely. The IS could be understood as a more radicalized version of Afghanistan’s Taliban, which supported Al Qaeda.
US air strikes against the IS are, with the blessing of the floundering Iraqi government, necessary. However, the United States is again either casting itself or being cast as the world’s policeman.
The role of the world’s policeman is not one the US is necessarily comfortable with. The country has, since the late 1800s, vacillated between asserting its international authority and retreating to an introspective cocoon.
Having taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan and manufacturing the 2003 Iraq war, the US under President Obama has been reluctant to again become directly engaged in external conflicts. The US chose not to act in Syria in 2013, which created the opening the IS was looking for there, and it has stayed similarly aloft from Russia’s unsubtle interventions in Ukraine.
It is at such a time, then, that the world appears to require an alternative, legitimate strategy for confronting the IS, and the possible rise of other threats like it.
In 2005, the United Nations voted to endorse the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Following the genocides of Rwanda and in former Yugoslavia, the destruction of East Timor, the mass deaths of Darfur and many others, the United Nations endorsed the shared deployment of mechanisms, if necessary including military force, to prevent the possibility of further genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
The conditions of invoking the Responsibility to Protect were onerous, so much that since it was agreed to it has not yet been invoked, despite numerous examples of humanitarian crises it was intended to prevent. The two critical features that have stymied its use have been a fear by some distasteful UN member states that it could be used against them, and that it requires the endorsement of the UN Security Council.
The UNSC’s five permanent members have veto power on any Security Council decision which ensures that there can be no agreement on any issue that one or more permanent members have a strategic interest in. In 2009, China and Russia ensured there was no action on Sri Lanka, leading to the deaths of some 40,000 ethnic Tamils. Last year Russia vetoed any intervention in Syria, allowing that bloodbath to continue unabated.
However, none of the permanent five member of the UNSC has an interest in the progress of the IS. Indeed, Russia would be keen to see the IS disappear, given its own problems with Islamist rebellions on its southern flanks. China, if somewhat disingenuously, is also concerned with the Islamist character of Uighur separatism in its north-west Xinjiang province.
The invocation of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle would allow genuine coalition of world powers to address the Islamist mutation that is the Islamic State. It would require boots on the ground, but they would be so universal and so overwhelming that IS would effectively disappear.
The end result in Iraq would, no doubt, be at least some reorganization of the state, which appears critically necessary in any case. It may also end up with the recognition of an independent Kurdistan, not least since neighboring Turkey, with its own militant Kurdish minority, now appears to be coming to terms with that idea.
Ultimately, the application of such a principle would also have to address the difficult issue of the IS in Syria, in which Russia has a vested interest. A resolution, though difficult, may also still be possible there.
Perhaps the US will prefer to continue to act not just as the world’s policeman, but as its ‘Lone Ranger’. But for the US to extricate itself from a deepening enmeshment in another protracted war, and addressing a problem that much of the world finds increasingly alarming, invoking the Responsibility to Protect could well ensure it does not get involved in another wear alone, and would bring a sense of global responsibility to international problems.
Australia is facing a new regional challenge as its northern neighbours increasingly join a global trend towards a more fundamentalist form of Islam. While this shift in religious orientation does not present a direct threat to Australia – at least for the time being - it is already complicating Australia’s regional relationships. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, an absolute monarch and one of the world’s wealthiest men, recently announced his country would adopt strict sharia punishments. These will include whipping, amputation of hands for theft, and stoning to death for illicit sex (such as adultery and homosexuality) and apostasy (abandoning Islam).
When Indonesia's 180 million voters go to the polls tomorrow, they will be deciding whether Indonesia continues, more or less, with further developing its democratic experiment, or whether it turns away from a relatively open society that is necessary to allow democracy to flourish.
While the choice might appear to be obvious to anyone committed to democracy, to many Indonesians, the option of returning to a more authoritarian style of government still appeals.
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After balking at its first diplomatic test over revelations of spying on Indonesia last year, there was still a reasonable expectation that the new government would quickly find its foreign policy feet. Julie Bishop as foreign minister was intended to present a firm but friendly policy face to the world, while Tony Abbott got on with domestic policy.
It appears now, however, that it’s actually Abbott who enjoys the world stage, while Bishop seems constrained in her ability to act. In a deeply enmeshed world, this arrangement is manifesting as a poor feel for (or a lack of understanding of) the nuances of foreign policy.
Australia is now explicitly viewed as a problem by an increasingly nationalist Indonesia, eyed with suspicion by an assertive China and with anger or tepid acceptance by formerly close regional friends.
Comments by Indonesia’s two presidential candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, made ahead of this year's election, cast Australia as the problem in formerly close bilateral relations. Bishop’s failure to offer a quick apology over Australian spying on Indonesia was an "own goal". The apology eventually came, but it was too little and much too late.
This was exacerbated by Australia’s policy of unilaterally pushing asylum seekers back into Indonesia waters, transgressing Indonesian territorial sovereignty and, more recently, returning asylum seekers in Australian-supplied life boats. Bilateral cooperation put on ice last year will probably stay in the deep freeze until at least 2015.
Even further to the north, Australia’s downgrading of ties with long-standing friend, Thailand, was justified in response to the May military coup. But this led to an angry rebuke by junta leader, general Prayuth Chan-ocha, who will remain as Thailand's head of government for at least 18 months. Australia has, for the time-being, lost not just Indonesia but Thailand’s support in regional forums such as the strategic Asean regional forum, the east Asia summit and others.
More locally, Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea is under renewed pressure, following corruption investigator Sam Koin’s call for Australia to "take a greater interest" in allegations that embattled PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill. Last year O’Neill criticised then-opposition leader Tony Abbott’s "completely untrue" claims over Australian aid to PNG being linked to an asylum seeker processing agreement.
''We are not going to put up with this kind of nonsense,'' he said. ''We are helping resolving an Australian issue.
There is little doubt that PNG is riddled with problems. As PNG’s largest aid provider, Australia has a right to be concerned over good governance. But this interest is increasingly unwelcome.
Earlier this year, Australia moved to normalise relations with Fiji, following the 2006 coup. Unfortunately for us, Fiji has long since dumped Australia as its dominant regional partner. We've been replaced by China’s, which offers "soft power" diplomacy, in the form of loans and investment. Fiji also recently welcomed Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a sign of strengthening relations with Indonesia, as it increases its own influence as a growing regional power.
China is playing a similarly more influential role with Australia’s other Pacific neighbors. The status of the Pacific as Australia's backyard has long since dissipated – Australia’s aid program has been contorted to fit changing domestic politics, our economy can't match growing regional powers and our strategic orientation remains transfixed by the distant spectre of militant Islamism.
Australia’s largest trading partner, China, has tolerated Australia’s diplomatic clumsiness. After Abbott identified Japan as Australia’s "best friend", he responded to China's partially concealed irritation by assiduously courting the growing regional power during his recent Asian trip. These negotiations were, in turn, conducted while Abbott walks the tightrope of a US alliance competing with Chinese trade.
Globally, the Australian government’s enthusiasm for supporting a return to Iraq before the US has defined its own policy position, its questionable approach to climate change and now its failed attempt to overturn the Tasmanian forest world heritage listing, has left Australia further diplomatically isolated.
Foreign policy primarily reflects domestic political concerns and there is little doubt that the Australian government would like to see a seamless link between the two. How likely is that dream? While the government struggles under the critical appraisal of a disenchanted electorate, the international stage looks more like a minefield – in part of its own making – that it seems only marginally equipped to avoid.