FOREIGN MINISTER Today I attended two important meetings of the United Nations Security Council, both of vital importance to Australia.
This morning, I attended the briefing on the downing of MH17 and the progress of the investigation. Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands and Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and I all spoke of the progress in the criminal investigation to find those responsible for the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines 17 where 298 passengers and crew were killed, including 38 people who called Australia home. We made it quite clear that we will not tolerate any efforts by Russia to discredit the investigation and there was support around the Security Council and among other nations present for the Dutch-led international investigation. There has been a preliminary report and that report is consistent with the Australian Government’s assessment that MH17 was downed by surface-to-air missile from within eastern Ukraine, the Russian-backed separatist held area.
This afternoon I have taken part in a debate in the Security Council initiated by Secretary John Kerry on Iraq. It was unambiguous that there was considerable support for the Iraqi Government and its fight against the murderous terrorist organisation ISIL. I reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to be prepared to deploy aircraft, Special Forces, and continue to provide humanitarian relief to assist Iraq in its fight against ISIL and its ilk.
In fact, I committed a further $2 million to the United Nations Population Fund specifically to support women and girls who have been brutalised by ISIL during this conflict. This support will be for reproductive and other health services and this is in addition to the $5 million in humanitarian support that Australia has already provided to Iraq.
The debate is on-going, but it is quite evident that there is a significant level of support for the Iraqi Government in its fight against ISIL. There are 40 nations represented today who will be speaking. Secretary Kerry spoke of the coalition of some 50 nations who have indicated their support for the Iraqi Government.
The Foreign Minister of Iraq also spoke of their efforts to ensure that this is an inclusive government that is sharing power and resources across the representation in government. And he reaffirmed their commitment to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL and to take back territory that it has claimed. This is a brutal organisation the likes of which we have not seen before, and there was a determination on the part of all nations present to support Iraq in its fight to combat ISIL.
QUESTION Is military action required in Syria to really put down the Islamic State?
FOREIGN MINISTER The United States has indicated that it will trace ISIL beyond the boundaries of Iraq, but Australia has committed to a strategy that is focused on Iraq and our support will be for the Iraqi Government.
QUESTION If we’re fair dinkum about it, why wouldn’t we commit to any military action in Syria?
FOREIGN MINISTER We have been invited in by the Iraqi Government and we will be taking part in any mission, should it be organised by the United States, with the consent of the Iraqi Government. That is not the case with Syria.
QUESTION Are you concerned that the military intervention cannot succeed given the limitations placed on it by the United States on their own troops on the ground?
FOREIGN MINISTER I believe that the strategy outlined by the United States is clear. I believe that it is achievable. Australia has weighed the risks. We think we have a prudent and proportionate role to play in this and we are prepared to act in support of the Iraqi Government, and we believe that this strategy can achieve its goal.
QUESTION Speaking of that proportional role, are you concerned that Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States have not contributed what is being termed kinetic energy?
FOREIGN MINISTER Saudi Arabia has already contributed something like half a billion dollars and…
QUESTION But not troops, not airstrikes?
FOREIGN MINISTER …and they’re yet to speak in the debate today. I note that France has undertaken air strikes. That was announced today. So as Secretary Kerry has made plain, the coalition is building day by day and we expect that by the time President Obama holds the foreign fighters debate on Wednesday, there will be even more nations who have committed, should an operation go ahead.
QUESTION Minister, what is your understanding of how the French strikes came out? Is this being coordinated by the United States? Is this something France did on its own? And if that’s the case, is Australia in a situation where it can identify its own targets, make those decisions? Or are we only acting under the direction of the US?
FOREIGN MINISTER It’s in coordination with the Iraqi Government and with the support of the United States. So the United States obviously has the logistics, the intelligence, the detail that is required, but it is in coordination with the Iraqi Government.
QUESTION How soon could Australia launch air strikes if the French are doing it? Are we talking days away, weeks, Foreign Minister?
FOREIGN MINISTER We have pre-deployed at this stage. We are in preparation, but we’re waiting for a specific strategy and mission that Australia believes it could undertake. We will not be taking action until the matter has been considered by the National Security committee of the Cabinet and considered by Cabinet. So what we’re doing at this stage is preparing and pre-deploying into the United Arab Emirates. But if there is a request from the Iraqi Government to support the US in an intervention, then that will be considered by the National Security Committee.
QUESTION John Kerry mentioned Iran, that he would like for them to get involved as well. That might be good for America to have Iran’s support these days, so do you think that they might call on countries such as Australia to act mediators?
FOREIGN MINISTER I believe that countries of the Middle East, countries of the Arab world who will all be asked to contribute in some way. And there are many countries in the Middle East and in the region who could act as a facilitator should that be necessary. The countries are being asked to contribute militarily, non-militarily, in a humanitarian way. There is much to be done to starve ISIL of fighters, and arms, ammunition, and funds. And so it’s not just kinetic activity, it’s not just military activity that’s required. There’s a lot to be done in non-military activity. I spoke in my statement about the action that Australian security and law enforcement agencies had taken in recent days in Australia to disrupt the activities of groups inspired by ISIL who would do harm in Australia. And this is an issue for a number of countries, not only in our region but beyond.
QUESTION How long as we committing to this?
FOREIGN MINISTER The mission has not been identified in terms of the timeframe, but before we commit, we would want to know the resources that would be required, what assets would need to be deployed and the time frame in which to operate, but I would imagine that it would take some time. It’s not a matter of days.
QUESTION Previous commitments in that region have lasted in some cases more than a decade. Is that something that Australia’s prepared to commit to?
FOREIGN MINISTER This is not a matter of regime change. This is not a matter of nation building. It is supporting an elected Iraqi Government, and the focus is on disrupting and destroying ISIL and its activities. The brutality cannot continue. The beheadings and the executions, the potential genocide against minorities must stop. And that’s why Australia has joined in the international effort to call for as many countries as possible to rid the world of this affront to humanity.
QUESTION General Dempsey says that it could take up to a decade. Is that something Australia is prepared to commit to?
FOREIGN MINISTER Australia is prepared to look at a specific mission, specific operations. We would weigh the risks, we would consider what was a prudent, proportionate role. We would assess what equipment, resources and personnel would be required, and we would work out a timeframe that we were prepared to commit to, but we haven’t reached that point. As I’ve said, it would return to the National Security Committee and Cabinet for that kind of consideration.
QUESTION Will Australian Special Forces be involved in combat roles? President Obama has signalled that US troops will not be involved in a combat role.
FOREIGN MINISTER The Australian Special Forces are there to assist and advise, they’ll be embedded in headquarters. They are assisting, advising should that request be made. At this stage they are being deployed to the UAE, they have not been asked to undertake any specific missions.
QUESTION So then where do you use for targeted aid? Have you heard anything here today that you would call back to the Prime Minister that you think that you would have to increase the aid even further?
FOREIGN MINISTER I’ve not heard anything today nor has there been any request for us to go any further. You may have heard Secretary Kerry thank Australia for the contribution that we have stated that we are prepared to make. We’ve not been asked to provide any more, indeed we’ve not yet been asked to undertake any particular operation. We were requested by the United States to provide a list of what we could offer in the international effort to combat ISIL and we’ve provided that list relating to aircraft and personnel and now we await the Iraqi Government’s request for us to undertake operations. In the meantime, the humanitarian effort must continue and there have been pledges today to continue to support those who have been brutalised and slaughtered and clearly there are almost two million displaced people inside Iraq who need support.
QUESTION So the bottom line here for an Australian Foreign Minister is that you’re awaiting an Iraqi request – am I reading that accurately?
FOREIGN MINISTER That’s right. The Iraqi Foreign Minister is here representing the Iraqi Government. We will operate in cooperation with Iraq, this is why it’s different from previous occasions when the Iraqi Government was the problem. In this instance we are working with the Iraqi Government with their invitation, with their consent, and in cooperation with the United States-led intervention should that occur. And I stress that we are still awaiting President Obama’s speech and the debate that will occur on Wednesday, Prime Minister Abbott will be here for that and I imagine that after that time there will be an assessment of the number of countries, the roles that they will undertake and then Australia will be able to make a decision as to what we believe is prudent and proportionate for our country. Not forgetting at any time that we believe there are about sixty Australian citizens currently fighting with ISIL, with Australian citizens figuring prominently in the leadership, we believe there are around a hundred people in Australia supporting, facilitating this terrorist organisation and there are many, many more in our region including Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond. So, this is an issue not just for Syria and Iraq, this is an issue not just for the Middle East, it’s an issue for Australia, our region; the globe.
QUESTION Have any of your colleagues asked about the counter-terrorism raids?
FOREIGN MINISTER Have any of my colleagues asked…?
QUESTION Any of your colleagues here, your Ministerial colleagues?
FOREIGN MINISTER My Foreign Minister counterparts? I have had discussions about it just in the margins today. There was considerable interest. I am meeting with my British and French counterparts because they likewise, are deeply concerned at the significant number, far in excess the number in Australia, deeply concerned about the significant number of foreign fighters and potential foreign fighters that are either in Iraq and Syria now or likely to return home or are in fact back in the United Kingdom or France, but there was interest in this.
QUESTION Minister could just add articulate how does going to war, if we can term it that, in Iraq help our domestic security in terms of foreign fighters coming home? Another response, for example, may be just to beef up our local intelligence agency, could you explain how…
FOREIGN MINISTER We are beefing up our local intelligence agencies; indeed the Australian Government has committed $630 million in new funding to enhance our security and intelligence and law enforcement and customs and border protection agencies. So Australia is focusing very heavily on the domestic security threat. Indeed, the issue of foreign fighters is the gravest domestic security threat that Australia has faced in some time. And so we are certainly focusing our efforts on that. But it’s a multipronged approach, you can’t just assume that defeating the foreign fighters in Australia is the end of the story. There are 60 Australians in Iraq now and we have to focus on them as well. If they come back to Australia we need to be able to take action. That’s why we’re seeking to expand the legislative powers including giving me the authority to suspend passports. Currently I can cancel or refuse to provide a passport but we’re looking for an opportunity to suspend to enable the authorities to carry out the investigations.
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