JULIE BISHOP Today the Dutch-led humanitarian mission involving a number of Australian police investigators attempted to make the journey from Donetsk to the air crash site; a journey of about 80 kilometres. The convoy had been assured by the OSCE - the organisation who provides us with the on-the-ground advice, they were assured that the convoy could go ahead. However, clearly the situation deteriorated dramatically, and about 16 kilometres from the crash site the convoy was stopped and were warned that it was even more dangerous and that they should go back. So they have returned to Donetsk and all are safe, and they are spending the night there.
Tomorrow, we will attempt to make the journey again because we owe it to the families of the people who were killed in this aircraft crash to retrieve the bodies and remains of their loved ones. We have had a series of meetings today with senior members of the Ukrainian Government. We had a meeting with President Poroshenko and he reaffirmed his commitment to ensure that there was an exclusion zone of some 40 kilometres in diameter, and we are seeking to have assurances that there will be a humanitarian corridor. However, the site is, as we understand it, still in the hands of the separatists and the OSCE must negotiate our access on a day-by-day basis with the separatists. So we are not deterred, we will do it again tomorrow, the same way until we can get to the crash site and carry out the task that we asked the UN Security Council Resolution to back, and that is to retrieve the bodies, retrieve the remains and belongings, and then commence an investigation into the causes of this crash.
JOURNALIST Minister, a rebel leader has actually held a media conference in Donetsk today saying that there are Ukrainian army tanks and trenches near the crash site, if not around the crash site. What’s your information on that? Admittedly, it is coming from a rebel leader.
JULIE BISHOP Well, in a situation like this there will be information and misinformation, and the situation is very fluid. We are relying on OSCE to provide the on-the-ground advice. They have 50 monitors throughout Eastern Ukraine and we rely on them to provide us with that kind of advice. So every day we will assess the situation, we will assess the operational risk, and will decide whether to proceed or not. We will not put our police in harm’s way, we will not take any unnecessary risks, but we will not be deterred in our efforts to get onto that site and retrieve the bodies of Australians who were killed in Eastern Ukraine.
JOURNALIST But if the Ukrainian Army do have control of that site, how does that affect the mission?
JULIE BISHOP Well our understanding is that the separatists have control of that site, not the Ukrainian military.
JOURNALIST Dozens of people have died; civilians have died in these clashes around the crash site, including a number of children. Were you given any indication by the Ukrainian Government that they would be using deadly force to capture this site?
JULIE BISHOP We understand that there’s a conflict going on. This is a war zone and the actors in this war zone are not clear. There’s the Ukrainian military, there are different separatist groups, and I understand there’s even conflict between the separatists. So this is a very complex and fluid situation, but we are determined to assess it day-by-day to see if we can carry out what is a humanitarian mission to retrieve the bodies and remains of those killed in MH17.
JOURNALIST Is this part of the plan though, for Ukraine to move in tanks?
JULIE BISHOP Well it’s certainly not part of any plan that we have. Our focus is entirely and absolutely on our humanitarian mission. It has a simple goal: to get onto the crash site as safely as possible and as quickly as possible, to do our work in retrieving bodies and remains and belongings, and commence the investigation by, presumably, taking evidence off the site so it can be examined. We want to get in, do our work, and leave as quickly as possible. The only reason that Dutch experts and Australian experts are in Eastern Ukraine is to carry out that humanitarian mission, and we want to leave as soon as possible. We will not be here for a moment longer than necessary.
JOURNALIST Minister, what are the President’s assurances worth when he says there is an exclusion zone and there is a ceasefire in that zone when, clearly, obviously there are Ukrainian troops in active combat within a few kilometres of the site?
JULIE BISHOP There’s not only one player in this. There’s the Ukraine military, there are a number of separatist groups and they don’t all have the same agenda. So the President can only give assurances on behalf of the Ukrainian military, not on behalf of the others. So we are dealing with many players here; that’s why we’re so reliant on the OSCE to provide us with the on-the-ground security advice.
JOURNALIST Minister, there’s a little bit of confusion about your mission here in terms of seeking permission to use armed officers at some point. Can you explain that, given that it seemed to be that our Prime Minister had said earlier that they weren’t necessary? What is the situation?
JULIE BISHOP It’s contingency planning, and any considered, careful analysis of this situation would lead to the conclusion that you should have a contingency in place. And we have a humanitarian mission underway, we have a number of unarmed police, just as the OSCE monitors have been unarmed – are unarmed – there are 50 of them who have been unarmed in Eastern Ukraine since about March, and there are many other examples that I can give you where military and police have been unarmed for the purposes of carrying out a mission. I mean, Australia had experience in Bougainville, for example. Our defence forces were in Bougainville, but they were not armed. So this is not unusual. What we are seeking to do, though, is deal with many different players, many different parties, and that’s why we are taking it very carefully, day at a time. We’ll assess the security situation every day. It’s under constant review and we will not take unnecessary risks.
JOURNALIST Which scenario can you imagine that those troops or armed forces would be used?
JULIE BISHOP This agreement that we signed with the Ukrainian Government last week, and which we hope will be ratified, is like a ‘status of mission’ agreement. It sets out the conduct that can be carried on with our presence here in Ukraine, the immunities, the privileges, the day-to-day engagement, and part of that is to have the right - should it ever be necessary - to bring arms into the country for self-defence. Now, I don’t envisage that we will ever resort to that, but it’s a contingency planning and it would be reckless not to include it in this kind of agreement. But, I stress, our mission is unarmed because it’s a humanitarian mission.
JOURNALIST When do you hope to have it ratified, is that tomorrow?
JULIE BISHOP We understand that it was impossible for the parliamentarians to return any earlier than Thursday. I did urge that it be earlier, but I’m told that it was logistically impossible for the Government to get all of the different parties to agree to a date earlier than Thursday. I have just witnessed the signing of the equivalent agreement that the Dutch Government has with the Ukrainian Government over the deployment. It’s in very similar terms to the Australian one; well it has the same effect. So there will be two agreements, two deployment agreements - one between the Dutch and Ukrainian Governments, and one between the Australian and Ukrainian Governments.
JOURNALIST The OSCE is also unarmed and last week they were relying on the rebel forces to provide security, including on Thursday and Friday when Australians were in that group. Who has been providing the security today in that attempt to gain access to the site, and who do you see providing security in the long term?
JULIE BISHOP Well, OSCE negotiates this on a day-by-day basis and it has been negotiating and reaching agreement with the separatists as they are in control of the site. You see, we need permission to get onto the site, and the permission is granted by the separatists because they control it, and they are armed – heavily armed – and so that’s what the OSCE does. They negotiate access to the site. There have been journalists on the site; dozens and dozens of journalists on the site (inaudible) and indeed a family was on the site, a family of one of the victims. So people are able to negotiate access, as I assume you have all done. That’s what we’re doing; we’re seeking to negotiate access to the site. But the difference between our task and others who have been on the site is that we need to carry out expert, professional work - that is the retrieval of body parts and remains and an investigation into what caused the crash - so the gathering of evidence. And that’s why police investigators are ideally suited to carry out these tasks. That’s our mission; that’s what we will seek to achieve and we will try again tomorrow.
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