Advance, Australia Unfair: New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark Shows Integrity and Courage


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One of the great international dramas of the new millennium unfolded in the Indian Ocean over the last several days. It involved at least a half-dozen countries, but because the United States wasn't one of them, the story barely scraped onto page C-28 of a couple of American newspapers. I'm referring to the Tampa incident.


Early last week, the KM Palapa 1, a rickety ferryboat carrying just under 450 refugees, began to sink 225 miles off the Indonesian island of Java. The refugees were at first reported to have been fleeing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; later reports established that they included migrants from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other countries, as well. A passing Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, picked them up and began to steam toward an Indonesian landfall. This was neither to the Indonesians' liking nor to the passengers'. Indonesia said it would fire on the boat if it approached; the passengers said they wanted to head for Christmas Island, in Australian territory, which has become a haven for asylum-seeking boat people. In fact, they stormed the bridge and told the Norwegian captain, Arne Rinnan, that they had "nothing to lose." So Rinnan headed for Australia. The Australian military radioed Rinnan that he and his human cargo were not welcome Down Under, either. When the boat got into Australian waters, 12 miles off of Christmas Island, dozens of heavily armed troops from Australia's elite SAS boarded the boat and demanded that it turn around. Rinnan refused. Hence our international incident.


Now, it has escaped no one's notice that Australia's conservative prime minister, John Howard, faces an election this year?and as of last week his numbers were in the toilet. In the wake of the Tampa incident, human rights groups have jumped all over him. That sanctimonious shrew, the former Irish President Mary Robinson (whose own country, last time I visited, was in a froth-at-the-mouth panic over a few hundred refugees from Croatia and Central Africa), sent a message from the International Conference to Promote Anti-Semitism?excuse me! I meant the World Conference Against Racism, now being held in Durban, South Africa. "I make an appeal to the Australian people," Robinson said, "to look into their own hearts and to have a humanitarian and human rights approach?and to make that known to the politicians." To which Howard correctly replied, "Australians have looked into their hearts far more genuinely than many other countries." Despite (or perhaps because of) his disputes with international human-rights lawyers, things are looking up for Howard, with 70 percent of Australians polled favoring his strong stand.


Over the weekend the situation was resolved pretty much to Australia's liking. Last Saturday the UN High Commission on Refugees brokered a deal whereby the immigrants would be split between New Zealand (which would get about 150 of them) and the island of Nauru (which would get about 300). So Howard looks even better. One news report even referred to the incident as "Howard's Falklands"?after the little 1982 war that got Margaret Thatcher reelected.


Despite a tendency to back the immigrant side wherever there is one, and despite a conviction that stateless people are about the most important human-rights issue there is (certainly more important than the Balkan incidents we've been inclined to drop bombs over), I must admit feeling a sneaking sympathy for Howard in this case. Because it is by no means clear that Australia is the most blameworthy of the parties involved. In fact, it's quite clearly not.


Norway has been the most hypocritical of all. When Australia raised the possibility that maybe Norway might take some of these refugees, since they were on a Norwegian ship and all, the Norwegian foreign minister, Thorbjoern Jagland, replied angrily, "Our understanding is that Australia?has a duty to let these refugees land at the nearest port." The Norwegian position for the first several days of the crisis was that Norway was willing to take zero of the refugees. By late in the week, under Australian pressure, they had agreed to take a few?but only if there were an official UN action on the matter. (This was the starting point for the UN deal eventually reached.) One would feel a bit more confident that the Norwegian authorities were taking a principled stand if Oslo were in the same hemisphere as anyplace the Indonesian shipping mafia operates.


Then there's the Norwegian shipping company, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, which deserves blame for blowing the humanitarian damage of the crisis all out of proportion. The company wanted to get good p.r. out of the accident, and that meant appearing humanitarian?while being sure not to get the blame for acting in such a way as to bring refugees back to Norway. That, in turn, meant getting those Afghanis and Pakistanis off the boat as quickly as possible. To listen to company spokesmen, the scene on board the Tampa must have been like something out of Hieronymus Bosch. Ten of the passengers were passed out and unrevivable, two of the women were in late pregnancy (quite a feat, since there were only 22 women aboard) and many of the others were suffering from "dysentery, scabies, dehydration, and fatigue," to quote one report. It's true that there were hundreds of refugees aboard a ship that was fitted out for a crew of only a few dozen. But when Australian doctors arrived on board, according to one British correspondent, the only treatment they had to administer was for one broken fingernail and one cut thumb.


It was Indonesia?which indicated its willingness to use live ammo to keep the refugees off their shores, and refused even to talk to the UN about accepting a fraction of the refugees?that really took the cake for brute indifference. When Howard called Indonesian Prime Minister Megawati Sukarnoputri to discuss the biggest bilateral crisis between the two countries since Australia's UN-approved intervention in East Timor, she was "out," and never called him back. It is beyond question that the KM Palapa 1 was outfitted as an immigrant-smuggling boat by an Indonesian crime syndicate operating out of that mafia-riddled state. But not if you listen to Wahid Supriyadi, the spokesman for Indonesia's foreign ministry, who explained to London's Independent why Indonesia, too, set its refugee-welcoming quota at zero. "We don't see any reason to let them in," he said. "We find it hard to believe that the ferry departed from Indonesian waters. Refugees normally travel on small boats." In other words, the Norwegian captain, the Norwegian government, the Australian prime minister, the Australian navy and every single refugee on board?they're all lying when they say the boat left from Indonesia.


In fact, Don Greenlees, the Djakarta correspondent for the national daily, The Australian, was able to identify the very person who booked the trip. He is Abdul Punjabi, alias Achmad Pakistani, a thirtysomething Singapore- and-Djakarta-based carpet dealer who gets $5000 per passenger, which brings his gross to $2.2 million for the 448 men, women and children he almost drowned. So the deal Indonesia seems to want is?Australia subsidizes (through its asylum program) a criminal enterprise whereby Indonesia rips off, to the tune of millions, the most desperate people in all of Asia.


Throughout the crisis, only one person responded with anything resembling selfless integrity. That was New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark, who in conversations with Howard promised to take a generous number of refugees if that would help the respective countries arrive at some kind of humanitarian entente. She wouldn't take all of them. But given that New Zealand was not involved in the Tampa incident at all, given that Clark, too, faces reelection before too long and given that polls in New Zealand show exactly the same hostility to immigration that is present in Australia, hers was an act not just of integrity but of courage.


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