Breaches have gone further than Defence Customs Review suggests

21st Mar 2014

Breaches into Indonesian waters could be more common than recorded by the Defence and Customs Review, the Australian Lawyers Alliance said today.

Today, a parliamentary committee in Canberra will inquire into the breaches into Indonesian waters, following the Defence and Customs Review in February 2014. The six breaches, committed by the Royal Australian Navy and Customs and Border Protection Services in December 2013 and January 2014, were said to be ‘inadvertent’.

However, on Wednesday, a landmark case handed down by the Northern Territory Federal Court, acknowledged that the Australian navy had crossed Indonesian waters and destroyed an Indonesian fisherman’s boat, and that he was to be awarded compensation.

“This case clearly demonstrated that another form of breach into Indonesian waters occurred in 2008,” said Greg Phelps, Northern Territory President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, and solicitor in the case.

“This was a test case: Sahring was licensed and fishing in Indonesian waters. It was the first case in Australia to acknowledge that Indonesian fishermen, whose primary asset had been turned to ash by the Australian government, have a right to seek justice.

“How many more instances have occurred where Australian officials have swept into Indonesian territorial waters and reaped havoc with people’s lives? This is something that is not known. Sahring’s boat was about 600 kilometres from Darwin and only 120 from the Indonesian coast when it was seized.”

The parliamentary inquiry will examine the circumstances that led to the six incursions in 2014 and early this year, including training in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“The irony here,” said Mr Phelps, “is that warships of the Australian navy, which are equipped with every piece of technological equipment, have crossed into Indonesian waters, ‘inadvertently’ not knowing where they are, and received no penalty.

“However, Indonesian fishermen, in rudimentary wooden fishing boats, with little more than a GPS reader, have been seized and destroyed when they drift into Australian waters.

“This is not fairness by anyone’s measure of the term."

The parliamentary inquiry is rushed, with no deadline even cited for submissions.

“This is not an issue to be broad brushed and then swept under the carpet. It is an indicator of a much wider problem in the relationship at Australia’s northern boundary. More value must be placed on getting this resolved.

“The Prime Minister indicated prior to the election that the relationship with Indonesia was perhaps our most important relationship. I say that respectful cooperation between neighbours in the Timor Sea might well be cornerstone of that relationship, rather than a continual blight on it.

“It has been heavy handed of Australia to repeatedly steam into Indonesian waters and overzealously enforce rights on the basis of unfounded suspicions and misunderstanding of our own legal entitlements.  Some decent, hardworking fishermen have had their businesses and live livelihoods destroyed when they were fishing lawfully. These are not the actions of good neighbours and can only engender distrust.”

The Defence and Customs Review appeared to stumble across the information about incursions into Indonesia. The Review itself noted that the incursions came to light through an ad hoc intervention by planning staff.

“This review is not enough. Much more is required. There must be a genuine partnership created between the two nations along this important maritime boundary.

“The relationship needs to be examined; not just between Jakarta and Canberra but between those who are out on the water. Cooperation between Indonesian citizens who are sustained by the Timor Sea and Australian authorities is essential. The rights of all concerned are important and must be understood and respected.

“There must be a comprehensive review. This is not enough.”

Tags: Human rights Compensation Indonesia