Ministerial statement: The situation in Syria and Iran
Parliament House, Canberra
15 February 2012
I updated this House on the situation in Syria last week.
And I regret to inform the House that this is a crisis that continues to worsen - but international action is strengthening.
The regime has been emboldened by lack of action by the United Nations Security Council.
The attacks in Homs are ongoing.
And a humanitarian crisis of tragic proportions is unfolding.
On 12 February, at a session of the UN General Assembly convened to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that tens of thousands had been arrested and 18,000 people are estimated to still be held in arbitrary detention.
The crisis has generated 25,000 refugees, and 70,000 internally displaced persons.
Ms Pillay said: "The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian government to plan an all out assault in an effort to crush resistance with overwhelming force."
"I am particularly appalled by the ongoing violence in Homs."
She confirmed deaths and injuries are rising, but that keeping track of the numbers of fatalities had become "almost impossible".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said: "It is deplorable that the regime has escalated violence in cities across the country, including using artillery and tank fire against innocent civilians. We stand with the Syrian people and we are looking for a peaceful resolution."
We cannot stand by and watch this violence continue to unfold.
Last week I called in the Syrian Chargé, Mr Jawdat Ali, to underline the Australian Government's grave concerns about the worsening crisis in Syria and ongoing bloodshed.
I underlined that the Assad regime had lost its legitimacy when it started deploying arms against its own people and that it was time for Assad to leave.
I said this view was now virtually universal – as demonstrated not only by the United Nations Security Council vote where 13 of the Council's 15 members voted in support of the proposed resolution, but more importantly, by the collective position of the Arab League.
Evidence of violence, including the recent loss of life in Homs, was indisputable.
It constitutes a growing tragedy.
I told the Chargé that the growing evidence of human rights abuses, possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, and torture and arbitrary detention were unacceptable.
My message to the Syrian Government was clear – Assad must find an exit strategy before the situation in Syria degenerates further and more lives are lost.
The bloodshed must come to an end and there must be a peaceful, Syrian-led political solution to this crisis.
I asked that the Australian Government's views be conveyed directly to the Syrian Government in Damascus including to the Foreign Minister and President Assad.
The Arab League has been actively pursuing efforts to bring peace to Syria and end the bloodshed – despite the lack of support by some members of the UN Security Council.
Members of the Arab League most recently met on 12 February in Cairo to discuss next steps.
A resolution was adopted at this meeting:
- calling for the UNSC to create a joint peacekeeping force for Syria;
- calling for the UNSC to adopt a resolution providing for an immediate cease-fire in Syria, protection of civilians and overseeing a humanitarian effort for victims of the violence;
- demanding that regime forces lift the siege on neighbourhoods and villages and pull troops and their heavy weapons back to their barracks;
- calling for a halt to all diplomatic contacts with Syria and for referring officials responsible for crimes against the Syrian people to international criminal tribunals;
- agreeing to step up economic sanctions; and
- agreeing to provide the Syrian opposition with financial and political support.
I have signalled in the past, including in this place, Australia's strong support for the efforts of the Arab League.
It has shown resolve and leadership to see an end to the appalling bloodshed in Syria and to help lift the hand of oppression of the regime from its people.
We owe it to them, and to the Arab League, to likewise maintain our resolve and support.
Last week I foreshadowed to this House, Australian support for a possible international grouping of like-minded countries to gather in support of Syria.
There has been progress.
Australian Embassies and High Commissions across the world have been in contact with other countries conveying Australian support for this important initiative.
And I pleased to update the House that Tunisia now plans to host a Friends of Syria meeting on Friday 24 February, in its capital Tunis.
Australia plans to attend.
The goals of this meeting are important:
- Galvanise and coordinate international support for the people of Syria;
- Encourage the provision of humanitarian assistance;
- Provide diplomatic support to the members of the Arab League;
- Increase pressure on certain members of the UN Security Council to take action; and
- Strengthen the voice of the international community for an end to this bloodshed.
It remains to be seen how the UN Security Council decides to respond to the Arab League call for help.
The full membership of the UNSC must accept its responsibility to the people of Syria, by listening to the unified voice of the world's Arab leaders.
Russia and China need to reconsider their commitment to the Syrian people.
Australia fully supports the UN General Assembly's efforts to bring forward a resolution on Syria this week.
A General Assembly resolution has just been tabled by Egypt, with a vote expected this week.
Australia will co-sponsor the resolution.
It reflects the resolution rejected by the UNSC – calling for the Syrian Government to end violence and abide by the Arab League peace plan.
Further action in the UNSC remains a possibility.
The Arab League Secretary-General has maintained the view that despite the pressure on Syria, such as through sanctions, a parallel political track must continue.
But the time for Assad to act and take this opportunity to seek a peaceful, political resolution is now.
Australia was one of the first countries to call for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Assad has the chance now to take the initiative himself to stand aside to allow an orderly process of reform and to initiate a process of inclusive dialogue.
Throughout this crisis, since protests began in March 2011, the Australian Government has been closely monitoring impacts for our consular obligations.
Our travel advice has been set at "Do no travel", our highest level, since April 2011.
We urge Australians in Syria to depart now by commercial means while it is still possible to do so.
There are 110 Australians registered as being in Syria, although there could be up to 300 actually in the country at any one time.
We have been in repeated contact with registered Australians to remind them of the travel advice, and to confirm their safety.
Mr Speaker, elsewhere in the Middle East a different emerging crisis is attracting the increasing attention and concern of the international community.
Iran's nuclear ambitions are a grave threat to regional stability.
This threat is unacceptable to the international community.
This is a regime that has continued to defy both its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obligations and numerous UNSC resolutions.
The conclusions of the International Atomic Energy Agency in its November 2011 report are clear.
We are deeply concerned by Iran's decision to begin enrichment to near 20 per cent at its underground facility at Fordow near Qom.
This is contrary to Iran's obligations under multiple UNSC and IAEA resolutions – and it takes Iran closer to having the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium.
So this clearly adds to our concern – and that of the region – that Iran is undertaking nuclear weapons-related activities.
Australia stands side-by-side with our partners in Europe and the US in strengthening our sanctions to underline to Tehran the need to comply with its international obligations and return to the negotiating table.
Iran must immediately address international concerns regarding its nuclear program, take steps required by UNSC and IAEA, and engage constructively with international community.
These are concerns that we have directly and repeatedly outlined to the Government of Iran.
The ball is in Iran's court to demonstrate that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.
Let's have a look at some examples of where Iran has not met its international obligations:
Both the IAEA and UNSC require Iran to suspend enrichment activities.
But Iran continues to enrich uranium at Natanz and has recently commenced enrichment at a new underground facility at Qom.
The UNSC requires Iran to suspend heavy-water related activities.
But Iran continues to build the Arak heavy-water reactor, which is ideally suited to produce plutonium.
Both the IAEA and UNSC require Iran to ratify and implement fully a safeguards Additional Protocol with the IAEA.
Iran has not done so.
On 11 February President Ahmadinejad announced Iran would soon unveil new nuclear achievements, and insisted Iran would never give up its uranium enrichment process.
We are concerned about the risk of escalation and miscalculation through actions and rhetoric such as Iran's threats to close the Straits of Hormuz and military exercises.
The IAEA requires Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA in resolving issues associated with nuclear weapons related activities.
But Iran continues to claim there are no such activities and to argue that activities not involving actual nuclear material are outside the mandate of the IAEA.
The international community, with strong Australian support, has been doing what it can to encourage Iran to return to the negotiating table, to comply with international obligations and to be fully transparent about its nuclear program.
Talks with the P5+1 in Istanbul in January last year collapsed after Iran refused to discuss confidence building measures unless unacceptable preconditions were met.
P5+1 said afterwards "the door [to dialogue] remains open, the choice remains in Iran's hands".
Later, in July 2011, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put forward a step-by-step approach under which Iran could address questions about its nuclear program and the international community could ease sanctions.
In October 2011, EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, sent a letter to Iran, requesting a resumption of talks.
Iran has not formally responded.
Most recently, the press reported that on 18 January 2012, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran was ready to restart talks in Turkey with the P5+1 (UNSC P5 plus Germany).
These talks have not yet begun.
There has been a substantial strengthening of EU, US, Canadian and Australian targeted financial sanctions and sanctions on the energy and petrochemical sectors to increase pressure on Iran to comply with its international obligations.
Australia has robust sanctions in place to underline to Iran the need to comply with relevant UNSC and IAEA resolutions.
Australia's trade with Iran has declined steeply in recent years.
As I said in January, Australia will implement additional sanctions parallel to those announced by the EU on 23 January, including the oil embargo.
The international community must give Iran a consistent message that its current refusal to comply with UNSC resolutions and refusal to cooperate with the IAEA is unacceptable.
Australia remains committed to seeking a resolution of the Iran nuclear issue through diplomatic negotiation – and we urge Iran to follow through on its announced readiness to restart talks with the P5+1.
While Iran continues to state it is prepared to participate in fresh talks, we are yet to see this lead to meaningful negotiations.
The peace, security and stability of the region depend on such negotiations.
I will be conveying this message to Tehran through Australia's Ambassador to Iran.
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