Tuesday 12 Oct 2021 | 12:46 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 12 Oct 2021 | 12:46 | SYDNEY

Some perspective on Balibo


Stephen Grenville

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

14 September 2009 09:58

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

One view is that morality demands that the Australian Government do everything possible to seek justice for the journalists killed in Timor in 1975. To give the other side of the argument puts one in the position of the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men: defending the indefensible.

But, just as Jack had some important points to make and dilemmas to expound, there are some arguments that should be heard before the moral grandstanding takes over:

  • The Balibo Five were, to put it gently, foolhardy in the extreme. While we all feel very sorry for the outcome, they should have known that you can't film a covert invasion without getting shot. And the Australian editors who sent them into the field are, if anything, more culpable. 
  • Of all the terrible and grossly unfair things that have happened in war zones in the past thirty years, the Balibo affair is sadly only a small example. If we are interested in improving conditions in war zones across the world, we should surely be more worried about the civilians being killed almost every day by Western armies. Civilians don't have much choice about being in war zones.
  • If it's war crimes we wish to pursue, and if we have any sense of perspective, then we should be more vocal on the limp response to the genocide in Cambodia, again involving victims who had no choice about being there. 
  • If we're thinking about consistency, why not take the Vietnamese Government to task for the similar killing of four journalists in Cholon in 1968
  • The leaders of East Timor, who have more reason than we do to seek justice for past acts, have decided that their people's interests are best served by getting along with Indonesia and looking forward, not back.
  • Foreigners (not least the Indonesians) might validly accuse us of hypocrisy, with so many unresolved atrocities in our own history.
  • Any AFP inquiry will surely seriously damage the important relationship built up between the Australian and Indonesian police. For purely selfish reasons, I want the AFP to go on cooperating closely and successfully with the Indonesian police because it makes things safer for me (and a lot of others) in Indonesia. And this cooperation has also served the cause of justice: the cooperation facilitated the arrest of the Bali bombers, responsible for many more deaths of people who did not intentionally put themselves into mortal danger.
  • An AFP investigation has no hope of achieving any 'convictions' or retribution. The Indonesians clearly will not cooperate. So any hope of setting an example to deter future acts is futile.