Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
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Australians can for the most part be proud of our international reputation for promoting human rights and opposing and punishing those who violate them. Australia is not perfect, but it nevertheless ranks among the world's best nations.
Except when it comes to those who violate human rights abroad but call Australia home. Then, we have a long history of indifference, even hypocrisy, extending back to our acceptance of hundreds of Nazi collaborators who had voluntarily carried out Hitler's policies in World War II, rounding up and killing civilians whose only sin was to be Jewish, Romany or Slavic; homosexual or disabled; anti-Nazi Christians, democrats, socialists or communists.
The first Nazis who had committed genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes landed here in the earliest shiploads of Arthur Calwell's mass-migration scheme, almost 62 years ago. When the Commonwealth Investigation Service reported this, our first immigration minister called it a "farrago of nonsense" and with characteristic bluntness ordered the intelligence agency to keep its nose out of immigration business.
This set the tone for the next four decades, as successive federal governments ignored the abundant evidence rapidly accumulating about the mostly Eastern and Central European Nazis who had moved to Australia. In the '80s many such files - from the Immigration Department, ASIO, Commonwealth (Federal) Police and the Attorney-General's Department - were declassified and released under the Archives Act.
Around the same time, volumes of files became available in Washington and London that explained how Western policy in the late '40s had effectively given thousands of Nazi war criminals amnesty, accompanied by a decision that allowed many of them to migrate to Britain, America, Canada and Australia. As a result of public exposure of this, Prime Minister Bob Hawke reversed the longstanding policy of turning a blind eye to mass murder - but after 40 years the trail had gone cold. Many of the killers had died or grown old, as had many surviving eyewitnesses, and a hysterical campaign was launched in defence of "old men" who had led "blameless" lives in Australia.
So the belated attempt at justice foundered and eventually was abandoned by Prime Minister Paul Keating, who lacked Hawke's visceral commitment to bringing to account the Holocaust's foot soldiers and middle managers. Karoly (Charles) Zentai is now Australia's last Nazi suspect. The evidence against him is detailed in György Vámos's essay in this issue of the Monthly.
Although several other Nazi war criminals are still living here, when Zentai's last appeal - challenging a Perth magistrate's decision that he can be extradited to Hungary for the murder of a young Jewish man in Budapest, in 1944 - is decided, the door will almost certainly close on this dark part of Australian history. If, as seems likely, Zentai loses his appeal, the Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Debus, has the final say on whether to extradite him - which, in light of Zentai's age and health, seems unlikely.
Future historians may well conclude that some of the world's last surviving Nazis died peacefully in Melbourne, Sydney or Perth. This would be a deserved judgement - and a pity. Between 1987 and 1992, Australia had a reputation second to none in the worldwide effort to bring surviving Nazis to justice. Australian investigators were well regarded by their American, Canadian and British colleagues, who were also belatedly prosecuting perpetrators who had been given amnesty 40 years earlier.
After Paul Keating aborted the efforts of our war-crimes experts, many went on to senior roles in international criminal justice: for example, at the tribunal prosecuting crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. In the early '90s the former head of Australia's war-crimes unit, the late Bob Greenwood, QC, warned Keating that many Serb, Croat and Muslim war criminals were headed for Australia. He proposed that his unit be retained to investigate such perpetrators. Around that time, I warned that offenders from less remote wars could also settle in Australia, particularly those involved in Indonesian atrocities in East Timor.
It is now a matter of record that both predictions were accurate. In recent times, the Croat Antun Gudelj and the Serb Dragan Vasiljkovic have been the subject of extradition requests from the Croatian government for their alleged crimes in the '90s Yugoslav conflict. Gudelj is now in prison in Croatia, while Vasiljkovic's last chance to avoid extradition is also likely to be an appeal to Minister Debus. They are only two of perhaps dozens of suspected war criminals from that conflict living freely here.
Our government, however, still has no standing means by which to investigate such allegations. Gui Campos, for instance, is accused by several eyewitnesses of collaborating in Indonesian war crimes in East Timor between 1975 and 1999. Other accusations involve former Khmer Rouge officers, such as Lim Eang Eak, identified by survivors as the commander of a camp where many innocent Cambodians were murdered in the mid '70s. Senior Soviet quislings from Afghanistan have been spotted by eyewitnesses, including General Abdul Qader Miakhel, the military commander of the KGB-controlled secret police, which carried out extensive torture and killing operations in the '80s. Survivors have also accused suspects from Stalinist Eastern Europe, South American fascist-style regimes and, more recently, the Rwandan genocide.
Australia's incapacity to investigate such charges is not the only problem. Our legal framework is also inadequate, rendering domestic prosecutions almost impossible. From the frontline of international justice initiatives, just 20 years ago, Australia has slunk to the back. All major Western nations have stronger investigative and legislative frameworks - including America, Britain, Germany and Canada - while even many small European nations have dedicated investigative resources and are pursuing war criminals. Finland, Holland and Denmark, to mention but a few, are now far ahead of Australia.
Prime Minister John Howard steadfastly refused to act on this matter. He did support the establishment of the International Criminal Court, but the court can only prosecute the most serious crimes against humanity committed after its jurisdiction commenced, on 1 July 2002, leaving the vast majority of war criminals in Australia free from any sanction. Unless action is taken soon, the cycle that marked the Nazi era will be repeated for the hundreds of contemporary war criminals who have made Australia home: the accused will, like Karoly Zentai, grow old and frail, as will the eyewitnesses; and people will argue that it is, once again, too late for justice.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd can easily rectify this shameful situation. Labor's 2004 national conference committed a future ALP government to closing the loopholes in Australian law that allow war criminals to live here without fear of prosecution, and to establishing the investigatory resources required to bring such perpetrators to justice. This gives Rudd the policy basis to act.
Australia has many experienced public officials who have prosecuted crimes against humanity. Our government should recruit them immediately to advise on the best way to ensure that such criminals are identified, evidence against them is gathered and, if appropriate, their cases are brought before a competent court. Our international reputation for respecting human rights will be imperilled if we do not take such action.