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When Canada did – and didn’t – stand up for human rights
Justin Trudeau’s government is under fire not only from Saudi government officials, but also from some Canadians who have implictly criticized Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for being too aggressive in advocating for the release of Saudi human rights activists.
A tweet from the minister expressed her support for the activists, while her department followed up the next day with another seeking the “immediate release” of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah.
None of it was anything unusual: Western diplomats call for the “immediate release” of political prisoners all the time.
Canada’s Parliament unanimously called for the “immediate release” of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (Samar’s brother) in 2015. That followed a similar unanimous motion for Badawi’s “immediate release” by the Quebec National Assembly.
The same U.S. State Department official who now asks Canada and Saudi Arabia to sort out their dispute called on Russia earlier this year to “immediately release” Ukrainian prisoners. Navi Pillai, then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Saudi authorities in 2014 “to immediately release all human rights defenders.” Saudi Arabia imposed no sanctions on the U.N. – instead it stayed in, and soon afterwards sought and won a seat on U.N. Human Rights Council.
“Saudi Arabia must immediately free women human rights defenders held in crackdown,” nine U.N. experts added in June 2018 — again prompting no Saudi attack on the UN or its Human Rights Council (of which the Saudi kingdom remains a member).
So there’s little remarkable in Freeland’s anodyne call on Twitter for the “immediate release” of two Saudi activists. It is typical diplomatic language, and actually falls short of what the United Nations human rights system has said on several occasions.
What is remarkable is that Saudi government reaction has allowed Canada to be portrayed as a human rights champion even as it continues to arm Saudi Arabia and thus implicitly accepts Saudi human rights violations.
The incident recalls other times when authoritarian regimes have reacted with anger to Canadian words on human rights. Some lessons might be drawn from these past incidents.
There were similar clashes between Canada and Indonesia back in the 1990s, a time when Indonesia’s military regime was a lightning rod for human rights concerns in ways similar to Saudi Arabia today.
In 1991, Indonesian soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters in East Timor, now Timor-Leste. They had invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and had occupied it ever since, at the cost of more than 100,000 dead. The massacre at the Santa Cruz cemetery in the Timorese capital, Dili, prompted a wave of protest in Canada.
Barbara McDougall, foreign minister in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government, froze three planned aid projects to Indonesia and stopped permitting Canadian arms sales to the Suharto regime.
When the Netherlands also froze its aid, Indonesia responded with fury. It rejected any future Dutch aid and forced the dissolution of the Dutch-led consortium that co-ordinated foreign aid to Indonesia in favour of a more compliant Consultative Group on Indonesia.
Indonesian anger also targeted Canada, as Canadian foreign affairs files reveal. Ottawa was “treating us like a child,” complained one Indonesian cabinet minister. Another accused Canada of a “colonial mentality.” The Canadian Business Association in Jakarta warned against “meddling in the internal affairs” of Indonesia.
McDougall stood firm
Yet despite lobbying by Canadian businesses and by Trade Minister Michael Wilson, McDougall declined to grant new aid or permit arms sales to Indonesia. Canadian diplomats worked quietly to maintain open channels with Indonesian counterparts, and McDougall stood firm. Opposition parties agreed and even called on her to go further. Canada maintained its position and bilateral relations continued relatively smoothly.
Public protests in Canada, however, continued to spark Indonesian government rage. In 1994, Guelph University held an arms-length review of its regional development project in Indonesia. When the review handed down a critical comment on human rights in Indonesia, the Indonesian government immediately pulled the plug, giving project staff six weeks to get out of the country.
When a Timorese refugee in Canada, Bella Galhos, started to campaign for Timorese human rights from her new home in Ottawa, Indonesian diplomats tried to pressure her through her family.
Benjamin Parwoto, Indonesia’s ambassador to Canada, visited Galhos’s mother in Dili accompanied by a military escort, making what appeared to be threats.
Galhos went public and Parwoto was raked over the coals in the Canadian media and summoned for a tongue-lashing by Lloyd Axworthy, foreign minister in Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government.
Through this diplomatic clash, Canadian diplomats remained firm that they would advocate for the safety of a Canadian resident’s family. Galhos’s family was a valid topic of Canadian concern, not an Indonesian internal affair. The parallel to current events is clear: Canada spoke out for Samar Badawi in part due to previous advocacy for her brother Raif, whose wife, Ensaf Haidar, lives in Quebec with their children.
In these early 1990s cases, Canada’s government stated concerns on human rights grounds and did not back down when Indonesian officials responded with anger and threats. It did not use tweets, a form of communication that did not yet exist, but it did use the 1990s equivalent — written statements made available to the media and the public.
Canada emerged with less credit in 1997, when it was scheduled to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at the University of British Columbia.
The APEC protests
Chrétien and Axworthy were keen to make sure the summit succeeded, and pressed hard for Gen. Suharto to attend. Yet activists in Canada continued to make Indonesia’s human rights record a public controversy. They plastered the streets of Vancouver and other cities with posters of Suharto’s face and the slogan “Wanted: for crimes against humanity.”
This enraged Indonesian diplomats, who called the posters “soft terrorist tactics” and threatened a boycott of APEC and other damage to Canada-Indonesia relations.
The cost to obtain Suharto’s presence included a promise to spare the Indonesian president the sight of protesters. When activists armed with arrest warrants tried to carry out a citizens’ arrest of Suharto, they were promptly arrested by RCMP officers.
The RCMP later used pepper spray to stop protesters from scaling a fence that marked off the APEC meeting zone, and forcibly cleared the roads leading out of the meeting area at summit’s end, using force to keep Ottawa’s promises that Suharto would not witness any protesters.
The police crackdown on protests at APEC saw Canada’s government painted as an enemy rather than a defender of free speech.
Faced with Indonesian anger and threats, Canada had surrendered to Indonesian demands. It emerged looking weak and won no favours from Indonesia in return.
When Axworthy considered offering Canadian “good offices” to mediate the East Timor dispute, the Indonesian foreign minister refused on the grounds that “Canadian NGOs are the most ferociously anti-Indonesian in the world and he is skeptical, therefore, of the Canadian government’s ability to resist domestic political pressure and maintain its neutrality.”
Public pressure advances human rights
The comparison of these 1990s cases suggests that when confronted with threats, Canada best serves its interests by standing firm. It also suggests that public expressions of diplomatic concern, rather than “quiet diplomacy” alone, are a useful tool for rights advocacy.
Indonesia felt the growing pressure so much so that, by 1998, it allowed a referendum in East Timor to resolve the issue one way or the other — a Timorese demand that Indonesia’s government had refused for many years. In that referendum, the Timorese opted massively for independence.
The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste is now southeast Asia’s most democratic state and makes useful and creative diplomatic contributions to this day. Public debate in Canada and other countries over human rights in Timor and Indonesia helped make this possible.
If there is a lesson from Canada-Indonesia clashes, it is that Canadian rights advocacy, both private and public, can be useful — and that Canada should not surrender to threats from authoritarian states to abandon advocacy.
Ironically, Canada’s words on human rights in Timor and Indonesia were stronger than those offered recently by Freeland on Saudi Arabia — and unlike Freeland’s words, were sometimes backed by concrete actions.
The Saudi incident, in fact, has displayed a stark gap between Canada’s strong words on human rights, in the Badawi case and others, and the lack of teeth behind those words — shown best by Canada lecturing others on human rights while trying to sell arms arms that in turn will be used to violate these very human rights.
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Opening section of D. Webster, “Self-Determination Abandoned: The Road to the New York Agreement on West New Guinea (Papua), 1960–62,” Indonesia, January 2013, Cornell SEAP. DOI: 10.5728/indonesia.95.0009
“My Country favors a world of free and equal states …. Within the limits of our responsibility in such matters, my Country intends to be a participant and not merely an observer in this peaceful, expeditious movement of nations from the status of colonies to the partnership of equals. That continuing tide of self-determination, which runs so strong, has our sympathy and our support.” – John F. Kennedy to UN General Assembly, Sept. 25, 1961
“We must meet our oft-stated pledge to the free peoples of West Berlin …. We have previously admitted our willingness to remove any actual irritants in West Berlin, but the freedom of the city is not negotiable. We cannot negotiate with those who say, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.’… The solemn vow each of us gave to West Berlin in time of peace will not be broken in time of danger.” – John F. Kennedy’s report to the nation on the Berlin crisis, July 25, 1961
“Oh, that is entirely different because there are something like two and a quarter million West Berliners where there are only seven hundred thousand of those Papuans. Moreover, the West Berliners are highly civilized and highly cultured, whereas those inhabitants of West New Guinea are living, as it were, in the Stone Age.” – Kennedy in conversation with Netherlands Ambassador J.H. van Roijen, 1962
In 1960, the Dutch colony of West New Guinea (later known as West Papua, West Irian, Irian Jaya, and Papua) embarked on a ten-year plan slated to end in self-determination for its indigenous Papuan population. This plan was presented explicitly within the framework of international decolonization and at the same-time as the United Nations was working out its self-determination law, first enshrined in the UN declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples (Dec. 14, 1960). WNG was in many ways the first test case, and the international community failed abysmally. The reason was realpolitik, the strategic cold war imperative of the United States. The US while extolling self-determination as a high and holy principle for West Berlin and elsewhere, abandoned it for WNG. But it should be noted that the principle was also abandoned by the international community and all the players directly involved: Indonesia, Australia, and even the Netherlands. The sole exceptions were a group of African states who saw parallels to their own (then very recent) experience of political decolonization.
WNG was handed over to Indonesia in 1962 with the promise of an “act of free choice” to be held by 1969. That this act was a stage-managed whitewash is generally accepted. But the principle of self-determination was in fact abandoned earlier, in the three-way Dutch-Indonesian-American negotiations of 1960-1962. Self-determination was by no means impossible after this point, nor were Papuan rights to self-determination extinguished, but the path to self-determination was made much harder. After 1962, no major power would take it seriously in the Papuan case, and thus it was no surprise when the international community rubber-stamped the 1969 “act of free choice” and accepted WNG’s incorporation into Indonesia, an incorporation that is shaky under international law. This article traces the abandonment of the principle of self-determination leading up to the Dutch-Indonesian New York Agreement of August 1962, which put an end to Dutch rule and to the self-determination process.
The Canadian government has been taking flak lately for its arms sales.
Helicopters destined for the Philippines could be used for internal security in President Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh crackdowns, critics charge.
The $12-billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia has also embroiled Justin Trudeau’s government in controversy.
In response, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has pledged to review both deals, suggesting Canada is toughening up arms sales restrictions based on human rights grounds.
But how did Canada get into the international arms trade, anyway?
A look at the history of how Canada started selling weapons overseas following the Second World War reveals that, contrary to Freeland’s implication, Canada actually used to be much more restrictive on arms sales than it is today.
Canada has not made human rights any more central to its arms export policy than it was in the 1940s — in fact, it’s reduced oversight and the consideration of human rights issues when it comes to selling arms.
“Canada’s export controls are among the most rigorous in the world,” the government states.
It “strives to ensure that, among other policy goals, Canadian exports are not prejudicial to peace, security or stability in any region of the world or within any country.” In the post-Second World War period, Canada did not exactly “strive to ensure” these things — but it did say no when there was a risk of any of them happening.
How Canada got into the arms trade
Indeed, Canada entered the arms trade cautiously and carefully. After the Second World War, Ottawa was willing to pass surplus military equipment in Europe to allied governments.
But sales to less reliable countries, and those who might actually use the weapons, always required approval by the full cabinet. Prime Minister Mackenzie King noted that “great care should be taken with respect to all sales of weapons and supplies of war to foreign governments.”
The first test came in 1946, when cabinet agreed to sell six million 30-calibre cartridges and four million magazines to the Dutch army just as it was about to embark on a colonial war in Indonesia. But when the Dutch asked for 10,000 Sten machine guns for use in Indonesia, Canadian officials turned them down.
“We have no reason to believe that Canadian public opinion would support such a sale, nor would it be in the Canadian interest to make the sale,” according to one document from the day, now filed at Library and Archives Canada.
The guns would probably be employed in the “‘pacification’ of the native population,” exposing the government to “severe domestic and international criticism for supplying these arms” and potentially “prejudic(ing) for a long time our commercial relations with the Indonesians.”
Any further talk of helping the Netherlands — a close Canadian ally — was blocked by the Department of External Affairs
No to China
Cabinet did get to decide on a proposal in 1946 to sell warships to China, then a pro-American regime desperately fighting off the advances of Mao Zedong’s Chinese communists.
The Canadian government certainly sympathized with the Chinese Republicans. And the sale of 10 or 11 surplus Canadian frigates would have netted Canada some $2 million — the equivalent of $27 million in today’s money. Yet cabinet blocked the sale on the grounds that the ships “might be used in civil warfare.”
The same logic underpinned a Canadian decision to bar all military exports to Chinese Republicans in 1947.
In both cases, the logic was clear: Canada should sell arms only to close allies, and if there was any likelihood of use against civilians, no sale should be made.
Arming a dictatorship: Indonesia
By the 1970s, however, Canada had thrown early caution to the winds, becoming a keen seeker of arms exports. A recent analysis shows that Canada supplied $5.8 billion worth of arms over the past 25 years to countries classed as “dictatorships” by the human rights group Freedom House.
The example of arms sales to Indonesia curiously shows both a greater Canadian willingness to sell and the limits to that willingness.
Indonesia notoriously invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975, with more than 100,000 Timorese perishing under the subsequent military occupation. From 1975 to 1991, Canada nonetheless was willing to sell arms to Indonesia.
Writing in the 1980s, Timorese leader José Ramos Horta described Canadian “double standards” in scathing terms: “These weapons play an important role in the war in East Timor. But how does the Canadian government explain the weapons exports to Indonesia if Canadian law states that export permits should be issued only for ‘non-conflict’ areas? Simply by asserting that there is no armed conflict in East Timor – knowing that to be a lie.”
Yet there were limits.
In 1991, a massacre in East Timor prompted Barbara McDougall, foreign minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, to impose an arms embargo.
There was no suggestion that Canadian-made arms had been used in the massacre, but McDougall was taking no chances.
Arms sales to Indonesia resumed as Jean Chrétien’s government embraced Indonesia, but there was increasing dissent within the Department of Foreign Affairs about it.
“Any question of military sales to Indonesia, by definition, is a sensitive issue,” one divisional director wrote. After all, he noted acidly, “the Indonesian army is still killing people in East Timor.”
In September 1999, after extensive public pressure, foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy imposed an arms embargo as pro-Indonesia militia groups killed, forcibly relocated and terrorized the Timorese population. No evidence was required that Canadian-supplied weapons were being used against civilians. The government simply acted.
Bending away from justice
Some 80 years ago, British historian Herbert Butterfield criticized those who rewrite the past in order “to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”
This “Whiggish” view of history insists that things get better over time, in a progressive arc leading to general improvement.
It’s this sense that Chrystia Freeland invokes when she promises to ban the sale of a weapon “if there were a substantial risk that it could be used to commit human rights violations” — and describes that as progress.
In actual fact, if previous debates on arms sales are anything to go by, Canada is less vigilant on human rights than it was in 1946, or even in 1999. It has some way to go before it approaches the standards that once prevailed.
The arc of Canadian arms sales is long, but it seems to bend away from, not towards, human rights.
Flowers in the Wall: Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Melanesia is now available for free Open Access download, thanks to University of Calgary Press.
What is the experience of truth and reconciliation? What is the purpose of a truth commission? What lessons can be learned from established truth and reconciliation processes?
Flowers in the Wall explores the experience of truth and reconciliation Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific, with and without a formal truth commission.
Poem by Abe Barreto Soares
1 Introduction: Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia, and Melanesia
2 Incomplete Truth, Incomplete Reconciliation: Towards a Scholarly Verdict on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste
3 East Timor: Legacies of Violence
4 Shining Chega!’s Light into the Cracks
5 Politika Taka Malu, Censorship, and Silencing: Virtuosos of Clandestinity and One’s Relationship to Truth and Memory
Jacqueline Aquino Siapno
6 Development and Foreign Aid in Timor-Leste after Independence
Laurentina “mica” Barreto Soares
7 Reconciliation, Church, and Peacebuilding
8 Human Rights and Truth
9 Chega! for Us: Socializing a Living Document
Maria Manuela Leong Pereira
SECTION I I
Memory, Truth-seeking, and the 1965 Mass Killings in Indonesia
10 Cracks in the Wall: Indonesia and Narratives of the 1965 Mass Violence
Baskara T. Wardaya
11 The Touchy Historiography of Indonesia’s 1965 Mass Killings: Intractable Blockades?
12 Writings of an Indonesian Political Prisoner
Local Truth and Reconciliation in Indonesia
13 Gambling with Truth: Hopes and Challenges for Aceh’s Commission for Truth and Reconciliation
Lia Kent and Rizki Affiat
14 All about the Poor: An Alternative Explanation of the Violence in Poso
Where Indonesia meets Melanesia: Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Tanah Papua
15 Facts, Feasts, and Forests: Considering Approaches to Truth and Reconciliation in Tanah Papua
Todd Biderman and Jenny Munro
16 The Living Symbol of Song in West Papua: A Soul Force to be Reckoned With
17 Time for a New US Approach toward Indonesia and West Papua
Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Solomon Islands
18 The Solomon Islands “Ethnic Tension” Conflict and the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Terry M. Brown
19 Women and Reconciliation in Solomon Islands
Betty Lina Gigisi
Bringing it Home
20 Reflecting on Reconciliation
21 Conclusion: Seeking Truth about Truth-seeking
John Coast, Recruit to Revolution: Adventure and Politics during the Indonesian Struggle for Independence. Edited by Laura Noszlopy. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2015. xxvi + 336 pp.
The Republic of Indonesia won its independence by combining perjuangan (struggle) and diplomasi. Combat took place both on the ground inside Indonesia, and in the global arena through diplomatic pressure on the Netherlands. In other words, the Indonesian revolution was both a domestic and an international event.
John Coast, later to become a British impresario who worked with such artists as Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar, is not at first glance an obvious choice as chronicler of the Indonesian revolution’s diplomatic and military story. And yet, he embodies the revolution’s dual aspect well. Held as a Japanese prisoner in Thailand (then Siam) during the Second World War, he fell in love with Indonesian culture, and especially Balinese dance. Soon after Indonesia declared independence in 1945, Coast was a supporter. By 1949, when the Netherlands finally recognized Indonesian independence at the bargaining table, he was handling the Indonesian Republic delegation’s press relations. In the years between, he worked first as a British government information officer and then as an advisor to the Republic of Indonesia. In this latter role, Coast handled everything from running the Dutch blockade of the Republic’s trade by air, to trouble-shooting bad press that accused the Republic of opium smuggling.
Laura Noszlopy has made a valuable contribution by editing a re-issued and enhanced edition of Coast’s 1952 classic of his journey as pro-Indonesia partisan, Recruit to Revolution. This book follows her editing of Coast’s earlier account of his days as a Japanese prisoner-of-war, Railroad of Death. Originally written for a mass audience, Coast’s work will now interest scholars of Indonesian history. The tale through his eyes is one of adventure, personal political journey, and one man’s experience of the Indonesian revolution. It both entertains and sheds light on less-studied aspects of that revolution. Coast’s key roles were to establish an air route around the Dutch blockade, flying in and out people and supplies between Siam and the Republic’s capital, Jogjakarta (now Yogyakarta). He positions himself as both insider and outsider, as confidante of Indonesian leaders and as independent observer of their own and their new country’s foibles. Fascinating character sketches of President Sukarno, vice-president Mohammad Hatta, and such leading figures as Sutan Sjahrir, Amir Sjarifuddin, and Haji Agus Salim offer useful additions to the narrative.
Although Jogjakarta features, it does not always come across as a city that Coast enjoyed – still less his Sumatra stopovers in Bukittinggi and elsewhere. Coast’s portrait of Indonesian leaders and their Republic mixes admiration and advocacy for their cause with criticism. He was based in Siam for most of the period in question, and the book thus features a series of looping arcs from Siam to Jogjakarta and back to Siam (three times), from Siam to Britain (where he travelled, twice, on missions for the Republic), and finally from Siam to Jakarta, capital of the new independent state established in 1949. So although the material on the Republic’s struggle is useful, this book may make its strongest contribution to historical study of the Indonesian revolution by its examination of the far-flung (if poverty-stricken) overseas diplomatic network of unofficial Indonesian embassies and offices outside the country. These both funneled cash to the Republic and carried its message, with impressive success, to global audiences. If diplomasi and struggle were both needed, Coast is one of the minority of writers who tells us things about diplomasi’s contribution to Indonesian independence.
In this new edition, Noszlopy has added much. The text is unchanged, but footnotes explain references to individuals and contexts that a 1952 reader might know well, but which may leave a 2017 reader in the dark. A postscript tells the tale of what happened after the book’s story finishes, detailing the futures of the major protagonists. Three historical documents – two reports by Coast, a British Foreign Office dispatch, and a radio broadcast by Coast, round off the book. An insightful introduction by Noszlopy puts it all in context. The book, in sum, is a model of how to edit a historical classic by bringing it back into the historiography, adding value, and respecting the original text.
Originally published as David Webster (2018) Recruit to Revolution: Adventure and Politics during the Indonesian Struggle for Independence, History: Reviews of New Books, 46:2, 52-53, DOI: 10.1080/03612759.2018.1412762. This version is the author pre-print.
When does the humanitarian impulse to provide aid and relief contribute to activism to promote human rights? When does it prompt avoidance of activism in favour of quietly enduring access to places and people in need?
This is one of the questions I am trying to answer in current research on relations between Canada and East Timor. Under Indonesian military occupation from 1975 to 1999, Canadian aid agencies tended to shy away from criticizing Indonesian actions in order to make sure they could deliver aid supplies. Humanitarian impulses dictated a quiet stance on human rights from a range of Canadian NGOs. But there was an early exception, in the work of Oxfam Canada.
The small half-island country of East Timor was invaded by the army of Indonesia, the regional giant of Southeast Asia, at the end of 1975. Under Indonesian military occupation, more than 100,000 people died in what some observers called “tantamount to genocide.” Canada was among the many Western governments that backed Indonesian rule as “an accomplished and irreversible fact.” It wasn’t, of course: East Timorese fought on with guerrilla resistance, clandestine non-violent organizing, and diplomatic struggles, until they won the right to hold a referendum in 1999. After the vote went overwhelmingly for independence, an interim United Nations administration took over the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste formally regained its independence in 2002.
When are the beginnings of Canadian support for East Timor? Finding an answer to this sort of question requires interrogating both government and non-government archival sources. It’s only in 1983 that protest letters start to appear in the Timor file of Canada’s Department of External Affairs (after several name changes, External is now part of Global Affairs Canada). But it turns out that relying on the government records comes up with the wrong answer.
In fact, Canadian efforts to send humanitarian aid to East Timor began in 1975 before the Indonesian invasion, continued afterwards, and included efforts to lobby the Canadian government. These were not successful efforts – and there is no trace in the External Affairs documentary record – but they laid the groundwork for subsequent Canadian support for East Timor amongst humanitarian networks.
This early campaigning began through Oxfam Canada, which backed the aid work of Oxfam’s Australian affiliate, Community Aid Abroad, to get humanitarian supplies into East Timor. Specifically, CAA tried to send a ship with medical supplies shortly after Indonesia invaded East Timor on 7 December 1975. People were dying on Australia’s doorstep, and Australian humanitarian groups wanted to assist. They called on the global Oxfam network for support. Oxfam Canada made an immediate pledge of $10,000 and stood ready to offer more, director Helen Forsey-Conteras informed CAA.
The ship did not make it through. Instead, Australia’s government acted to prevent the ship from sailing and undercutting Australian government efforts to remain on good terms with Indonesia – regardless of the cost in Timorese lives. “Unfortunately the project to which part of your money was directed has come to a sudden and dramatic end,” CAA informed Oxfam Canada. “The medical supplies which we had purchased and organised to be shipped to East Timor were impounded by Australian navy vessels which arrested the boat and its crew on their way to Timor.”
CAA and other Australian humanitarian groups opened with a standard humanitarian logic: they wanted to help people in need. But the logic of what was happening in East Timor soon moved them into overtly political stances of opposition to Indonesian killings and other mass atrocities, and opposition to Australian government acceptance of Indonesia’s military occupation of East Timor. The same process happened within Oxfam Canada. “100,000 killed since Dec. 7, beginning of fighting. 1/6 of population,” Forsey-Conteras wrote in her notes on a phone strategy session with CAA. She added that “Austr[alian] business community passed resol’n that govt should stop oppos’n to Indonesia among NGOs – danger of info flow.”
Here were the lines of debate: business and government on one side, seeking to avoid headlines about mass killings; humanitarian groups on the other, trying to get the word out and alter government policy. Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that Oxfam’s efforts are not recorded in the Canadian Department of External Affairs file for East Timor.
Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec did try (without success) to shift the Canadian government’s policy of silence and abstention on the occupation of East Timor. Forsey-Contreras contacted other groups. Oxfam Canada lobbied the government – as did the director’s father, Senator Eugene Forsey, who seems to have provided advice. (Oxfam documents refer to him as “Dad.” I’m grateful to John Foster for confirming who “Dad” was, in this case.) The campaign also involved Oxfam Quebec, which in a letter to External Affairs minister Allan MacEachen deplored the way most Western governments were “washing their hands” [s’en lavent les mains] of the East Timor situation.
Oxfam’s campaign was abortive, with no apparent effect on Canadian government policy. External Affairs ignored groups like Oxfam, and did not start to pay much attention to letters from the public until the formation of the Nova Scotia East Timor Group in 1985, a campaign by Amnesty International launched in 1985, actions by the Ottawa-based Indonesia East Timor Programme starting in 1986, and finally the creation of a national East Timor Alert Network backed by Canadian churches in 1987. But the beginnings of Canadian solidarity for East Timor, it turns out, go back to 1975.
What I draw from these materials is that humanitarianism and the urge to solidarity with an oppressed people intertwined. This is a common phenomenon, but suggests that aid organizations are one more group that needs to be written into the story of Canadian action for human rights on East Timor. Second, there is much more going on than the government files reflect. To write a full history of Canadian interactions with East Timor – as I’m trying to do this year – requires looking at government and non-governmental organization records, with many of the latter found in unexpected places. Third, the story can’t be written from NGO files alone – the government documents are a good indication that no one was listening to Oxfam Canada in 1976, but officials in Ottawa were listening keenly to the pressure that began in the 1980s, and by the 1990s felt compelled to respond to it. But rights groups picked up on the same sort of language used in the earliest Oxfam-authored letters. There was a legacy: Oxfam’s lobby shaped later lobbying efforts.
Relevant Oxfam documents appear in my recent history in images recently produced with support from the Indonesia and Timor-Leste Studies Committee of the Association for Asian Studies, https://canadatimor.wordpress.com/
Originally published by the UN History project, Feb. 2017.
In 1955, a team of government officials from India toured the Soviet Union, examining everything from coal mining to civil aviation. Distinctive in their group photograph was Australian Eleanor Hinder, the only woman and the only non-Indian on the mission. She is identified with a ruled indicator line in pencil on this photograph of the group posed in front of the Kakhova Dam construction site, part of the great Donbass industrial complex taking shape in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The photo comes from the official trip report submitted by the United Nations Technical Assistance Administration, sponsor of the study tour. The pencil was wielded by Viola Smith, Hinder’s partner in life and love, on the copy of the report housed in Hinder’s personal papers. The image draws together several threads: the way the United Nations bridged development and diplomacy in its technical assistance work; the role of countries seen as less central in postwar international politics; and the occasional visibility of key actors like Hinder whose names are seldom recalled when stories of international politics are penned.
The UN was founded with a strong Security Council partly in order to avoid the perceived security failures of its predecessor, the League of Nations. In the event, the Security Council’s permanent members failed to work together. Unable to act as it wished on peace and security, the UN found a more satisfying global mission in economic development. In the early years of the 1950s, this took the form of technical assistance, a scheme for wealthier and more technically advanced countries to send experts to less developed countries, where they would share their knowledge and skills. It established a Technical Assistance Administration within the UN Secretariat under the leadership of Canadian administrator and diplomat Hugh Keenleyside.
But technical assistance, like so much of the UN’s work, was caught up in the global Cold War. The USSR initially rejected technical assistance as a tool of American imperialism – no surprise, since technical assistance was first mooted as “point four” of US president Harry Truman’s foreign policy agenda. But in 1953, the USSR offered to contribute the equivalent of a million American dollars. Soviet officials insisted that this money would be entirely in unconvertible roubles, causing the United States and its allies to block the offer. In response, Keenleyside flew to Moscow and brokered a deal that brought the Soviet Union into the UN technical assistance plan, removing technical assistance at least a little bit from the Cold War.
The next step was to put flesh on the bones of the deal by starting to explore what sorts of help the USSR could offer. India was the first country to be considered as a Soviet aid focus. Although she had just retired, the TAA tapped Eleanor Hinder for the “very important” job of accompanying this group, giving her the title of Ambassador without Portfolio. Six sub-groups in fields from water power development to heavy chemicals crisscrossed the country to great interest, heightened by the parallel arrival of Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Moscow for a state visit.
Hinder’s travelogues, mostly written while in flight with a special ink pen designed to work at high altitudes, reflect her impressed fascination with the new Soviet Union, flushed with the success of its postwar reconstruction and the sense of opportunity after the death of Stalin. Women held positions of authority everywhere, far different from in the West, she wrote. Four thousand women had started building a mighty dam on Ukraine’s Don River during the Second World War and finished soon after the war’s end, launching a heroic tale in which the region now generated 10-million kilowatt-hours of power – and the Soviet Union added 4-million kilowatts more each year. Here was a signature project, featured in the image above.
Development in the USSR, Hinder reported, was pushed forward by popular dedication and hard work and a vast range of specialist institutes. She was especially impressed by great canal in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. The contrast with hardscrabble Afghanistan, its women all clad in burkhas, struck her most of all. “On the Uzbek side – fine strapping women, all of them working it seems, striding along freely.”
In Moscow, Hinder “felt indeed that I was participating in a historic moment, that the sharing of technical knowledge between these two peoples through the United Nations had significance beyond even the great benefits involved in the sharing.” The “wider significance” included the value, for many other countries, of impressions that India’s team would bring back. There was the possible relevance of models for development offered by the constituent republics such as Georgia and Uzbekistan. The chances for Soviet technical assistance, with the UN as channel, were much more favourable in the new Soviet Union of the mid-1950s. And so, Hinder urged Keenleyside, “if we have the wisdom to grasp it, an opportunity is at hand.”
The tour emerged as triumph. The Soviets were happy with the new avenues open to non-communist Asian countries. Indian officials were happy at the new chances to draw on a major new source of aid. And aid officials at the UN were happy that they had opened a new channel for technical assistance and begun to in integrate the Soviet Union into the multilateral technical assistance world. Here was no small accomplishment: the TAA, headed by a Canadian and through the agency of a trip headed by an Australian, was taking steps that might cool global confrontation as well as boost economic development. Hinder, previously TAA bureau chief for Asia, was not given the Ambassador title idly. She was crucial in negotiations and throughout this story acted as both capable aid administrator and canny diplomat.
There was also a more personal side. The photograph of Hinder among the Indian officials is the visible side of this story. The less visible side is told in Viola Smith’s pencil line, carefully indicating Hinder’s position in the photograph. The addition was part of Voila Smith’s stewardship of Hinder’s papers, now in the State Library of New South Wales in Australia. It does not appear, of course, in copies of the report housed in the UN’s own archives in New York.
So who was Eleanor Hinder? She started work as superintendent of welfare at a department store in her native Sydney, then in 1925 moved to Shanghai to run social welfare operations in the International Settlement. There she met American diplomat Viola Smith. Alongside her social welfare work in Shanghai factories, Hinder was named by the League of Nations as Protector of mui tsai, “girl slaves” working in the city. She went on to various posts with the British Foreign Office, UNRRA, and as an advisor on welfare and labour to Burma, Malaya, and Hong Kong, ending up with an OBE awarded by the British government. When Smith returned to the United States after consular and trade posts in Asia, Hinder sought work at the UN. She rose to important roles at the TAA partly because she had expertise in international development, but also partly because her “life-long friend,” as she phrased it, was an American and the couple wanted to keep living together.
The 1955 Indian study tour of the USSR allowed Hinder to retain residency in the United States as a UN ambassador even after her formal retirement. When final retirement came, Smith joined Hinder in Australia. Borders constrained the couple. Both made career choices that sacrificed opportunities in order to be together, even as both could point to impressive careers. The personal and the political intertwined. Hinder was an early proponent of UN official Margaret Anstee’s dictate for women at the UN: “never learn to type.” In common with many visitors to the USSR, she saw Soviet industrial muscle – but she also saw that women workers were as much a part of that as men, a far less common observation. The complex life stories of diplomats like Eleanor Hinder need to be seen to understand the diplomatic events swirling around them. A pencil line on a photograph in an official report can reveal as much as the report itself.