Where torture goes (almost) unpunished

Indonesian soldiers accused of posting torture videos on YouTube receive jail sentences for “disobey

On a recent post, one commenter asked why I bothered writing about the "piffling matter" of the Quran-hating Pastor Terry Jones being banned from coming into the UK. Shouldn't I be drawing attention to what's been happening in Belarus, instead?

Well, I will leave that to those better qualified. What I would like to do is raise the situation in Papua, where three Indonesian soldiers have recently received sentences of between eight and ten months in jail for their involvement in a horrendous case of torture that included holding a burning stick to a man's genitals. The verdict has perhaps understandably been overlooked in the UK, given the news from Tunisia and Egypt and the Palestine-related WikiLeaks. So let me repeat it.

They were convicted on charges of "disobeying orders", not torture, and none has been discharged from the army. It's been reported on in America and Australia, but seems to have escaped the notice of plenty of papers here.

But then Papua and the state with which it shares an island, Papua New Guinea, barely register on the European consciousness anyway – even though Papua was a Dutch and Papua New Guinea a British colony.

This history is just one reason why we ought to be a little more aware of Papua's misfortunes – not least because the Netherlands' control of the western half of the island was the justification for its eventual inclusion in Indonesia in the first place. Had the Dutch not been such brutal imperial masters in that part of the world, and had they not been so savage in their attempts to reclaim the East Indies after the Second World War, they perhaps might have been in a stronger position to argue that greater attention should be paid to the wishes of Papua's inhabitants.

Instead, when the Dutch finally left, the territory formally became part of Indonesia after the laughably named Act of Free Choice (or "Act Free of Choice", as the Australian academic Ron May put it recently) supposedly confirmed that union was what the Papuans wanted.

Many have referred to what happened since as "slow-motion genocide": transmigration of large numbers of Javanese whose presence has then created "facts" on the ground; at least 100,000 Papuans dead as a result of the military occupation – about one-sixth of the population; and widespread torture and summary execution. Very little of which, unlike the killings in East Timor, appears to merit more than the odd inch in British newspapers. (For an honourable exception, see this report by George Monbiot in 2005.)

That Papua today is part of Indonesia, a situation that any genuine act of self-determination would have rejected, is a result of European colonisation, as is the border with Papua New Guinea – a division still not recognised by the indigenous people who live there.

This might suggest that we have some historic responsibility to the region and its travails over the last few decades. Or is the reason for our lack of interest – in, for instance, the recent lenient sentences for the Indonesian soldiers – that we view it in the same way as did John F Kennedy's adviser Robert Komer? Is it for us, too, just "a few thousand miles of cannibal land"?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.