Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 18:39 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 18:39 | SYDNEY

Balibo: Lives and interests


Hugh White

This post is part of the Balibo debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

22 September 2009 10:35

This post is part of the Balibo debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Graeme Dobell’s post on the Balibo Five makes the perfectly valid point that journalists covering wars must take risks, and they are justified in doing so because they perform an important function. For that reason he rejects the idea that the Balibo Five were wrong to be where they were and that they therefore in some sense deserve what happened to them. I completely agree. 

But that does not quite exhaust the question of what approach we should now take to these deaths. One can regard them as a tragedy and a crime, and still have doubts about how far we should sacrifice wider national interests in bringing those responsible to justice.

The main debate over the AFP's decision to investigate and presumably prosecute those responsible for killing the Balibo Five has pitted those who think it will damage Australia's relations with Indonesia against those who argue that securing justice takes precedence over maintaining good relations with Indonesia. 

This is a slightly phoney debate in the present situation, because I do not expect that the AFP investigation will do much damage to our wider bilateral relationships with Indonesia. There may be more specific consequences for the AFP's relationship with their Indonesian counterparts, which has been very valuable to Australia over recent years and has probably saved Australian lives.

But if we did face a real choice between retrospective justice and current national interest, it would be hard to argue – as some in the present debate seem to — that the lives of Australians or justice for past wrongs should always take precedence over something as important to Australia as our relationship with Indonesia. Frankly, few of us consistently place such a high value on the lives of our fellow citizens. 

Anyone who is not a pacifist must accept that there are circumstances in which we are willing to sacrifice the lives of our fellow citizens for the national interest. Indeed, we are doing so right now, in Afghanistan. If, when necessity requires, we are willing to weigh the lives of soldiers today against supposed benefits to our national interest, we are surely also justified in weighing the benefits of retrospective justice against the costs to those national interests. Or am I missing something?

Photo by Flickr user p.medved, used under a Creative Commons license.