Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Joint press conference with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith and Dr Jaime Bermudez Merizalde, Foreign Minister for the Republic of Colombia

Subjects: Australia Colombia bilateral relations; Stern Hu trial in China; Fiji cyclone assistance and; AFP investigation into the misuse of Australian passports.

Transcript, Proof copy E&OE

18 March 2010

STEPHEN SMITH: Can I officially welcome Colombia's Foreign Minister, Jaime Bermudez, to Australia. It's not the first time that we've met formally but it's the first time that we've met in Australia. It's the Minister's first visit to Australia as Foreign Minister.

We last met in the margins of the London Conference on Afghanistan and last met formally in Singapore in the margins of APEC.

And I welcome Dr Bermudez very much to Australia.

The visit reflects the growing engagement between Australia and Colombia. We've seen, in recent times growth in trade, economic and investment matters. We've seen growth in the number of Colombian students in Australia, increasing from 1000 students a relatively short time ago to now nearly 10,000 students.

And that enhanced engagement which has also seen an enhanced engagement so far as Government-to-Government contact is concerned, reflects the growth of the contact and the bilateral relationship between Australia and Colombia.

Recently we saw a trade, economic and investment agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding, signed between our two countries by our respective Trade Ministers, and that's a very good thing.

In addition to speaking about the growth of our bilateral relationship, we also spoke about the growth of the contact that we have in regional organisations and in multilateral institutions, in particular the United Nations.

And this growth also reflects Australia's desire to enhance its engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean.

Dr Bermudez and I also met in the margins of the General Assembly last year. At that occasion I also met formally for the first occasion at Ministerial level with the Rio Group, reflecting the dialogue relationship that Australia now has with the Rio Group representing South American countries.

As well, in that same context, in the margins of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Port of Spain, last year Australia signed up a Memorandum of Understanding with the CARICOM countries of the Caribbean.

So this reflects our enhanced engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean.

That's occurring, we believe, because just as Australia is looking to Latin America and the Caribbean, so Latin America is now looking not just north to North America and to Europe but also east and west, to Asia and also Australia.

We find a lot of things we have in common: potential for greater economic trade and investment, particularly in the first instance in minerals resources. This has seen an enhanced presence in Colombia so far as Austrade is concerned. There is also a keen interest in education matters reflected by the growth in the number of students; a keen interest in agriculture, reflected by shared, longstanding interests in agriculture and also interest in science and technology.

As well, we find that on very many of the regional and multilateral issues, we have likeminded interests and likeminded approaches, whether that's to deal with climate change, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation issues, and the like.

So there are a number of things that we discussed and I'll deal with those quickly and then ask Dr Bermudez to make some opening remarks.

We've agreed that just as we have a Memorandum of Understanding on trade and investment matters, we should have a Memorandum of Understanding on political cooperation in the bilateral, regional and multilateral sense.

We've also agreed we should look at how we can work together in a trilateral sense in development assistance in the Caribbean. We are enhancing our development assistance program in Latin America and the Caribbean and we want to see whether it's possible for Australia and Colombia to work together to do some development assistance in the Caribbean.

I'll be announcing later today, after Dr Bermudez meets with Bob McMullan, a two million dollar micro-financing program that Australia will support in Colombia itself.

We also spoke about Colombia's progress, both economically and also on the security and human rights front. When I speak to the Australian business community who want to invest in South America, they are looking very much to Colombia as being a very bright prospect for the future and a nation where the growth and the potential for investment and trade is very high.

We also spoke about the great challenges that Colombia has had historically on security and human rights issues. We welcome very much the progress that the Colombian Government has made on the security front and also on the human rights front. We welcome very much the fact that recently Colombia voluntarily submitted itself to the Human Rights Council for a Universal Periodic Review and we discussed the progress on that front and we welcome those efforts very much.

So, Jaime, we're very pleased to see you here. We've had a productive, warm and friendly exchange today, as we have in the past, but I'm very pleased that we've been able to do that in Australia.

The visit, of course, marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Colombia and we welcome that. And, whilst it's slightly premature by a couple of months, we also congratulate Colombia on the forthcoming 200th anniversary of its independence.

So, Jaime, I'd be pleased if you could make some opening remarks.

JAIME BERMUDEZ MERIZALDE: Thank you, thank you, Minister Smith. I'm so pleased to be here. This is my first time, as you said, but it won't be the last, I hope, because I would love to come back again and obviously for a longer period of time because this is quite a short visit although I've been already in Queensland today, in Canberra, and tomorrow in Sydney and it's been a pretty intense visit but I'm so glad to be here.

And the message from Colombia is very straightforward. We would like to be closer to Australia. We would like to be closer to this region. We need to be closer to the Asian-Pacific countries, as we are an Asian-Pacific country too because we face the Pacific Rim.

But we've been so behind, I would say, for ages, regarding the ties with this particular region and this particular country so the time has come for us to be closer and we are doing so in a very, very quick manner.

We share the same values, I have to say. The most important thing about the relationship between Australia and Colombia is not just trade and investment, which is extremely important, it's not just education, which is a longstanding way to establish relationships in a very strong manner, but it is rather the way in which we face democracy and institutions.

We, in Colombia, as in Australia, share the importance of security for all, with democratic values and human rights. We share the independence of institutions. We share freedom and liberties, as a key for democracy, we share transparency and we share social cohesion policies with our populist policies to be effective for the sake of democracy.

So we are very much committed to these particular ideas and this is a very strong way to look at each other.

We are also pleased our investment and trade is growing and I'm seeing here very much interest in Colombia in terms of these opportunities, as we do see in Australia.

And we had the opportunity to meet yesterday with some business community people and I'm here with Sanchez Salamanca, the representative of the National Association of Industries, from Colombia. And between ANDI, which is the association in Colombia, and Austrade, we are actually, or they are actually creating a joint group between the business communities of the two countries to work together, which is a clear sign that we are moving ahead in this particular regard.

Minister, as you said, we've been talking about many issues;bilateral issues, regional issues and multilateral issues and we also share a common ground in many aspects of these issues.

You mentioned cooperation. We are very much interested in developing further projects between Australia and Colombia regarding what can be done in the Caribbean and Central American states.

We have a specific strategy for these countries, from Colombia. We could do joint projects together and I think that would benefit the two countries but also the entire region.

The same in climate change, even the mining programs. We hosted just three months ago in Colombia, at the mining conference, the Ottawa Convention Review, and you were so active in this particular conference and you've been extremely active regarding these issues which are extremely important for all of us.

We are so grateful with the country, by the way you treat our students here. We have about 9000 students coming to Australia, it's our second nation for students to come or to go abroad, and I understand that Colombians are the second-largest community here for students, and we are so pleased, and we need to have more, not only Colombians in Australia, but Australians in Colombia. We need to enhance [indistinct] as a way to get closer too.

And, finally, I would like to thank you, because of what you just announced regarding $2 million to aid micro-finance in Colombia. That's extremely important. We truly believe in private initiative, we truly believe in entrepreneurship, and this is the best way to address these issues, and this is very important to enhance and promote new entrepreneurs, and to Australian democracy, and obviously social cohesion for all.

So thanks again, Minister, and we would love to have you in Colombia, any time, as soon as you can.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you very much, Minister, and I always find it difficult to resist those public invitations to return the visit.

Now, we're very happy to take questions. If I can ask there may be some domestic or other matters, I'm very happy to respond to those, but if we can deal with any matters going to the Australia-Colombia bilateral relationship, or Latin America in the Caribbean, then I'm happy to deal with other matters.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, you talked about the growing importance of developing relations with Latin America, Colombia and the Caribbean, but you don't have an Embassy or official consulate. And what assurances did you give the Colombian [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, on the presence of diplomatic representation in both our countries, I welcome very much the fact that Colombia established a mission here, in the last couple of years, we welcome that very much.

Secondly, we spoke about Australia's representation in Colombia, and I made the point that we have enhanced our Austrade presence, we're looking at the appointment of an honorary consul, and we very much see this as staged, enhanced representation. But for all of the obvious resource reasons, I'm not in a position and didn't give a commitment about the establishment of an Embassy in Colombia.

But we are, through our Austrade representative, and our Austrade regional representative, enhancing that presence and that cooperation, and we will take that as a step by step, or stage process.

We also spoke about, as we have in the past, Colombia's desire to become a member of APEC. As we have in the past, essentially agreed that the starting point is APEC determining what it will do when the moratorium ends, and that of course will be a matter for all of the APEC members. Colombia of course is not the only country which seeks to enter APEC at the end of the moratorium in 2011.

So the starting point will be whether a consensus emerges in APEC for the end of the moratorium.

But the other important matter we discussed, and the Minister will have a conversation, a detailed conversation with Simon Crean about this, of course we saw this week, a very important trade Asia Pacific initiative, with the start of the Trans Pacific Partnership discussions.

Currently we have four members of the TPP, we now have eight countries involved in those discussions. The Minister is going to have a detailed discussion with Simon Crean, but of course there is also some rationale, given that in the TPP we find Chile a member, Peru, one of the negotiating eight. There is a rationale for Colombia also putting itself forward in due course for that, and we're looking forward to a good conversation between Simon Crean and the minister on that front as well.

QUESTION: Minister, can I ask you about Rio Tinto?

STEPHEN SMITH: I was expecting at least a couple of questions on Colombia, Latin America and the Caribbean. One up the back?

QUESTION: Did you discuss the current state in Haiti?

STEPHEN SMITH: In passing, I indicated to the Minister what our contribution had been. We're having dinner tonight, so it's one of the things we'll discuss in more detail over dinner. But Minister I'm very happy for you to give your own assessment of the contribution that Colombia's made in Haiti, and how you see the current Haiti reconstruction effort.

JAIME BERMUDEZ MERIZALDE: Thank you, Minister. Well, I believe that we're truly committed to Haiti, because obviously it is difficult times for them. Since the very beginning we are working hand in hand with them on a bilateral basis to give them effective support, not only for attending the catastrophe as such but also to reconstruct or help in building up the new Haiti too.

But we've been also working on a multilateral basis. We've been talking with the Minister about a possibility perhaps to work together in the future on particular projects. So we would be glad to discuss any particular initiative to work together, not only in Haiti, but in the entire region too.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much. Alright, if there are no more issues, I'm happy to respond, or take your questions to domestic or other matters, and you're first in line.

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you, Minister, you expressed or stated last night that the trial won't be open. Is that something that you intend to take up personally in coming days with the Chinese, and how confident are you that perhaps there may be a change of heart?

STEPHEN SMITH: Let's firstly clearly understand what has occurred. In the course of this week, the Chinese authorities advised Australian officials in Shanghai that Stern Hu's trial would commence on the 22 March. The Chinese authorities also indicated, as a decision of the court itself, that Australian consular officials, Australian officials, would be able to be present in the trial, for the purposes of the bribery charge. But because the second charge related to commercially confidential matters, that the court would effectively be closed at the request of one of the parties for that charge and, as a consequence, Australian officials would not be present for that charge.

So let's just very clearly understand that Australian officials will be present for all of the period when the first charge, the bribery charge, is dealt with.

I was disappointed that there was an indication from Chinese officials and the court, that Australian officials would not be present, or be able to be present for the commercial information charge. And through our officials we have raised this matter with Chinese authorities, asking for it to be reconsidered.

For myself, I am happy to wait to receive a response from the Chinese authorities on this matter, and I'll then make a judgement about whether it's appropriate for me to make any further representations.

QUESTION: Minister Smith, do we know how long Stern Hu's trial could last?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's listed for 22 to 24, so at this stage, it's listed for two to three days. But of course once the trial commences, it will be a matter for the court itself. But the court has listed the hearing or the trial for 22 to 24 March.

QUESTION: If there is no change from the Chinese, will he receive a fair trial?

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly he will of course be represented by his legal counsel, that's the first point. Secondly, for at this stage one of the charges, Australian officials will also be in the room.

At all times we have urged the Chinese authorities for two things to occur: firstly, for the matter to be dealt with expeditiously; and secondly, for the matter to be transparent. We've also urged his treatment to be consistent with the consular agreement that we have between Australia and China. And, on the basis of the consular agreement, we are making representations to the Chinese authorities that the consular agreement opens the prospect of our officials being present in the court for the commercial, confidentiality charge. So we'll take that step by step.

We have also made the point repeatedly and consistently that Stern Hu is now involved in the Chinese criminal law practice and procedure. And the Chinese authorities have made it clear that he will be treated in accordance with Chinese law and Chinese practice.

I also make the point that to date the Chinese authorities have conducted themselves, so far as Stern Hu is concerned, strictly in accordance with the consular agreement that we have, so far as consular access to him is concerned. And the next agreed consular access to Stern Hu, which will clearly be the last one before trial, will be on 19 March.

QUESTION: You're understanding — what you're saying is that the consular agreement does allow Australian…

STEPHEN SMITH: Part of our argument is that the consular agreement should enable presence of Australian officials for both of the charges.

Having made that point, I've also acknowledged, or the Government has also acknowledged to Chinese officials, and publicly, that even in our own system from time to time hearings are closed for confidentiality reasons.

Our argument is we believe that the circumstances of this case warrant Australian officials being present in the court for the hearing of both charges.

Now, we're taking that up with Chinese authorities, both in Canberra and in China. And, for myself, I will wait until we see a response to our request for reconsideration on that point.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, can you give us an update on the situation in Fiji and Australians that may have been caught up in the cyclone?

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, on our assistance to Fiji, as I indicated to the House yesterday, a C-130 Hercules left yesterday and arrived yesterday evening. That aid is now being distributed. An initial contribution of $1 million, which includes assistance to the Fiji Disaster Management Authority for delivery of local supplies and emergency facilities, also to the Fiji Red Cross.

But the sorts of emergency equipment that is all too common in these instances — tents, tarpaulins, water, water purification tablets, blankets and the like — that is now being delivered.

Secondly, as we speak, the C-130 is involved in aerial surveillance to assist in the assessment of the damage. We're very pleased about that.

We of course have a strong difference with the Fiji interim government but we have no difference with the Fiji people and no difficulty in rendering Fiji, the people of Fiji, humanitarian assistance, as we have in the past.

So far as Australians are concerned, we continue to have no information available to us which would indicate that any Australian has been adversely caught up in the circumstances or the aftermath of the cyclone.

Having said that, we are still endeavouring to contact nine Australians to ensure their wellbeing. We are sending an official to the relevant area today to help in making contact with those Australians.

This is a very common feature that we find in these matters. We have registered on the information that we have available to us, over 50 Australians in the vicinity. We've accounted for 45. So we are still trying to make contact with nine, but I make this point advisedly.

We have no information or any suggestion that any Australian has been adversely caught up in these circumstances. We are just working through all of the usual communications and contact difficulty. If at any point we receive any information that an Australian may be in difficulty, subject to all of the usual privacy restrictions, we will of course make that known.

QUESTION: So the Bainimarama government has been okay with an Australian official going into Fiji to help these…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, there was agreement between Australia and Fiji through our respective departments that there was no difficulty with a Defence Force asset landing in Fiji. That of course, for all of the obvious reasons, was an important first step.

Secondly, there was no difficulty from either Australia's perspective or Fiji's perspective, in using the C-130 for an aerial inspection to help with the survey and the assessment of damage.

And, thirdly, there was no difficulty with an Australian official on the ground seeking to make contact with Australians.

We of course have, as you would know, a High Commission in Fiji. We have a number of officers on the ground in Fiji every day of the week, as part of our normal diplomatic exchange with Fiji. So that has not been a difficulty in any respect whatsoever, and nor would I expect it to.

The cooperation on this point, as you would expect, has been the sort of professional diplomatic contact that we would want to see when there has been a serious natural disaster.

QUESTION: And, Mr Smith, can you give us an update on the Israeli passport issue?

STEPHEN SMITH: That matter is the subject of an investigation by the Australian Federal Police so far as the misuse of Australian passports is concerned. We continue to be in cooperation with Dubai and United Arab Emirates authorities in respect of the matter generally.

We've had very good cooperation from the UAE. We have extended very good cooperation to them. And I am awaiting the report of the Australian Federal Police which, of course, is a matter for it — both the investigation itself and the timing of that — and I'm not proposing to be drawn on that matter until such time as I receive that report.

[END]

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