THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
ABC RADIO NATIONAL WITH WALEED ALY
TUESDAY, 2 SEPTEMBER 2014
WALEED ALY, PRESENTER: Joined now by Tanya Plibersek, fresh from a division I think in the House, Labor's Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development. Thank you very much for joining us.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Hi Waleed, how are you?
ALY: I’m very well. I’m a bit confused though, I’m not entirely sure of the precise details of the objective for this military intervention that has bipartisan support. Can you enlighten me?
PLIBERSEK: Well, it’s actually been laid out pretty clearly. The objective in the first instance is to provide humanitarian assistance and that up til now has included food, water, medicine, high-energy biscuits and so on. The next stage of it includes also providing ammunition to rearm the Peshmerga in the northern part of Iraq.
ALY: Right, I don’t understand those mechanics but to what end exactly? Are there a certain number of lives we’re trying to save, are we trying to beat ISIS back to a certain position, what- are we trying to defeat them? What is the end point here where we can draw a line and say that is done, it’s over, we’re successful, we can all go home.
PLIBERSEK: Well I think that the first thing to do is prevent the massive slaughter of civilians which is what’s in prospect at the moment. Thousands of lives have already been lost, thousands more people have been injured, more than a million people have been displaced from their homes. IS will kill anyone who is a different religion, different ethnic group or even people who are Sunni Muslims who don’t agree with the tactics they’re using in their fight through Iraq. So I think the immediate objective is to prevent slaughter and we are, Australia and other countries have agreed some time ago to an international doctrine called responsibility to protect, which says that when mass atrocity crimes are imminent that the international community has a responsibility to protect. You might have read Gareth Evans’ very clear articulation of this doctrine today in the Australian-
ALY: I did actually, yes.
PLIBERSEK: And I think was a very good explanation-
ALY: Well it’s interesting but didn’t he note that there were certain elements of it that were not entirely clear because it is a new doctrine that we are trying to work through and I suppose a lot of people-
PLIBERSEK: Well it’s actually not really that new. Gareth- an international commission that was commissioned by the Canadians around 2001 began the process - around 2005 the United Nations adopted it and since then what we have been doing is refining the cases in which it might be used. There have been instances where the world community has stood by and seen massive loss of civilian life because of inaction or action that’s come too late, and Rwanda is one obvious example.
ALY: Well including in Syria.
PLIBERSEK: Exactly so.
ALY: So, is the logic of this that we should have intervened in Syria and Australia should have somehow been part of the Coalition to intervene?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think that there is certainly a very strong moral case for more humanitarian assistance to Syria, Waleed. You know that the United Nations have called for a reconstruction fund there of around $6 billion and so far under the Abbott Government has contributed about $30 million. Of course there are massive numbers of refugees also who have been, about a third of the population, has been displaced in Iraq- sorry, in Syria and certainly we could do more to assist there, so I think that we could assist Syria. The difference between Iraq and Syria at this stage is in Iraq, the Iraqi Government have asked for international assistance. In Syria, there is much less clarity about who might ask for assistance and whether if we went in to support the Assad regime in fighting IS what the long-term consequences of that would be. So one of the elements that you have to consider with responsibility to protect is has there been- is there a legal basis for international intervention? The fact that the Iraqi Government has asked for support in fighting back IS gives a legal basis for it and that clear legal basis doesn’t exist in Syria but I do not think that that absolves us from a humanitarian responsibility. More than 190,000 lives have been lost in Syria to date, they haven’t all been lost at the hands of IS, they’ve been- I mean, I do not need to rehash for you the terrible crimes that have been committed on both sides against the civilian population in Syria. So there is a strong need for international attention but there are some legal differences between the two cases so our humanitarian assistance to Syria I think should be increased in the first instance because you’re right, it’s the same organisation moving with impunity back and forth across the Iraqi and the Syrian borders.
ALY: Well, you could argue, many have, that it is pointless trying to take them on Iraq and what you really need to do is be taking them on in Syria if you want to deal with them. But that’s why I ask the question about the limits of the mission because if we’re taking-
PLIBERSEK: Waleed, can I just interrupt you there. I think when you say things like ‘it’s pointless’, what you have to understand is that there are whole communities, whole towns that are besieged that are at imminent threat of massacre. The United Nations Human Rights Council have decided to send in a fact-finding mission because they expect that they will be gathering information on genocidal crimes and mass atrocity crimes. This is a very serious situation at the moment so it is one thing to talk about abstract and long-term strategic issues and we have to have a mind to those but we also need to deal with the imminent threat of mass atrocity crimes.
ALY: Okay but coming back to the question I was asking about what the end of this looks like, because we can intervene or arm militias or whatever it is that we think we’ll need to do in order to stave off imminent death, but what if that death- the threat of that death merely returns the minute we withdraw, does this mean a perpetual engagement? How do we make that judgement?
PLIBERSEK: And that is one of the things that has been in the forefront of our minds because many Australians remember the disaster that was the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Australia's part in that. It was wrongly conceived, it was done without international support, it was done against the wishes of the Iraqi people, it was done on the basis of wrong information around weapons of mass destruction, it was a disaster and nobody wants to repeat that disaster so we do need to think about what happens next and I think it was very brave, very brave and very honest of President Obama to say that the future is not clear, that there isn’t a mapped out response to how we rid the world of IS or organisations like it, rid the world of the impulse to kill in this way for extreme sectarian reasons but that does not absolve us of the responsibility now to protect civilians against the imminent threat of death, of forced marriage, of torture I mean I don’t need to go into the litany of – your listeners I’m sure are reading those stories in the newspaper.
ALY: No, no. No one’s denying that. I think it’s the application of the principles here where people start to raise questions. So for example we have a couple of texts that go supposed to this question of what exactly does the responsibility to protect connote? So for example, one text message says ‘do we have a right to go to Syria without an invitation?’, raising the Syria thing. Another one says ‘why didn’t we protect 2000 Palestinians?’ How exactly do you figure this out?
PLIBERSEK: Well there’s a couple of things in that. The first is I think we have a moral responsibility to help Syria and I have said that we should do that with humanitarian assistance but we have no legal basis for a similar intervention in Syria. We’re not being invited in by the Government of Syria and even if we were being invited in by the Government of Syria one of the other criteria that we have to look at is, would the place be better off after such an intervention, that is another question that we apply when thinking about responsibility to protect and-
ALY: Well do we know the answer to that in respect of this one?
PLIBERSEK: Well we know that we are preventing mass slaughter and I don’t think any of us has a crystal ball, I don’t think that you know, there are obvious problems that the Iraqi Government has had in bringing stability to the country and part of that has been because the Government of Iraq has behaved in a very sectarian manner, even in recent times and that is one of the reasons that there was the international pressure on Nouri al-Malaki to go and for Haider al-Abadi to replace him. It’s not- Iraq has been a very fragile place before 2003 but certainly that has been heightened since the international – or the American, Australian, British and other forces invasion of Iraq, so we do need to concentrate on what comes next in making sure that we argue for an inclusive, stable government of Iraq but this is not an action to replace the Government of Iraq in the same way that 2003 was. This action is immediate, it is based on meeting an immediate humanitarian danger. So it is very important to look at all of the criteria that you would be thinking about when you are asking is our responsibility to protect engaged in this case. I think the issue of Gaza is also a very important one and there was a great deal of international condemnation of the more than 2000 civilian deaths in Gaza and the fact in particular that many of those civilians were taking shelter in United Nations’ facilities when they lost their lives, or a number of those civilians were taking shelter in areas where they should have been safe. There was also a great deal of international condemnation of the rockets that Hamas continued to fire. I think it is extremely welcome that we have now got a ceasefire after 50 days of conflict but I am disturbed to see that there has been, as you would have seen reports of, it seems the Israeli Government has claimed around 400 hectares of land-
ALY: The land in the West Bank, yeah-
PLIBERSEK: So I think it is- it shows that there needs to be continued international support for parties in Israel and the Palestinian territories to go back to the negotiating table for a lasting peace. We can’t afford to see continued conflict in that area either.
ALY: Well indeed, I don’t think anyone would suggest that continued conflict is the answer to that. We did speak to Mark Regev incidentally on the appropriation of land yesterday, you can listen to that interview online if you have any interest in it, the spokesperson of course for Benjamin Netanyahu. Tanya Plibersek, I better leave it there, but thank you very much for joining us tonight.
PLIBERSEK: Thanks, Waleed.