Wed, 04 Jun 2003

Volvo diplomacy

Something is not quite right with this picture: Key Cabinet ministers arriving in their chauffeur-driven Volvo sedans to a Cabinet meeting on Monday to consider which direction to take on the status of Indonesia's relations with Sweden. It is not terribly ironic in itself that they are driven around in Volvos -- a fine Swedish automobile. It could have been a Mercedes Benz, which President Megawati Soekarnoputri arrived in.

The unfortunate irony is the mismatch between the ability (or rather inability) of our political leaders to understand international law and diplomacy, and the virtues that cars like Volvo and Mercedes have: sophistication, reliability and dependability.

The Cabinet met on Monday after Stockholm rejected Indonesia's demand to arrest and hand over, or expel leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) who have taken up Swedish nationality. Sweden maintained that these GAM leaders-in-exile, including president Hasan di Tiro, have not broken any Swedish laws.

Responding to Swedish rejections, some Cabinet members and national leaders like Amien Rais (who as chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly is also entitled to a Volvo limo) are calling on the government to punish Sweden, either through downgrading diplomatic ties, or severing them completely.

Fortunately, there are still one or two cool heads in the Cabinet (the ones who have Volvo-like virtues) to persuade President Megawati to postpone any action against Sweden, and instead to send another high-powered delegation to Stockholm to persuade the Swedes to cooperate in fighting GAM.

Indonesia, of course, has acted within its rights in asking for Stockholm's cooperation to arrest the GAM leaders who now have Swedish citizenship. After all, they have been conducting their campaign for an independent Aceh state from there.

But Indonesia's diplomacy, unfortunately, has not been matched by more thorough preparations at home, so it was easy to see why the efforts were doomed to fail.

Technically, Hasan di Tiro and his colleagues in Sweden have not broken any Indonesian laws either. No Indonesian court has ever tried them (in absentia or otherwise), let alone convicted them for their actions which date back to 1976.

The only thing Jakarta has in making its case to Stockholm is an allegation of Hasan di Tiro's role in the Aceh insurgency, or more recently, an allegation of GAM's role in several bomb blasts. None of which have been brought before a court of law.

The National Police's request to Interpol to help arrest the GAM leaders was sent recently, long after the last official letter Jakarta sent to Stockholm.

A request for Interpol's help however will not be sufficient to convince Stockholm. The least the Indonesian government should do first, would be to make a case against Hasan di Tiro in court, even in absentia, and get him convicted for whatever laws he has broken.

Assuming that the trials are credible (which is a tall order), only then can Jakarta present a stronger case to Sweden. In the absence of an extradition treaty, this is still no guarantee that Sweden will comply. But at least Jakarta would be able to make a case that Hasan di Tiro has broken an Indonesian law. The way things stand now, he has broken no laws from any country.

In international diplomacy, it is one thing to ask, and completely another to demand or to impose something on another country. Going by their statements in calling for punishment against Sweden, many of our political leaders have failed to grasp the consequences with regard to Indonesia's international standing.

Our relations with Sweden go well beyond bilateral trade, aid and investment, all of which these leaders seemed quick to belittle.

Stockholm accepted these GAM leaders in exile under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugee Status which requires countries to provide sanctuary for people who face persecution in their own country. And Article 33 specifically bars the forced return of a refugee if he or she risks persecution.

For Indonesia to impose its will on Stockholm is demanding Sweden to break the Geneva Convention.

Another matter that Jakarta should consider is that Sweden is a member of the European Union. To pick a fight with Sweden would be tantamount to picking a fight with almost all of Europe. With the Union trying to coordinate the laws on asylum, it will not be long before Hasan di Tiro and friends will also enjoy protection across Europe.

We must have learned by now from our dealings with Portugal, during the height of the dispute over East Timor. As a member of the European Union, Portugal managed to push resolution after resolution through international bodies condemning Indonesia's policy in East Timor.

Picking on Sweden, when our own position is weak, would risk the wrath of the European Union and further internationalize the Aceh issue, the very thing that most here wanted to avoid.

It is clear that this is a fight that Jakarta is unlikely to win, given the ineptness, poor preparations, and most of all, our leaders' poor knowledge of international laws and diplomacy.

If you believe in the popular saying "you are what you drive", then most of our Cabinet ministers and political leaders do not deserve the Volvo limousines they ride around in every day. They should opt for something less sophisticated, less reliable and less dependable.