10 September 2012

Revolutionising ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns

Guest post by Andrew Farran, international lawyer and former diplomat.

How and why the print media should make itself more relevant by revolutionising its ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns

I am an inveterate ‘Letter to the Editor’ writer. I must confess to this as I’ve written countless hundreds over the years. But given that these tend to be one-day wonders, I have come to ponder whether Letters to the Editor serve a useful purpose anymore in this digital era of Blogs, Twitter and the likes of Facebook.

The print media, even in the face of its decline, has not taken up the challenge which its antiquated ‘letters’ columns now present. What is the purpose and relevance of these letters? Some simply draw attention to something that needs doing or fixing, in the hope that some politician or bureaucrat may notice and respond. Other letters expressing a point of view may bring a perspective to an issue that might otherwise be missed. Some contain a personal explanation. Such original contributions stand alone. But where the letters should get gutsy but are failing is in the area of public policy. Here one-shot missives do not constitute a debate or an informed discussion – and frankly may be pretty pointless and serve to mislead opinion.

I will give a recent example, the one that got me thinking about this. It concerns Australia’s relations with Indonesia in an area where further exceptional difficulties may yet arise. Not the cattle trade, but over West Papua. Here a shot across the bow does not constitute an argument nor make a case. In all likelihood, as in this case, the letters’ editor is more likely to allow a false assertion or misperception to stand rather than opening a path for dialogue. What good is that?

On 5th September The Age published the following letter written on behalf of the Australia West Papua Association:

Afraid to speak truth on W Papua

ON JUNE 25, a petition on West Papua, signed by thousands of Australians, was presented to the House of Representatives. One of the requests concerned the fraudulent referendum (the Act of Free Choice) by which Indonesia ''legitimised'' its violent takeover of West Papua.

It is well documented that in this referendum only 1025 West Papuans, selected by the Indonesian military, were allowed to vote, and that they and their families were threatened if they voted against integration.
Senator Bob Carr has now sent a written response to this petition, stating in effect that the Australian government considers the Act of Free Choice to be a legitimate referendum.

When will we get a government that is not afraid to speak the truth? The Act of Free Choice was a sham, and West Papuans have a legal right to a UN-monitored referendum on self-determination in which all adult West Papuans are allowed to vote, without duress. Australia, and other nations that turned a blind eye to this travesty of justice, have a duty to ensure this happens.

The writer has a fair point but that is not the whole of the matter and a responsible journal should have facilitated a response. Indeed if the letters’ columns are not to remain largely one-shot missives, the print media would be doing itself and its readers a service by facilitating such responses, and engendering an informed and purposeful exchange.

I had attempted to provide a response or comment, particularly as I was well placed at the time of the ‘act of free choice’ to know something of the background (which I explained to The Age – but to no avail).

The response I wished to make was:

Re: West Papua’s 'Act of Free Choice’ (1969)

Note for Editor (not for publication): I should mention in regard to this matter that at the time, in 1969, I was Principal Private Secretary to the then Minister for External Affairs (Gordon Freeth). I have often reflected on this event but believe Australia had no choice but to go along with the UN decisions and the legitimate expectations of the Indonesians.
Dear Sir,

Yes, the 'act of free choice' in 1969 exercised by some 1025 hand-picked West Papuans in 1969 was in effect a sham (“Afraid to speak truth on West Irian, The Age, 5/9). But it was an important diplomatic face saver.

Indonesian nationalists and governments before and since independence had relentlessly campaigned to inherit the Netherlands East Indies intact, in accordance with established post-colonial practice whereby the original geography of a colony defined the successor state regardless of ethnic distinctions. The right of ‘self-determination’ in the de-colonisation process, as laid down by the UN, was subject to that qualification. Otherwise Africa, for one, would now consist of well over a hundred separate states.

This outcome does not preclude Indonesia from granting West Papua, a distinct region, a reasonable degree of autonomy or self-government. Nor should it excuse any abuse of human rights in that region.

At the time of the ‘act of free choice’ Australia's relations with Indonesia had just emerged from a very turbulent phase (‘Confrontation', etc.) and the government was not about to complicate matters further by defying Indonesia's legitimate expectations, sacrificing the goodwill generated by Australia’s earlier support of Indonesia's independence, or creating a bad situation for future relations.

It is worth noting that at the height of Indonesia's struggles to secure West Irian, it never laid claim to East Timor, as it had not formed part of the Dutch colony (it was in fact Portuguese). However just a few years later Indonesia betrayed its own high ground of principle in regard to legitimate de-colonisation by seeking to annex East Timor. After enduring much suffering and loss of blood over a further two decades, and without much Australian support in the earlier stages, East Timor (now Timor-Leste) gained its own rightful independence and sovereignty following an 'act of free choice'.

[End of letter]
The question this raises is whether letters to the editor, by not providing dialogue and structure, amount to little more than a haphazard form of topical entertainment; and whether in the light of this the print media should grasp the opportunity to transform and restructure these columns into useful fora for an exchange of ideas and comments on defined issues of public importance. Conducted this way readers may find themselves engaged in real debate that has point and continuity. As it is they carry very little weight.


Andrew said...

West Papua is NOT an Indonesian issue - it is a United Nations issue under UN General Assembly resolution 1752 (XVII) West Papua became a UN trust territory.

Indonesia is the administrator of a UN colony, and Australia has a moral & legal obligation (Charter of the UN Act 1945) to remind the United Nations of the trusteeship agreement which the Netherlands & UN signed in 1962, and to ask the UN Trusteeship Council to implement articles 87, 88 of the UN charter without further delay.

The Indonesian argument advanced by Mr Farran has ignored the Indonesian signature on the trusteeship agreement. Indonesia in 1962 gave up its claim that West Papua was part of Indonesia and as a UN member is STILL required to remove all forces of repression and allow the "act of self-determination" as described in the 1962 agreement.


Andrew Farran responds:

This is no longer a UN issue. The Act of Free Choice in 1969 concluded the matter. Any trusteeship aspects existed only from 1962 to 1969 when the UN had temporary executive authority in West Irian, as administered by UNTEA - the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority, pending the Act of Free Choice.

I have direct knowledge of this having travelled from Wewak in PNG to Jayapura, the capital of West Irian, immediately after the UN assumed effective authority in May 1963 following the Dutch withdrawal. I was in fact the first Australian official to visit West Irian under the UN's authority.

The 'act of free choice' in 1969 may have been contrived but it resulted in Indonesia gaining what it believed was rightly theirs as a matter of international law - with full international and UN recognition, and Australian support.

It should be recalled that with Indonesia there were no two ways over this. In 1962 , under Sukarno, they were preparing to take over West Irian by armed force. The US was not prepared to support any idea Australia may have had to resist that, and the weight of 'non-aligned' opinion was with Indonesia as reflected in UNGA resolutions. It was a fait accompli then and unless we are prepared to gear up for a mother-of-all-battles on foreign ground it is a fait accompli now. For Indonesia this was and still is an absolute.

Andrew said...

Sorry Paul but you are incorrect, the law does not work in the way you suggest.

The United Nations is created/controlled/limited by the United Nations Charter. It can only do what the charter says - same as governments limited by their constitutions.

Trusteeship is defined in Chapter 12 of the UN Charter and the ONLY option for ending Trusteeship status is article 78 "The trusteeship system shall not apply to territories which have become Members of the United Nations, relationship among which shall be based on respect for the principle of sovereign equality."

I suggest you read about the issue at http://colonyWestPapua.info for a better understanding.

Andrew said...

Dear Mr Farran, the United Nations and UN members are guided by the UN Charter and not gossip. Trusteeship is defined under chapter 12 of the UN Charter, and remains until article 78 takes effect. The UN charter was deliberately written that way.

Also the 1962 agreement clearly defines an "act of self-determination" by "all adults, male and female, not foreign nationals"; which has not yet been allowed.

You mask the 1969 event by asserting what you claim the UN and its members said, but readers should read resolution 2504 for themselves. It does NOT talk about the sovereignty or wishes of West Papua, it only talks about Indonesia and the Netherlands being content with their actions.

The web-pages at un.org have to be discounted because of the "use at your own risk" and "these are not official UN statements" disclaimers.

The last official UN statement about the territorial status of West Papua was this document after 1973.

The story that the US was responding to Sukarno's actions in 1962 is untrue; the U.S. Dept of State in 1995 released the truth about the NSC lobby (McGeorge Bundy and his employess Robert Komer and Robert Johnson) pushing the scheme in 1961. The "undue influence" of the military industrial complex which Eisenhower warned the US of in Jan/1961 was Freeport director Robert Lovett who in Dec/1960 told Kennedy who to appoint to his cabinet.

Despite that undue influence, the Kennedy brothers struck to the law and they wrote the 1962 agreement as a "trusteeship agreement" as per chapter 12 of the UN Charter. But the Kennedys were dead by 1969 and Nixon came into office, as soon as NASA announced the launch and landing dates for the Appolo mission, Indonesia announced the same date for their act, then Nixon announced the same date for his tour of S-E-Asia, and then Reuters issued orders that no journalists were to go to West New Guinea or report on the act. Then Reuters without explanation published mis-information alleging the United Nations had approved the Indonesian claim to West Papua.

Have you ever read the UN Charter or the New York Agreement, or resolution 2504 (XXIV) ? Only people who have read those three documents can debate this subject.

Only the ICJ (International Court of Justice) has authority to say whether West Papua is still a UN Trust territory or not.

Andrew said...

No, West Papua is still a UN trust territory. The events in 1969 had nothing to do with the sovereignty of West Papua or with the UN trusteeship system.

The UN Trusteeship System is controlled by Chapter 12 of the UN Charter, and under the UN Charter the only means to end UN Trusteeship is article 78 of the Charter - that is why a UN recognised "self-determination" is required to end trusteeship.

In 1961 Dag Hammarskjold was killed and within days the US pressure took effect by prompting the Netherlands to openly declare its wish for this UN trusteeship. By mid 1962 the US had drafted an agreement in accord with the UN Trusteeship System, which the Netherlands and Indonesia signed, and the majority of UN members including AUSTRALIA approved in Gen. Ass. res. 1752 (XVII).

Indonesia believed it owned West Papua in 1967 when it sold a 30 year mining license to Freeport. The event in 1969 was a known farce. But legally it is irrelevant if you read UN Gen. Ass. res. 2504 (XXIV) you will see that the UN does NOT say anything about West Papua's sovereignty, nor does the UN say that it believed any referendum occurred - it is only an attempt by U Thant and the UN General Assembly to distance themselves from responsibility - their "legal" opinion that the Sec. Gen. has completed his obligations under the 1962 agreement is legally irrelevant, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the UN Charter are the determinative authorities, not the self-serving interests of UN members that wanted to mine the colony.

Since 1973 the administration of West Papua has been as stated in this UN summary.

You only need to read the documents in chronological order to understand the situation; articles 73-88 of the UN Charter, the US historical record of 1961, the New York Agreement, and the UN summary.