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Australian Council For International Development (ACFID) 2004 Human Rights Award*

Response by Fr Mark Raper SJ AM** on receiving the ACFID Award

Canberra, 17th September 2004

Thank you for this ACFID 2004 Human Rights Award. To be recognised by one’s peers and colleagues, especially when the honour touches our core business, the defence and promotion of human rights, is indeed an honour. I am moved.

ACFID (at the time ACFOA) started me on this track. ACFOA sent me twice to East Timor during that tense and difficult late 1975 period, to assess humanitarian needs and to respond to those needs. East Timor was a learning ground for me, for Australians, and for the Australian non-government agencies. Timor Leste did, does and will always have much to teach us, for we are neighbours. Timor Leste, like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, is not going to move anywhere else. Nor are we. Long may we help one another and learn from one another.

Our team, led by Jim Dunn, a former recipient of this ACFID award, landed in Dili in October 1975, just as Greg Shackleton and his television team set out to cover the border fighting. As you know, they did not return from Balibo. A Portuguese film crew, there at the same time, did return. Experienced war correspondents, and lucky, they buried their cameras in the mountains and ran.

Returning a second time to East Timor with a shipload of aid donated by ACFOA agencies, I had to set up a food distribution program. Like the journalists, and like you I am sure, I learnt quickly that humanitarian assistance in a time of conflict requires a complex set of skills and capacity for innovation. It requires preparation, training and good local networks.

In those days immediately preceding the invasion I learned too of the interplay between political and humanitarian action. Jim Dunn, the former diplomat, led our team to visit Colonel Lemos Pires, the Portuguese Governor, who had withdrawn to Atauro Island. We sought to persuade Portugal to deal with Fretilin so that there could be an orderly decolonisation, in order to avert the Indonesian advance. Fretilin’s central committee thought events had gone too far, but reluctantly let Jose Ramos Horta go to Darwin to begin talks. Because he was outside during the invasion, he is alive today.

Over the following months and years, I saw the role and capacity of propaganda and ideology, both in Australia and in Indonesia, to distort and to hide the truth. But we have all learned, thirty years later, the importance of taking the long view. My former professor, friend and mentor, Herb Feith, also a recipient of this Human Rights Award, once pulled me aside in the late seventies. He counselled that Suharto’s Indonesia was not monolithic, that we could never predict what would happen when the first chinks appeared in that military machine. Indeed, who could have predicted that Suharto’s successor, the temporary President Habibie, would call for a ballot in East Timor 24 years later?

Over this period our respect for the East Timorese people has only grown. In humanitarian assistance, you and I have learned again and again, to respect and to trust the local people with whom we work. And finally, East Timor has also shown us that ultimately the truth wins out. From this we should also draw the lesson that it is not enough to say with pride what a good job Australia did in 1999. Rather let us acknowledge the previous 24 years of disastrous policy, and resolve nonetheless now to be good neighbours.

East Timor taught me much, but above all the refugees have been my teachers. Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), the organisation with which I worked for 20 years, was built from the bottom up. Its vision came from its founder Pedro Arrupe, but each new program has to be worked out on the ground with the people and in response to their needs. JRS’s mission is to “accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees”. Our experience in Central America of accompañamiento gave new meaning to our mission “to accompany” the forcibly displaced. When North Americans volunteered to live with communities of refugees in El Salvador, local armies knew that if they used US supplied M16s to kill American citizens, military aid and external political support for the dictatorship would dry up. Just by being there, one could protect human rights.

From refugees I learned too that if you want to a shape a vision of a future society for which we long, then go to the widows and mothers who have lost their sons to war. Those who have nothing left to lose are often the ones who are most free to imagine and to describe the ideal society, and they show extraordinary resilience and hope in pursuing that vision. “If it were not for hope, our hearts would break”, the proverb says.

Refugees showed me what human resilience means. Visiting newly arrived refugees, whether in the Krajina district across from the Bihac pocket in Bosnia, or at the Burma border close to Mae Hong Song in Thailand, I would regularly find them most pre-occupied for their children’s future. The first job in resilient communities was to get the school going. Arriving once in a clearing in northern Uganda, where thousands of Sudanese were setting up camp after weeks of walking, I chanced upon a man surrounded by children, and asked what would help him most. “A blackboard and some chalk”, he replied. He was a teacher, concerned only that the children’s education should continue. In the Cambodian camps of the eighties, where every event, every conversation was politicised, we offered classes in higher mathematics. The students’ spirits would soar in that hour of freedom, because you just cannot politicise mathematics.

How fortunate we are now to have refugees from so many places settling in Australia. If we can know them, if they can help us to understand their stories, then we may better understand our world. You, ACFID agencies, are inserted in local communities and you work throughout the world. Your contribution to Australia at a time of globalisation is incomparable. Together we can build an Australian society that knows its place in the world.

The world has changed over these thirty years, and surely so has ACFID. Many changes in Australian society stand out in sharp relief for a returning expatriate like me. The international context of our humanitarian role is radically transformed in a time when governments give more effort to bellicose actions than to seeking peace. The discontent and uncertainty of society in the face of globalisation’s changes are exploited and incorrectly identified by politicians as threats to our security.

The politically driven changes to the Australian agencies, that I have witnessed from a distance while abroad, such as the gutting of the Overseas Service Bureau, and the gauche requirement that Australian identity be profiled in government-assisted projects, only make me shudder. How can a flag or a poster replace the value of the presence of an Australian volunteer with a heart for service, in those places where civilisation is today being challenged? Australia’s withdrawal from international agreements and the belittling, by Australian political leaders, of the United Nations, are causes for me, as I am sure for you, of nothing but shame.

At the same time, I am delighted that ACFID is here, and that it supports and urges its members not only to best practice, but also to get to the root causes of human rights abuse. Refugees are, after all, human rights abuse made manifest. ACFID is not just a source of good ideas, not just a database of good methods, not just an agreed code of right conduct. You are people who share a vision for a better, fairer, and more equitable world. A shared vision is exciting, is liberating, is mobilising. A shared vision gives hope. “If it were not for hope, our hearts would break”. Thank you for this honour in the name of human rights.

* Details of this award may be found at: http://www.acfid.asn.au/events&training/council2004/hraward.htm

** Mark Raper was founding Director in 1974 of Asian Bureau Australia, the forerunner of Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre, and a board member of Caritas Australia (then ACR) from 1973 to 1982. From 1982 he was the first Director for Asia and the Pacific of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), and from 1990 to 2000 he was International Director of JRS, an international Catholic agency now at work in over 50 countries. In 2001 he held a Visiting Chair in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington DC. In 2001 he was named a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia for his service to refugees. He is now Provincial of the Jesuits for Australia and New Zealand.


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