Two letters were written in the last century which led to nations being created, says Tim Fischer. One was the 1917 letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Baron Rothschild which ultimately led to the foundation of Israel. The other was the 1998 letter from John Howard to President Habibie of Indonesia, which led to the independence of East Timor.
In revealing the former deputy prime minister’s assessment in his recent book, March of Patriots, Paul Kelly says John Howard showed a judgement superior to his critics in the Labor Party and the Australian media, “many of whose prescriptions would have been disastrous.”
Kelly points out that at each stage of the East Timor story the political and military risks were high. Howard demonstrated, says Kelly, an ability to balance competing goals and to avoid absolutist solutions.
Few leaders could have handled the task so well. In this he was greatly assisted by his activist and influential Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer and General Peter Cosgrove, whom Paul Kelly assess as the perfect choice to lead the military operation.
It is no surprise then that John Howard was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In December 1998 he wrote to President Habibie suggesting the President enter into direct negotiations with the East Timorese. He also suggested the President offer a substantial period of autonomy, to be followed by a vote on independence.
But when Dr Habibie decided on an early ballot, John Howard proposed the involvement of a multinational peacekeeping force to preserve order. When this was rejected, and the situation became violent, he had then to resist calls in Australia for unilateral intervention, that is an act of war.
Instead he engaged in lengthy and almost constant negotiations with the UN, the US and other powers, from the region and beyond, both on the need for a peacekeeping force, and for contributions to or in support of that force.
He used all his influence directly and indirectly to persuade the Indonesian President to consent to the multinational force. This was achieved, and within 15 days of the ballot the Security Council authorised the INTERFET multinational peacekeeping force. Australian led, the first forces were deployed within five days and within 20 days of the ballot – surely an international record.
John Howard had preserved peace in the Asian region, and assisted the people of East Timor in realising their right to self-determination. Moreover, he set a standard for the deployment of a prompt, effective, disinterested and principled peacekeeping operation. This was precisely the sort of achievement which Alfred Bernhard Nobel intended to be recognised when he bequeathed part of his estate for a peace prize to be awarded "to the person who shall have done the most or best work for fraternity between the nations … "
But the Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded to John Howard. Instead it went to the United Nations and its Secretary General Kofi Annan "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”
What had Annan achieved? Surely his role as head of UN Peacekeeping Operations during the infamous Rwandan Genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed had to be taken into account. In the face of criticism by the Canadian force commander that he had held back forces from intervening, Annan later admitted "I could and should have done more to sound the alarm and rally support."
So why wasn’t John Howard’s extraordinary achievement recognized by the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee? Was it that in the year of the Norwegian Committee’s decision, the Norwegian ship Tampa had sailed into view? Just hours after Captain Arne Rinnan picked up 433 asylum seekers from their stricken vessel and set course for Indonesia he was being threatened on the bridge to alter course for Christmas Island. As Paul Kelly says they had effectively hijacked the ship.
Refused permission to land the asylum seekers, he declined to leave Australian territorial waters. The Norwegian Prime Minister would not help. Although an election loomed, and public opinion was behind John Howard, Paul Kelly rejects the line that this was an election stunt.
It is inconceivable that this did not have a deleterious effect on his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. His achievement was outstanding. The failure to award him the prize should be as embarrassing for the Committee as its rejections of the several nominations of Mahatma Gandhi.
Nothing can take away John Howard’s unique achievement in liberating an occupied territory and bringing it to independence as no Australian Prime Minister ever has – or is ever likely to do again.