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Zahra (6), Fatima (7) and Eman (9) - the daughters of Sondos Ismail and Ahmed Alzalimi -  three of the 146 children who lost their lives when the vessel that has become known as SIEVX foundered in international waters en route to Christmas Island on 19 October 2001.
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Response To Belinda Moss

by Marg Hutton
23 September 2002

Belinda Moss asks 'Does it really matter as to why and how SIEV X sank [or] what Howard, Ruddock or Admiral Tom Cobley might have said or meant to say about where it sank...[?]'

With the release last week of the official DIMIA Intelligence report from 23 October last year [p1, p2, p3] that states that SIEVX sank 'approximately 60NM south of the Sunda Strait', there can now be no doubt that the vessel sank in international waters in the north-west quadrant of the Operation Relex surveillance zone. This report further corroborates a set of earlier official and other documentary evidence which put the sinking position of SIEVX well within international waters, ie:

So when John Howard repeated many times last October and November that the boat sank in 'Indonesian waters' he was not telling the truth. Making this inaccurate claim once is perhaps understandable, but the claim was carefully repeated on many occasions during the 2001 Federal election campaign (1). It was clearly a political maneouvre to persuade Australians to believe that the boat had sunk very close to Indonesia, and that therefore the loss of 353 young lives had nothing to do with us.

This false position was sustained into 2002. On 26 March, Robert Hill wrote to Simon Crean: 'It has been assessed that the vessel was in the vicinity of the Sunda Strait when it sank'.

In June the Government position on SIEVX began to unravel when the notes of the People Smuggling Taskforce released to the Senate Inquiry revealed that the Taskforce had received information on 23 October - the day that the SIEVX story broke - that the boat had likely sunk in international waters south of Java.

The Government began to back pedal on the SIEVX story, attempting to redefine retrospectively what they had said back in October 2001.

On 19 June, Defence Minister Robert Hill stated in Parliament: '[W]e made a best estimate, on the basis of what information is able to be put together, as to where it did sink. I have referred to it as in the Sunda Strait; [the Prime Minister] referred to it as in Indonesian waters. The best evidence is that both of those answers are still correct.'

The next day, the Prime Minister, fielding questions about the PST notes and SIEVX, implied that when he said the boat had sunk in 'Indonesian waters' what he actually had meant was that it had gone down 'in the Indonesian search and rescue zone'.

Three days later Philip Ruddock weighed in behind Howard stating 'There were reports after [the boat] sank that it had sunk in Indonesian waters, whatever that meant', implying that
a) the term 'Indonesian waters' did not have a specific meaning, and
b) it was not the Government which had made those claims.

Ruddock went on 'The fact is that wherever it sank it was in at least the Indonesian air, sea and rescue zone responsibilities.'

He continued: 'It was quite possibly within [Indonesia's] contiguous zone and also quite possibly within the 12 mile limits.'

With these words Philip Ruddock put himself on the public record as the third Minister in the Howard Government who was misleading the Australian public about where SIEVX sank.

Let us be really clear here. Last year, when John Howard repeatedly stated that SIEVX had sunk in 'Indonesian waters' there can be no doubt he meant that the boat had foundered in the Indonesian territorial seas - ie within 12 nautical miles of Indonesia. How can we be sure of this?

On 19 October, the day that SIEVX sank, John Howard did a doorstop interview at the Sheraton Hotel in Brisbane regarding the towback of SIEV5 to 'Indonesian waters' - meaning the Indonesian territorial seas. This was the first time that a SIEV had been turned around and returned to Indonesian territorial waters by the Australian Navy.

Throughout this interview, Howard uses the terms 'Indonesian waters' and 'Indonesian territorial waters' interchangeably. And in order to dispel any doubt as to the PM's understanding of the term, when he is asked by a journalist if the Australian navy vessel that had escorted the SIEV back to Indonesia had at any point entered 'Indonesian waters', Howard replied 'No'. Now if he had been using the term to mean the Indonesian Search and Rescue zone, then he would have had to reply in the affirmative - because the Indonesian Search and Rescue Zone extends to south of Christmas Island, and therefore covers all of the operational area of Australia's Operation Relex.

It is also interesting to note the politics of the semantics regarding the waters between Christmas Island and Indonesia. When Howard refers to the 'saturation surveillance' of Operation Relex, he uses the term 'international waters'; but when he refers to the position of the sunken SIEVX or the crippled Palapa (whose passengers were rescued from likely death by MV Tampa) in these same waters, then he uses the term 'Indonesian Search and Rescue zone'.

It seems that if Australia is trying to deter boats through aggressive military deterrence, Australia is operating 'in international waters'. But if it is an issue of trying or not trying to save life in those same international waters, then they are conveniently redefined as 'Indonesia's search and rescue zone'.

Is this ethical, or legal?

The people need trust in the integrity and honesty of the Executive Branch of Government. And that, Belinda Moss, is why it matters.


(1) (Howard interview with Paul Murray on 23 October):
This vessel sunk in Indonesian waters. Now I am saddened by the loss of life, it is a huge human tragedy and it is a desperately despicable thing for the Leader of the Opposition to try and score a political point against me in relation to the sinking of a vessel in Indonesian waters. We had nothing to do with it, it sank, I repeat, sunk in Indonesian waters, not in Australian waters. It sunk in Indonesian waters and apparently that is our fault.
(Howard announcing Border Protection Policy in Perth on 23 October):
[T]his morning may I say we've had the absolutely contemptible contribution of the Leader of the Opposition in the wake of that appalling human tragedy where something like 350 lives appear to have been lost when a vessel sank in Indonesian waters, probably containing people wanting to come to Australia. It sank in Indonesian waters, yet Mr Beazley has tried to exploit that human tragedy to score a cheap political point.
(Howard interview with Liam Bartlett on 24 October):
That boat sank in Indonesian waters, it sank in Indonesian waters. It had nothing to do with the actions of the Australian Government.
(Howard interview with Andrew Fowler on 28 October):
I'm like every other human being. I was saddened by that terrible, terrible event. I mean, the ship sank in Indonesian waters -- it wasn't our fault...
(Howard interview with Steve Liebmann on 29 October):
I feel enormous compassion for those poor people whose relatives died in that vessel but that ship sank in Indonesian waters and it's just nonsense that people should run around and in some way try and blame the Australian Government or Australian policy for that.
(Howard at the National Press Club on 8 November):
[L]ike any human being, I was very touched by that tragedy in Indonesian waters.

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