Australian border protection vessels 'breached Indonesian territorial sovereignty', Scott Morrison

By Indonesia correspondent George Roberts, staff
17 January 2014

The Australian Government has apologised to Indonesia after admitting vessels operating under its border protection policy had "inadvertently" breached Indonesian territorial sovereignty "on several occasions".

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said he was told on Wednesday that "border protection command assets had in the conduct of maritime operations associated with Operation Sovereign Borders inadvertently entered Indonesian territorial waters on several occasions".

Blaming the incursions on "positional errors", he said they were "in breach of Australian Government policy", and that Australia's Chief of Navy, Admiral Griggs, had phoned his counterpart in Indonesia late yesterday to "provide an explanation".

Mr Morrison said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also "sought to speak to her Indonesian counterpart, foreign minister (Marty) Natalegawa last night, to advise him of this conversation and to offer an unqualified apology on behalf of the Australian Government". Your say: Tell us what you think of this latest development.

Mr Morrison said the Government took its "shared commitment with Indonesia to mutually respect the sovereignty of each nation very, very seriously", and that it remained committed to avoiding violations of Indonesia's territorial sovereignty when conducting operations under Operation Sovereign Borders.

"Furthermore we take any operational failure to comply with this policy extremely seriously as a government," he said at a news conference this morning.

The admission comes as Indonesia says it is investigating reports Australia has begun turning asylum seeker boats back to Indonesian waters, a policy it opposes.

Indonesia has previously expressed its concern that Australia's border protection policy would lead to a breach of its territorial sovereignty.

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, said that while he was confident the breaches were unintentional, a review of operations would determine how many breaches occurred, when and why.

"We have never intended for our assets to operate or to enter the sovereign territory of another nation," he said, adding that "our people on these vessels believe they were at all times outside Indonesian waters".

He continued: "I'm sure all those involved in the conduct of Operation Sovereign Borders regret any affront to Indonesia these events may have caused. I believe our people were acting in good faith at all times."

General Campbell said he had written to the CEO of the Australian Customs and Border Protection service, Michael Pezzullo, and the Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, who have co-responsibility for border protection command, asking that they jointly review the breaches.

Indonesia looking into turn-back claims
A spokesman for the Indonesian government has confirmed it is investigating reports Australia has begun turning asylum seeker boats back to Indonesian waters.

Asylum seekers from two boats that washed up on islands on Indonesia's far-east coast told the ABC earlier this month they were forced back by the Australian Navy.

One boat was allegedly left without sufficient fuel and drifted for days.

Yesterday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison rejected reports an Australian vessel "shot in the air" during the interception of another asylum seeker boat within sight of Christmas Island.

The third boat was also turned back to Indonesia, according to Fairfax media reports.

A spokesman for Indonesia's minister for politics, law and security Djoko Suyanto says the department is working with the foreign ministry to investigate the claims.

Spokesman Agus Ruchyan Barnas says turning back asylum seeker boats could breach the 1951 UN Refugee convention, which Australia has ratified.

Mr Barnas says Indonesia will not lodge a complaint until the claims are verified and he has reiterated that Indonesia rejected the policy.

Don't blame Defence, Shorten tells Morrison
Mr Morrison said that despite the incursions, the Australian Government remains committed to its border protection policies, which are "having a significant impact on the activities of people smugglers".

"What the people smugglers and anyone they are trying to get on a boat need to understand is that this Australian Government will take the actions necessary to protect Australian sovereignty to stop the boats," he said.

Mr Morrison added that he had written to the Opposition to offer a "confidential briefing on Operation Sovereign Borders, including our maritime operations" to immigration spokesman Richard Marles and Labor leader Bill Shorten.

Mr Shorten has accused Mr Morrison of trying to pass the blame on to Defence personnel for breaching Indonesia's territorial waters.


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