by Jack Robertson
14 December 2002
BALMAIN NSW 2041
The Honourable John Howard, MP
Dear Mr Howard,
I write to you as a former Army officer and Aide-de-Camp to Governor-General Bill Hayden, and also as the brother of a current serving member of the Australian SAS, to express my growing unease at international Human Rights organization accusations made against our serving personnel, in particular the ugly suggestions that your government’s ‘Border Protection’ policies of recent times may have placed them in difficult non-military situations which resulted in Human Rights violations on their parts.
Prime Minister, I am of course only making a shrewd guess, but I am fairly sure that my brother was a member of the SAS party your government ordered to board the Tampa in late 2001, and I certainly know that he was also among the first contingent of Australian troops who later fought so courageously to help liberate Afghanistan.
I of course have not spoken to him in detail about his unit’s activities in these two markedly different ‘operational’ environments, nor he to me – as is only right and proper from a unit and national security point of view.
I am, however, growing anxious at the apparent fact that your government, and in particular former Minister for Defence Peter Reith and current incumbent Robert Hill, seems at best ambivalent, and at worst wilfully dismissive, towards what I regard as an increasingly urgent need for it take a pro-active interest in protecting the reputation, morale and perhaps even exposure to future prosecution, of our armed services. This is especially so given the real possibility that your government may soon be asking those men and women to embark on dangerous military service in Iraq next year.
Prime Minister, I refer you in particular to the recent study of Australia by the internationally-respected organization ‘Human Rights Watch’, an independent Human Rights NGO whose reports the United States has often referred to in the past – for example, when seeking moral justification for military action in such countries as Afghanistan and Iraq.
The following frightening quote is taken from the Press Release advising of this Report’s release, on 10 December 2002, under the heading: “By Invitation Only: Australian Asylum Policy”:
“Human Rights Watch’s evidence shows that the Australian Defence Forces violated the rights of asylum seekers on board boats intercepted in October 2001. They detained the single men under inhumane conditions, beat several of them with batons and used other unnecessary force against vulnerable refugee families. These findings contradict the report of the Australian Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident [issued on October 23, 2002] that praised the humanitarian conduct of the naval operations. Unlike the Senate Committee, which could not collect refugee testimony, Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of refugees present during the naval operations.”
Prime Minister, as I said, my brother has naturally never discussed in any detail what exactly your government’s policy and orders required him (and/or his colleagues) to do on the Tampa, as is only proper for matters of ‘national security’. However, it unsettles me deeply that such an influential organization feels it is justified in making such ugly and unambiguous public accusations, and yet your government apparently feels no need to respond publicly to them, in order to defend our soldiers’ honour.
I refer you also to your government’s repeated ‘ducking and weaving’ on similar related matters, like the ‘children overboard’ affair (especially your personal refusal to pressure Mr Reith to appear before Senate committees); the government’s failure (in my view) to adequately defend our senior RAN and Defence Department civilians there; and your government’s continued silence over the growing calls – from such people as former diplomat Tony Kevin – for full disclosure of your government’s and our navy’s knowledge, if any, of events leading up to the tragic sinking of SIEV-X.
Prime Minister, my family are strong supporters of Australia’s firm stance against international terrorism. I have admired your national leadership in the immediate aftermath of both the S11 attacks and the Bali bombings. Furthermore, it may well be that these HRW Report accusations, and others from such people as Mr Kevin, are ill-judged and unfounded. However, as an ordinary Australian with a family member who has been thrust by you onto the ‘front line’ of both this country’s approach to asylum seekers and the war on terror, I feel justified in asking that you personally, your Ministers, and your government extend the full and proper public support in these matters that my, and other ADF families, surely deserve.
To that end, I now respectfully request you to a) publicly respond on behalf of my brother and his ADF colleagues to the HR abuse accusations in the HRW Report, and do your best to ensure that the mainstream press gives that response the fullest coverage; b) publicly state for the record – ‘before the fact’, so to speak – that responsibility for any such accusations against any member of our ADF that are subsequently proven correct lies ultimately not with them, but with you, your Ministers and your government for placing them in such difficult, non-military situations in the first place; and c) re-affirm that all past, present and future activities relating to ‘border protection’, on the part of our soldiers, sailors and airman, along with our AFP and ASIO, have been, are, and will continue to be, carried out with your government’s full authorisation, support, supervision and acknowledgment.
Prime Minister, thank you.
Via email, hard copy to Electoral Office (Bennelong), and hand-delivery to Kirribilli House Information copies: all Federal MPs and Senators (via PH email); Canberra Press Gallery
PS: I tried to deliver my PM’s letter to the Security Office at Kiribilli on Sunday arv, but they won’t accept anything there at all. Sigh. I’m getting sick of humiliating myself like this!
This article was first published in ‘Christmas letter to our leader’ at webdiary20Dec2002.