The role of Australia in Indonesia’s independence

Australia immediately and unconditionally welcomed the Dutch after the fall of NEI in 1942. They fully supported the establishment of the NEI-in-exile on their soil and provided them with extraordinary extraterritorial rights.

However, pressed by actions from the trade unions the Australian Labor Government was forced to take note of the Indonesian independence movement. At the end of the war the government had to face the reality that the stubbornness of the Dutch on this issue was leading to the impossible situation the Dutch had now found themselves in. Australia’s attitude towards the conflict now started to change and they took an active stand in trying to get the Dutch to negotiate with the ‘Indonesians’.

After his return to NEI, Van Mook rapidly understood that the Dutch would be unable to stop the independence movement. Already before the war he had warned the Government in The Hague that they needed to start formulating policies on how to manage this process. However, his government in the Netherlands was unwilling to face this reality.

Australia started to play a key diplomatic role [1] in the process that started to unfold and what eventually lead to the full independence of Indonesia.  

The drive behind Australia leadership in the formation of the UN was rooted in the precarious situation the country found itself in when it didn’t get the support from Britain in the defence of the country after the Fall of Singapore in 1942. It had become clear to them that smaller countries had to work together in order to secure a say in international affairs. One of the first conflicts this new body became involved was the Dutch – Indonesian conflict and Australia played a key role here.

[1] In October 1941 Herbert Vere Evatt (‘Doc’ Evatt) became Australia’s Minister for External Affairs in the wartime Labor government of John Curtin. In line with the overall lack of independent Australian foreign affairs policies Evatt had shown no real interest in this subject, he was a rather novice in this field.

However, this rapidly changed and turned him into a diplomat who is still referred to as the best or at least one the best Australia has ever had.

He became actively involved in conferences that eventually lead to the formation of the United Nations, Australia successfully argued for a more important role in this body for smaller countries. Over the following years Australia took a leadership role in the various pre-UN conferences and discussions.

The first meeting took place in 1941 and was signed by representatives of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and of the exiled governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia and France.

When the UN foundation conference took place in San Francisco in 1945, the Australian delegation under the leadership of Evatt put forward a range of amendments. With the support of other smaller nations, Evatt succeeded in enlarging the scope of the General Assembly so that its powers were closer to those of the Security Council.

His second major achievement was a greater acknowledgement of social and economic roles for the new organisation. Member nations pledged to work towards freedom for all, respect for human rights, full employment and better living standards for all people.

Evatt went on to become the President of the UN General Assembly from 1948 to 1949. During his tenure he was instrumental in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Because of the passion Evatt displayed at the San Francisco conference, the General Assembly voted for Australia to have a non-permanent seat on the Security Council.

So, it is no wonder that during this period Australia played a key role in UN negations surrounding the independence of Indonesia and later on in the hand-over of Dutch New Guinea to Indonesia.