Natalie Sambhi is a graduate of the Asia–Pacific College of Diplomacy and Graduate Studies in International Affairs at the Australian National University.

Four soldiers from the Indonesian military (TNI) who are alleged to have kicked and beaten Papuans in Puncak Jaya in March were found guilty last week of torturing civilians and sentenced to jail. This follows intense international criticism after video footage of another more serious incident, showing soldiers torturing two Papuans in May, was posted to YouTube on 18 October. While the Indonesian government has vowed to conduct a full investigation of this incident, Australia may be pondering how it reconciles engagement with TNI units while promoting a foreign policy that supports the protection of human rights. Within TNI, Indonesia’s Special Forces unit, Komando Pasukan Khusus (Kopassus) stands accused of serious human rights abuses in East Timor (using militias as proxies) and Aceh during the 1990s, and in Papua as late as May 2009.

Australia's elite Special Forces unit, Special Air Service Regiment, traveled to Indonesia in late September to conduct a joint counter–terrorism exercise with Kopassus. No doubt, our continued engagement with Kopassus will be driven by strategic imperatives. However, Australia's reputation as a responsible international actor may be dented if it is perceived as paying only lip service to the protection of human rights. To reconcile its defence and foreign policies, it may need to constructively tackle issues of engagement with partners like TNI head on, beginning with Kopassus.

The starting point could be to adopt well–defined criteria for engagement. For instance, the US' so–called Leahy Amendment to the Foreign Assistance legislation (see s502B and subsequent appropriations legislation) prohibits US security assistance to military units where there is credible evidence that they have committed 'gross violations of human rights'. The US has therefore made clear the standard it expects of its partners.

In response to concerns about Kopassus' background, Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, has stated that Australia's approach is to minimise contact with Kopassus members accused of breaching human rights, and to promote the 'very strong and high standards that Australia has so far as human rights are concerned'. Similarly, the head of Australia's Special Operations Command, Major General Tim McOwan, pointed out that Kopassus has worked 'assiduously to redress some of their past transgressions'. Both statements suggest a rather abstract approach to human rights recognition.

A test like that of the Leahy Amendment would give Australia a concrete standard against which we can measure our (in)tolerance of human rights abuses and make clear what we expect from Indonesia. Such a framework would help guide our relationship and navigate prickly questions when our interests diverge and our values collide. Australia has an opportunity to craft a meaningful narrative of engagement for the future and to develop a truly strong bilateral relationship with our most important regional partner.  A productive and cooperative partnership between Australia and Indonesia is in the interests of both. Given the scope and weight of those interests, the rules of that partnership deserve careful and measured crafting.

Government of Republic of Indonesia image, used under a Creative Commons licence.