13 April 2009
Subjects: Thailand, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Durban review conference, Somali piracy
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly on Thailand. The Australian Government is deeply concerned at developments in Thailand. There is ongoing volatility and political disharmony in Thailand and overnight there have been a couple of very bad incidents between protesters and the military. And of course, be aware that over the weekend Prime Minister Abhisit has declared a state of emergency for Bangkok and surrounding provinces.
At this stage, and I have just got off the phone to our Ambassador in Bangkok, we have no evidence of any Australians being caught up in these demonstrations and in the violence.
But, as you would also be aware, over the weekend we have amended our travel advice, and its commentary - to the various Australians who are not Bangkok to consider their need to travel to Bangkok. Those Australians who are in Bangkok we urge them to stay within their homes or their hotels, to certainly avoid demonstrations and to certainly avoid large gatherings of people. The state of emergency for Bangkok of course entails a ban on gatherings of more than five individuals.
Our consular officials have been very active over the weekend giving assistance and advice to Australians in Thailand and also those Australians who are making enquiries about friends and family in Thailand, but also whether they should travel to Thailand.
People should read our travel advice and our travel advisory. This is certainly constantly monitored on an hourly basis, and at this stage our advice is to exercise a high degree of caution and if one is not in Bangkok to consider the need to travel to Bangkok.
We urge a peaceful and a lawful resolution of these political difficulties in Thailand. We urge the political leadership in Thailand to resolve these matters peacefully and in accordance with the law.
But we will continue to monitor events in Thailand very closely, and Australians contemplating travel to Thailand or those Australians already in Thailand should very carefully read our travel advice.
At any given stage we have - or any given point in time, we have anywhere from twenty to 30,000 Australians living or working in Thailand and anywhere up to 25,000 Australians there for tourist purposes.
On Fiji, can I condemn absolutely developments in Fiji over the recent period. On behalf of the Australians Government, can I condemn absolutely the abrogation of the constitution, condemn absolutely the abrogation effectively of the rule of law; and condemn absolutely the dismissal effectively of the judiciary, and condemn absolutely intimidation of the media in Fiji.
And these very backward steps do not assist Fiji in any way. They further isolate Fiji from the international community and run the very grave risk of Fiji's economic and social circumstances further deteriorating, and of course the suggestion that election will be held in 2014 is nothing more than a sham. Over that period of time in the normal course of events, Australia itself would have at least two elections.
So what has occurred in recent days in Fiji is nothing more, nothing less than a sham, an abrogation of democracy. Fiji effectively is now a military dictatorship, and the Australian Government continues to urge Commodore Bainimarama to reverse events in recent days and to commit himself the conduct of an election in Fiji on the timetable outlined by the Pacific Island Forum.
And already our officials have been in contact with Pacific Island Forum countries, United Nations and the Commonwealth to see what further steps the international community can take to seek to bring Fiji to a democratic state.
On Sri Lanka can I, as I have on many occasions in the past, urge the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers to bear in mind the need to protect and defend humanitarian law, the need to protect and defend civilians caught up in the violence in Sri Lanka.
I welcome the temporary cessation of hostilities, the so-called ‘holiday truce' announced by the Sri Lankan Government which enables civilians to withdraw from areas of conflict and I urge the Tamil Tigers to agree to the so-called ‘holiday truce' to enable those civilians caught up in hostilities to remove themselves from centres of violence.
We do urge all concerned to respect the civil and humanitarian rights of civilians caught up in the conflict, to enable humanitarian assistance to be rendered and urge the Sri Lankan Government to not just embark upon a military campaign, but to understand that this dispute can only be resolved by political dialogue.
I note that both in Australia and throughout the world there have been large demonstrations by members of the Sri Lankan community and I note that in Australia these demonstrations have been very peaceful and I welcome that very much.
The Australian Government has consistently said we want to see a cessation of hostilities in Sri Lanka. We want humanitarian law to be respected. We want civilians to be able to remove themselves from areas of hostility. We previously called upon the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and called upon the Sri Lankan Government to resolve these matters not just by military means but by political dialogue and we repeat all of those again today.
I welcome very much the call by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that the so-called ‘holiday truce' is a welcome first step. Australia agrees with that, it is a welcome first step, and I discussed these matters with Ban Ki-moon when I was in The Hague recently for purposes of the conference on Afghanistan.
I'm happy to respond to your questions on these and other issues.
QUESTION: What is our travel advice for Fiji?
STEPHEN SMITH: The travel advice for Fiji is to exercise caution, to exercise a high degree of caution, particularly if one is in Suva itself. But just as our travel advisory for Thailand, given developments in Fiji, travel advisory for Fiji is being constantly monitored, and over the last few days there have constantly been changes to the commentary to update Australians on developments, including the abrogation of the Constitution.
But Australians should exercise a high degree of caution if they are in Fiji. They should exercise a high degree of caution when it comes to determining their travel arrangements.
QUESTION: Staying with Fiji. May first was the deadline set by the Pacific Island Forum for democratic elections. That deadline has clearly been ignored now, so what is the next level of suspension for Fiji as a result of that?
STEPHEN SMITH: The decision of the Forum leaders meeting in Papua New Guinea in January of this year set out the timetable that you've referred to and indicated that if there wasn't a progress to democracy, then Fiji would be effectively suspended from the Pacific Island Forum.
There's nothing I've seen in the developments in recent days which has showed Fiji being on a genuine pathway or process to democracy. And if there's no change then my view would be that ultimately the Pacific Island Forum will suspend Fiji from forums of the Pacific Island Forum.
You might also be aware that earlier this year, in February-March of this year the Commonwealth, through its ministerial action group, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, CMAG, made comparable resolutions so far as Fiji's status with the Commonwealth is concerned. Unless Commodore Bainimarama reverses the events of recent days and shows a genuine commitment to democracy and the rule of law and respect for Fiji's constitution, ultimately, Fiji in my view will be suspended both for the Pacific Island Forum and from the Commonwealth.
And as I said earlier, we are already in discussions with our neighbours and our partners about what further steps, if any, we can take as members of the international community to bring Fiji to democracy.
QUESTION: What's your reaction to Fiji kicking foreign journalists because they don't like what they are writing or think it is unacceptable?
STEPHEN SMITH: You might recall that last year two editors of two newspapers in Fiji were expelled from Fiji and both of those happened to be Australian citizens.
We made the point very strongly at the time, which we repeat: that intimidation of the media doesn't assist Fiji, doesn't assist the Fijian people and we condemn absolutely the censorship act and the intimidation that we have seen. And we condemn that whether it involves journalists who happen to be Australian citizens, or journalists who are Fiji citizens or journalists from other countries. It is just another example of the ongoing intimidation by Commodore Bainimarama.
QUESTION: Will the Government be providing any assistance to these Australian journalists who are kicked out of Fiji?
STEPHEN SMITH: I understand that you might be aware that the ABC journalist Sean Dorney has been invited by the Fiji Government to consider removing himself. We offered Mr Dorney consular assistance and that offer will remain.
It will be a matter for Mr Dorney to decide how to conduct himself. But our very strong advise to Mr Dorney would be he should not do anything which would cause himself to be put in harm's way and he should follow the requests or the instruction of the Fiji authorities, however so obnoxious he might regard those to be, because they are impinging upon his capacity to do his job as a journalist.
QUESTION: Is there some way that the Australian lawyers can help with the dispute over there, with the wrangling of the constitution?
STEPHEN SMITH: Historically, Australian lawyers have assisted by becoming members or part-time or temporary members of the Fiji judiciary. And the Court of Appeal, which made its decision on the Thursday of last week, was made up of the three Australian judges, three Australian lawyers who served as part of the Fiji judiciary.
Part of the abrogation of the Constitution, or the abrogation of the judiciary has seen, effectively, members of the Fiji judiciary dismissed from their appointments. And Commodore Bainimarama's administration is now inviting some members of the legal profession and judiciary to accept new appointments or fresh appointments to the judiciary.
It is of course a matter for Australian lawyers to make a judgement about whether they wish to continue to be part of the Fiji judiciary; whether they want to be part of the Fiji judiciary. My own view, my own judgement for what it is worth, is that when Fiji military dictatorship are faced or confronted with a decision they don't like, they turn it over. My own advice to Australian lawyers would be to think very seriously about whether it is worth their while, and worth Fiji's while, for them to take part in Fiji's judiciary, while it remains the case and while it remains clear that any adverse decision they give will effectively be overturned by the Fiji military dictatorship.
QUESTION: In regard to Thailand, do you think that violence between the protestors and the Thai authorities will escalate?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we are very concerned by the developments, deeply concerned by the incidents overnight where at least on two occasions, I am told by the Ambassador, there were clashes between the military and demonstrators.
This is why we are urging Australians who are in Bangkok to remain in their homes or in their hotels, certainly not to go to the administrations or large gatherings of people.
QUESTION: Do you think the Thai authorities will move beyond reasonable force?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we are urging Thai authorities, including the Thai police and military, to seek to resolve these matters by peaceful means. We urge all parties to show restraint and we urge all parties to seek to resolve these political differences by lawful and peaceful means.
QUESTION: Have there been complaints that the Smart Traveller system isn't working?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I haven't seen those complaints, but it's not the case. The Smartraveller system works very well. So far, for example, as far as Thailand is concerned there are numbers that people can telephone numbers that people can call, both if they are outside of Australia at the moment or in Australia. Our offices in both Canberra and Bangkok are making sure that the phones are manned. We always urge Australians when they're contemplating travelling to contemplate our travel advice and to take the advice that they find in the Smartraveller system.
QUESTION: Have you or any senior officials in your department been in contact with the Thai government?
STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't spoken to my counterpart of these matters at this stage. Our Ambassador and his officers have of course been in contact with Thai authorities. And two points I make: one that we haven't got any evidence or indication that Australians in that context are caught up in these matters. And secondly, we're urging the Thai authorities what we're saying publicly, which is these matters need to be resolved peacefully and lawfully.
QUESTION: Will Australia help resolve the situation in anyway?
STEPHEN SMITH: We have a very good relationship with Thailand, a very good bilateral relationship with Thailand, and we continue to urge Thailand to adhere to democracy and resolve these political differences peacefully.
QUESTION: What information would you give to people who have tried to register with smartraveller and have made complaints it is not working?
STEPHEN SMITH: Our advice to those people to register with Smartraveller, and our advice to those people who don't - of course we urge people to register on Smartraveller - is to read our travel advisory, to follow the advice, reread the advice in our travelling advisory and to take that into account when they make their judgements to make their decisions.
QUESTION: What damage has been done to the Asia-Pacific community by the cancellation of the EAS?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Asia Pacific Community is an initiative by the Prime Minister, which goes to regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific and suggests a need to look at that architecture in the course of this century, because we regard this century as a century of the Asia-Pacific and it's an initiative to make sure that by 2020 the type of regional architecture that is appropriate for the modern world and the modern Asia Pacific region.
It's of course disappointing that the East Asia Summit was cancelled, of course disappointing that the Prime Minister didn't have the opportunity to speak to his counterparts about that and other matters.
QUESTION: Is it damaging?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's disappointing, but the Asia Pacific Community is an idea and an initiative that goes to how we see the Asia-Pacific regional architecture by 2020 - there will be plenty of opportunities to progress that matter.
It is disappointing not just because the Prime Minister hasn't had the opportunity to talk to his colleagues about that matter, but there are a range of matters in the Asia-Pacific region which would be of interest and of importance to raise, which is why we have said we'd like to see the East Asia Summit reconvened as soon as practically possible.
QUESTION: Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been urging supporters to continue the action they are taking, is he just fuelling the problem in Thailand?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we urge all parties, whether they are supporters of a former Prime Minister Thaksin or whether they are supporters of current Prime Minister Abhisit to resolve these matters peacefully and lawfully, to conduct themselves in a peaceful and lawful manner.
QUESTION: Is Australia taking any steps, or approaching any ASEAN countries to meet the Thai leadership?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Thailand's political difficulties are clearly something which is now seriously in the minds of all the East Asia Summit leaders. The cancellation of the East Asia Summit as a result of these political and security difficulties of course is now focusing the attention of ASEAN and the East Asia Summit members.
And, as I have said, we have urged Thailand through our officials to seek to resolve these matters peacefully and lawfully in accordance with the Thai constitution, and to adhere to, in a continuing way, to Thailand democracy.
QUESTION: Would any organisations like the UN be used to put pressure on the Thai government?
STEPHEN SMITH: That would be a matter for the United Nations. A matter which is seizing the United Nations Security Council at the moment is the North Korean missile launch and I make the point that Australia strongly condemns the conduct of North Korea on that matter, and strongly supports the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718. And we hope the Security Council, when it deliberates on these matters today, puts a strong reaffirmation of Security Council Resolution 1718.
QUESTION: The Tamil Tigers protest at Kirrabilli, like you said, it has been peaceful, but there are people threatening to go on hunger strike until they die, is that a concern?
STEPHEN SMITH: In my experience, demonstrations in Australia, so far as Sri Lanka is concerned, have been peaceful.
The information I have is the demonstration outside Kirribilli over the weekend is very peaceful. I have had demonstrations at my own electorate office and they have been very peaceful and civilised and we certainly urge that to continue. And of course we want people to - if they are making a point - to make their point peacefully and in a civilised manner.
And I certainly urge anyone contemplating a hunger strike not to go on a hunger strike on this or any other matter.
QUESTION: Is the Australian government considering placing any further sanctions on Fiji?
STEPHEN SMITH: We have sanctions at the moment, we have travel sanctions, we have limitations on the development assistance that we can render to Fiji. We also have restrictions of our contact with the Fiji military.
One of the things that we will contemplate is what more, if anything, we can do by way of sanctions, and that will be one of the things that we discuss with our neighbours and partners.
QUESTION: What's the Government's stance on the Banks [inaudible]?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we are very disappointed the banks haven't passed on fully the most recent interest rate increase. And the Australian community is entitled to be deeply disappointed with the banks that the most recent interest rate decrease or reduction has not been fully passed through to them.
QUESTION: Is the Government going to do something, I guess, a little more stringent on that, are they going to give them a kick up the bum if they don't pass this on?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think that the Treasurer has done precisely that and I think he articulated it in precisely that way. We are deeply disappointed that the banks haven't fully passed that - the most recent interest rate decrease on to Australians, and the Australian public is entitled to be deeply disappointed with the banks for their failure to do so.
QUESTION: Moving on to Somalia Piracy, when will Australia be joining the international force against piracy?
STEPHEN SMITH: I make a number of points about the Somali piracy difficulties. Firstly, we welcome very much that the United States captain has been safely rescued from pirates. We regret very much that a French yachtsman was killed as French forces rescued a half a dozen French men and women from Somali pirates. Joel Fitzgibbon and I, the Defence Minister and I spoke generally about these matters when we were in the United States at the AUSMIN meeting last week with Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defence Gates. We certainly support US efforts to recover the US captain and we support very strongly the international efforts to seek to bring the Horn of Africa under control so far as piracy is concerned.
We have amended our travel advisory - advice about maritime advice to reflect very grave dangers in that area. We are currently giving consideration to what, if any, practical assistance we can give to the proposed international force.
QUESTION: Do you know when you might make a decision?
STEPHEN SMITH: We'll make a decision in our own time and announce that in due course. It's not what one would regard as, in the first instance, an area where the international community looks in a priority way to Australia to render assistance. We are looking at what if anything we can do. Certainly there are a range of other naval assets that have been deployed and we strongly support the action before United Nations, and before the international community to seek to bring that area under control.
QUESTION: Do you think that the reason and need for that international force is heightened because it is starting to get a bit out of control there?
STEPHEN SMITH: There have been two very bad instances in recent days, but this has been consistent with piracy activity over the Horn of Africa for a considerable period of time. So whilst these are terrible incidents, one where fortunately the US naval captain was rescued and the other where tragically a French yachtsman was killed, we have seen in the recent period - for a 12 month period or so - terrible piracy incidents in the Horn of Africa area and we're rendering our support to international community and the United Nations, seeking to bring that under control.
QUESTION: Has the Government made a decision on whether it will attend the UN racism conference?
STEPHEN SMITH: As I said to the Parliament, when the Parliament was in session, if Australia believes that the the second Durban Review Conference, to be held in Geneva from 24 April, looks like being rerun of Durban I, the first Durban Review Conference, then Australia won't be there. We have been giving the conference process every opportunity to make a judgment about that.
Over the last week, the chair of the so-called Working Group, the Russian chair, Mr Boychenko, was meeting with the working group seeking to resolve issues about the text.
I continue to have very grave concerns about the text and continue to have very grave concerns about the prospect of Australia attending. The working group moves in the course of this week into what is called a Preparatory Review Conference and I will see how developments unfold in the course of the Preparatory Review Conference before making a judgment.
But as things stand, I remain very gravely concerned about the state of the text, I remain very gravely concerned about the prospects of the Durban Review Conference being a repeat of the earlier conference.
And I expect to be able, in the next week of so, to make a final judgment about Australia's attendance or not. But frankly, unless something qualitatively changes, or something qualitatively different occurs, it is most unlikely that Australia will attend the Durban Review Conference in Geneva starting on April 24.
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