The Australian government came under fire from human- rights activists and East Timor supporters yesterday after signing a treaty with Indonesia to strengthen defence ties.
The treaty, the first of its kind between the two neighbours, could raise the possibility of each coming to the other's aid in the event of an attack. But even before Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, and President Suharto of Indonesia shook hands at the treaty's signing in Jakarta, the deal was attacked in Australia.
The focus of unease was Jakarta's human-rights record in East Timor, where an estimated 100,000 people have died since Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony 20 years ago. Jose Ramos Horta, a spokesman for East Timor's main independence movement, and a long-time critic of Canberra's policy of strengthening its strategic links with Jakarta, said: "When you have a dictatorship and a democratic country with very different legal systems - one almost non-existent in Indonesia because the army is a law unto itself - to sign such a treaty is like a treaty between God and the Devil."
The signing came within days of a visit to Indonesia by Jose Ayala Lasso, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, who reported that there were "very grave" human-rights violations in East Timor.
Mr Keating denied the treaty would compromise Australia in dealings with Indonesia over human rights, and has hailed the treaty, stitched together after 18 months of secret negotiations, as a triumph for Australia's campaign to consolidate its strategic role in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia and Indonesia will consult on security issues.
Critics allege that Australia has turned a blind eye on violations in a territory which is physically closer to Australia than to Jakarta. Australia is the only Western country that recognises Indonesia's claim to sovereignty over East Timor. The UN recognises Portuguese jurisdiction.