JOURNALIST: And we're joined now in our Sydney studio by the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Welcome to Lateline.
JULIE BISHOP: Good evening.
JOURNALIST: How likely is it that the Australian death toll will actually rise?
JULIE BISHOP: There are 28 confirmed Australian victims on this flight; 27 were confirmed this morning and since then a 28th, who is in fact a dual-national, so there might be some difference in the statistics that have mentioned by Malaysian Airlines, but Australia has confirmed 28. There could be more because there are a number of names that have not yet been identified in terms of nationality but at this stage it's 28.
JOURNALIST: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called this an act of terrorism. Is that the Australian assessment too?
JULIE BISHOP: What we are seeking urgently is an independent, international investigation that is credible, that is open and far-reaching so that we can determine how this happened, why this happened and who is responsible.
JOURNALIST:In the meantime, do you support his characterisation of this as a terrorist act?
JULIE BISHOP:We understand that it was a deliberate downing of this plane that is an indescribably evil crime, almost 300 people have been murdered on this flight, amongst them the 28 Australians. And I have been on the phone all day to my counterpart foreign ministers around the world seeking support for a resolution of the United Nations Security Council for this full and thorough independent and international investigation. We owe it to everyone on board. We owe it to the 28 Australians and their families to find out how this happened and why and who's responsible and then, once we've found out who is responsible, to ensure that they are brought to justice.
JOURNALIST: You've been hoping to speak to the Russian Foreign Minister, have you managed to make contact?
JULIE BISHOP: No, I haven't. I called in the Russian ambassador and saw him in Sydney this afternoon and as part of my discussion with him I asked that he make contact with Moscow so that I could speak to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Later I was informed that Minister Lavrov was on holiday and he could not be contacted, not for some time. I then asked to speak to a deputy or a vice-minister but I've now been told that I won't be able to speak to anybody in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow.
JOURNALIST: Until when?
JULIE BISHOP: There was no time set, I was just told that a phone call was not possible.
JOURNALIST: Given the international dimension of this tragedy, it does seem a peculiar response?
JULIE BISHOP: An extraordinary response given that in my conversation with the Russian ambassador I sought full cooperation from Russia and given that Russia is blaming Ukraine for this tragic act, I would have thought that Russia would want to see a full and thorough and independent investigation as soon as possible and would be supporting a United Nations Security Council resolution to give effect to that investigation. If Russia believes that Ukraine is responsible, then Russia surely would be supporting such an investigation.
JOURNALIST: What's been the level of support you've had elsewhere in the international community?
JULIE BISHOP: It's been extraordinary. From my first call this morning to the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, Frans Timmermans, we shared the anguish and the pain. He has lost so many nationals from the Netherlands and of course at that stage I thought it was about 23 Australians, and we have spoken about what we can do together. And I've also spoken to the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom. Britain lost about nine. We have been on the phone, I've spoken to the Belgian Foreign Minister; they lost a number. I've spoken to Malaysian Foreign Minister. I've been in contact with the Indonesian Foreign Minister. The outpouring of grief, shock and anger has been overwhelming but of course my immediate priority is to ensure that the families of the 28 Australians are given all the support that we can possibly provide them at this devastating time.
JOURNALIST: So, you did mention that you met with the Russian ambassador today. What did he reveal about his country's involvement in the downing of MH17?
JULIE BISHOP: He denied that they had any involvement. I asked for assurances that Russian weapons or equipment had not been used to bring down this plane and he said that there was no Russian equipment being supplied to the separatists. I found that a remarkable statement. He did admit that the separatists may well have the equipment to do this because he suggested that they had captured a surface-to-air missile from Ukraine recently but they didn't have the capability to operate it. Likewise, I found that a rather incredible statement but if Russia has known that the separatists have access to a surface-to-air missile, Russia had the influence to secure it and this is where Russia has such a crucial role to play. They must cease the provocations; they must support a ceasefire so that we can get crews and technical assistance and experts into the crash site, secure it and ensure that the evidence is protected and that bodies can be identified and repatriated. And Russia has the influence over the separatists to achieve that.
JOURNALIST: We hear this evening from our Europe Correspondent, Philip Williams, there in Kyiv, that separatists have refused calls for a ceasefire, so investigators couldn't get in and start to do their very important work. What's your reaction to that?
JULIE BISHOP: I'm devastated. This is unspeakably evil. There are - there is an absolute need to secure and protect that crash site. It's quite extensive in the area so I understand, and we need experts there, technical experts to secure the site, protect the evidence and help identify and repatriate bodies. To put those people at risk through an ongoing conflict is appalling and we call on Russia and the separatists to allow a ceasefire so that people can go about this appalling and horrible work that must be done.
JOURNALIST: The plane came down in Ukraine. But there are reports that the black boxes have been recovered and have been taken to Moscow, how alarming is that development?
JULIE BISHOP: I had been told of that report and I put that to the Russian ambassador, that if the separatists or others have taken possession of any of the evidence from the crash site and delivered it to the Russian authorities, then they must hand it over immediately to an international aviation authority. He said he'd take that on board and raise it with Moscow.
JOURNALIST: But didn't give you any indication as to where there was any veracity to those reports?
JULIE BISHOP: No, and it seems that more recently there's been a suggestion that it's not true. But this underscores the absolute necessity of securing the crash site as soon as possible. Australia has sent a team. We have people coming in from around the world to Kyiv. We've sent an Australian federal police officer, we've sent consular staff. The Ukrainian government has offered all support, access and have said that whomever Australia wants to have present at the crash site, they will agree to that.
The Ukrainian government has established its own investigation team, but it must have access to the site. It also appreciates that there needs to be impartiality and independence around this investigation and so of course as soon as the United Nations Security Council is able to establish the mechanism by which an international investigation can be established, then Ukraine will support that as well.
JOURNALIST: Just very briefly, who is best placed, country-wise, to lead the investigation, in your view, because obviously Ukraine and Russia both being in the frame won't want either of them taking carriage of this.
JULIE BISHOP: The United Nations has an international civil aviation organisation that would be best placed. But we would want to have representatives from the relevant countries on that investigation. Australia would of course offer support, offer whatever expertise and resources we have. I note that the United States has likewise offered, in my discussions with Foreign Secretary Hammond of the United Kingdom, Britain will likewise offer support and expertise.
The United Nations Security Council will be meeting shortly and I imagine that there will be a statement that is put out first and then we will seek a binding resolution. I've been on the phone to Chinese authorities, to a number of people on the Security Council, to get that support. But crucially it must be a binding resolution on all members including Russia.
JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop thanks very much for joining us tonight at the end of an incredibly terribly traumatic day.
JULIE BISHOP: Thank you.
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555