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Death row: a tragic reminder for Australian travellers

21 January 2015 11:56 AM

The execution in Indonesia of six death row prisoners early last Sunday, including five foreigners, convicted of drug smuggling and the refusal by president Joko Widodo to grant clemency from the death penalty for Myuran Sukumaran has cast into sharp relief his likely fate and that of fellow death row prisoner Andrew Chan.

Chan's appeal for clemency has not yet been decided by President Widodo but, consistent with his decision on Sukumaran, he has said that he will not grant clemency to convicted drug smugglers.

Widodo, or 'Jokowi' as he is better known, came to the Indonesian presidency last year as a reformist and with what was understood to be a human rights agenda. Human rights advocates in Indonesia have been dismayed by his refusal to grant clemency in death row cases.

From Jokowi's perspective, however, there are two issues driving him in these cases. Both are compelling, if for different reasons, and both play against Australian calls for clemency.

The first issue is that Jokowi came to office on a clear 'reform' platform, which includes both respect for the rule of law and opposition to interference in the judicial process. Indonesia's judiciary has long been regarded as compromised by special interests, including political pressure, so Jokowi's refusal to involve himself in judicial matters is consistent with his view of reform.

As a country which opposes the death penalty on principle, Australia's government is obliged to seek clemency on behalf of its citizens. Australia's political leaders, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, have done so, no doubt sincerely, but knowing their chances of success are limited.

As importantly, the death penalty applies equally to Indonesian citizens as foreigners, and any sense that there should be an inconsistency on this basis is repugnant to many Indonesians. In particular, many Indonesians' often well-developed sense of national pride would be deeply offended by any such a double-standard.

Jokowi is not only sensitive to this, but also sensitive to the fact that Indonesia's legislature, the DPR, is overwhelmingly stacked with his opponents. If he wishes to proceed with his reform agenda, he will require the DPR's cooperation.

Many DPR members are focusing closely on Jokowi's public acts and would be quick to pounce if there was even a hint of a double-standard. Indeed, there is even a chance that Jokowi could be impeached, as happened to one of his predecessors, president Abdurrahman Wahid. Public pressure within Indonesia, then, while often not explicit, is great.

How Australia represents its case for clemency is also critical. If Australia's appeal is too private then it can be dismissed without much ado. For Australia's domestic audience, too, the Australian Government would be seen to be doing too little for Australian citizens facing execution.

However, if Australian representations are too strong, it could engender a nationalist backlash. This would have the effect of further compelling Jokowi to reject any call for clemency that he might otherwise have been considering.

Australia's political leaders know there is little they can realistically do to alter the circumstances that Sukumaran and Chan now find themselves in. The only hope, such as it is, is that at this stage Chan's appeal for presidential clemency has not yet been rejected.

Indonesia's practice is that, when more than one person is sentenced to death for the same offence, the penalty is carried out simultaneously. Sukumaran last opportunity for appeal has failed, but Chan has not yet been notified of the same outcome. While Chan remains alive, so does Sukumaran.

However, if and when Chan's appeal for clemency is rejected by the president, the process will move relatively quickly. Probably within weeks, the pair will be given three days notification of their execution in order to finalise any outstanding business. They will then be taken to an execution ground and shot by a 12 man firing squad.

Despite the crimes for which Sukumaran and Chan have been convicted, there is a sense shared by many that the impersonal process of the state - any state - taking someone's life is bureaucratically grotesque. Yet, as various foreign ministers and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have consistently said over many years, Australians overseas will always be subject to the laws on the countries they are in, up to and including the death penalty.

It is little comfort that Sukumaran and Chan's experience is serving as a stark object lesson to others who might be contemplating drug trafficking. It has been a decade since the last Australian, Van Tuong Nguyen, was executed for drug trafficking in Singapore. That death came 12 years after Australian Michael McAuliffe was killed in Malaysia.

It seems, with the passage of time, that such lessons are too easily forgotten. It is likely, however, that Australia will soon be reminded.

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Charlie Hebdo attack an assault on the human condition.

8 January 2015 4:07 PM

Islam is a superstitious, antiquated belief system, its prophet spoke to imaginary voices in his head and its god is a figment of an ignorant imagination. I might believe this statement to be true, or I might not. Christianity is a superstitious, antiquated belief system, its prophet spoke to imaginary voices in his head and its god is a figment of an ignorant imagination. I might also believe this statement to be true, or I might not. And so on for each religion and, differing only in detail, for any other belief system or ideology.
What is important in these statements is not that I necessarily believe them, that they are objectively true or even that they are rational. What is important about these statements is that I be free to make them.
When three Islamist terrorists murdered 12 people and wounded 11 others at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, they were attacking this most fundamental principle of human rights. If all human rights are deemed as equal, as they are usually claimed to be, then freedom of speech is first among those equals.
Speech, or language, as a reflection of our ability to think, is the defining quality of being human. Speech is fundamental to our ability to express desires, fears, needs, concerns and, at the juncture of these qualities, views, values and opinions. That this has become fundamental to liberal democratic society is but a development of its own prior logic; freedom of speech necessarily implies a plural, tolerant political system.
In this, human rights are predicated upon the quality of being human, not being the citizen of a particular country or the adherent, or even respecter, of a particular faith. In this, freedom of speech is especially elevated among human rights in that it is both; it reflects freedom to express oneself on matters of interest or importance, and it reflects freedom from censorship, control and subservience.
Without such freedom of speech, such religions that exist would be allowed only by the arbitrary whim of a particular holder of sufficient power. So too for political views and expressions of culture, as well as more mundane concerns such as taste and preference. Those who try to shut down freedom of expression seek, by their own logic, to shut down even their own conversation.
The magazine Charlie Hebdo had, and will continue to have, its own special place pricking the over-inflated egos, beliefs and opinions of many. It will offend and it will annoy. As well as to entertain, that is its job. Such an exercise is a necessary curative for all the pompousness, self-importance and, often, ridiculousness that characterizes a large part of the world in which we live.
Part of that deflating exercise includes making fun of organized religion, which in turn includes Islam. Indeed, it is the more extreme iterations of Islam, such as that propagated by Salafi jihadists, which is most in need of deflating. That this interpretation of Islam regards violence as legitimate only further highlights the need to satirise it.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo, then, was not, as one of the attackers claimed, ‘avenging the prophet’. It was not even an attack on democracy, as claimed by some political leaders. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on the very condition of being human.
As for the proposition about belief systems, re-phrasing Voltaire, I may – or may not – believe what I say. But as a human I, and everyone else, have the right to say it. To shy away from that is to let terrorism win.

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2004 Indian Ocean tsunami: how Aceh recovered, and Sri Lanka declined

29 December 2014 7:31 PM

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that left almost a quarter of a million people dead and led to the world’s largest emergency aid program had a profound impact on two wars being fought in the region.

In Aceh, Indonesia, it contributed to the end of three decades of bloody conflict; in Sri Lanka, the tsunami ultimately led to the deaths of tens of thousands.

In Aceh, the Free Aceh movement (Gam) had been fighting the Indonesian government for a separate state. Gam retreated to the mountains following a declaration of martial law in 2002 and the escalation of the war by the Indonesian military.

In Sri Lanka, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers, had similarly been fighting for a separate state in the north of the country. As a result of a 2002 Norwegian-brokered ceasefire, they managed to establish a semi-autonomous zone in the north of the country, but both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government had withdrawn into increasingly hard line positions.

A dispute over whether tsunami emergency aid funds should be autonomously administered by the Tamil Tigers in their area of control meant that already high levels of distrust were further entrenched. Shaky movement towards a negotiated settlement drifted.

By contrast, in Aceh, Gam declared a unilateral ceasefire. There was a sense that assisting the people to rebuild had to take priority. The newly elected Yudhoyono administration put out feelers towards a possible resolution.

While opposing groups in Sri Lanka squabbled and retreated from each other, the international community applied pressure to both Gam and the Indonesian government to find a way forward.

Aceh’s peace talks began in Helsinki in January 2005 and, over the next six months, worked towards a compromise in which Aceh could have a high degree of political and economic autonomy if it remained within Indonesia. Indonesia’s own democratisation was hugely important to this, with the principle of local political representation clinching the deal.

With only animosity in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers made the fatal error of stopping Tamils from voting in the 2005 presidential elections, which saw Mahinda Rajapaksa achieve the slimmest of victories, of 50.29%. Had Tamils voted, the more amenable Ranil Wickremesinghe would likely have won and negotiations could have resumed.

Rajapaksa’s victory ensured that a return to confrontation was all but inevitable. The Tamil Tigers own leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was equally combative, retaining unrealistic faith in the Tiger’s ability to defeat the numerically superior government forces.
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As late as 2007, there remained a chance for a negotiated settlement in Sri Lanka, but this ended when government forces resumed their attacks. By early 2009, the Tamil Tigers had been routed, at the cost of some 40,000 lives, with Sri Lanka’s ethnic division continuing as a running sore in the country’s body politic.

In Aceh, meanwhile, post-tsunami rebuilding continued, and the province assumed something approximating normalcy for the first time in the modern era. The peace agreement led to local elections, comfortably won by former Gam combatants.

The devastation caused by the tsunami created organisational, economic and political pressure in two deeply troubled regions. In one, these pressures highlighted differences, drove opposing sides apart and ultimately led to a further human catastrophe; in the other it pushed opposing sides to seek compromise.

The outcome in Sri Lanka has since served as a model for how to militarily crush a separatist movement, but remains globally deplored by human rights advocates. The outcome in Aceh has, by contrast, been viewed as a model for using democracy to achieve peace.

The 2004 tsunami created two choices for achieving a genuine peace in the areas it affected. Only one of them can be said to have been successful.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/29/2004-indian-ocean-t...

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