Statement on recent developments in the Middle East

Canberra

Statement. Check against delivery, E&OE

24 March 2011

We live in the era of globalisation – an era when what happens somewhere else in the world – not just in our own backyard – has important implications for our future.

The eyes of the world in recent weeks have been glued to events in North Africa and the Middle East.

There has been tectonic change. A major fault line has shifted.

But it all began with a single man.

A little over four months ago a 27-year old Tunisian man called Tarek Muhammad Bouazizi – a street vendor – set himself on fire in protest at the confiscation of his wares and his treatment at the hands of a municipal official.

It was this act, and the response of his fellow Tunisians, that set in train a series of revolutions which have rocked the region.

These developments have implications for Australia's national security interests, our national economic interests, our international humanitarian interests, and our consular responsibilities.

We share the hope of people across the Middle East that these efforts will result in pluralistic democracies.

But this is not guaranteed, and there is a risk that instability will create more space for the operations of militant Islamist and terrorist organisations.

The potential radicalisation of governments in some countries may have broader geostrategic impacts.

We are concerned about Iran's ambitions in the region; and we are concerned about prospects for peace in the Middle East.

We are concerned about the possibility of an increase in unauthorised people movements from the region to other parts of the word.

And there are important economic factors that could impact our national interests.

Oil prices are increasing. Further instability will continue to drive up these prices.

We are also concerned about the safety of Australian citizens in areas of unrest and instability.

That is why the government has taken a close interest in developments – and has made its voice heard on key challenges.

Libya

Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on recent developments in the region.

In Libya, the world has been shocked by the attacks of the Qaddafi regime on its own people.

The United Nations Security Council took firm action UNSC Resolution 1973 in mandating "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from threat of attack by the Libyan regime.

The Council also authorised a no-fly zone. It also strengthened international sanctions.

And the referral to the International Criminal Court by the United Nations Security Council of regime members under UNSC Resolution 1970 remains in force.

UNSC Resolution 1973 was welcomed by the Australian Government.

It was adopted as Qaddafi's forces were poised to attack Benghazi – a city of over 700,000 – and when Qaddafi himself declared that he would "show no mercy".

We avoided the butchery of Benghazi – at least for now while the situation remains highly fluid.

But in recent days we have seen Qaddafi's forces attack the western cities of Misurata, Zintan and Yafran – with further tragic loss of life.

Air strikes by international forces are making progress in putting an end to these attacks.

But the situation is fluid. The operation underway is complex and difficult.

The Australian Government remains gravely concerned by the humanitarian situation – and prospects of it worsening.

In recent days, I have spoken with the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon; the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres; and the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger.

Our concerns include the lack of access by these organisations to critical areas in Libya, food and medical supply lines, and safety for Libyans seeking to flee conflict areas.

More than 320,000 people have fled Libya since mid-February. The Australian government is doing what we can to assist this crisis.

We have committed over $15 million – and now stand as the third-largest donor overall, behind the US and the EU.

Libya's future is uncertain.

The Australian Government, together with our key partners around the world, have been united in our call for Qaddafi to step down.

He has lost legitimacy, he has violated international law, he has turned on his own people.

The goal of the UNSC-mandated intervention is protection of civilians. Enforcement of the no-fly zone is making progress. The UN has imposed an arms embargo and stringent sanctions. Australia has imposed our own autonomous travel and financial sanctions.

The international community is working to cut off oil revenue flows to the Qaddafi regime and is freezing the overseas assets of its members.

The opposition movement in Libya is strengthening.

But further loss of life is likely.

And again I emphasise, the days that lie ahead will be uncertain with many diplomatic and military challenges before us.

This is the tragic consequence of Qaddafi's brutality.

Egypt

Egypt is already undertaking the long and slow process of political reform.

On Saturday Egyptians voted overwhelmingly in favour of amendments to the constitution which will broaden the field for presidential nominees.

Significantly more Egyptians turned out to vote in this referendum than have in most elections in Egypt in past decades – a testimony to the commitment of the Egyptian people to remain engaged and active in the political reform process.

Egypt will undoubtedly need help as it undertakes this difficult process – presidential and parliamentary elections are still to be held.

And its severely weakened economy will need help to recover.

Australia and the rest of the international community stand ready to support Egypt where it needs support most.

We are already exploring assistance to Egypt in the areas of food security and agriculture.

I confirmed this in my recent visit to Egypt and in meetings with the new Foreign Minister Nabil El Araby.

Tunisia

Tunisia is also undertaking a breathtaking program of political and economic reform.

During my visit to Tunisia earlier this month – the first ever by an Australian Foreign Minister – I reinforced to Tunisia's interim government that Australia stands ready to support Tunisia as it moves to enhance the political, economic and social rights of its people.

I encouraged the important steps already taken by the interim government, including freeing political prisoners, allowing freedom of expression, and adhering to international human rights conventions.

Australia is already exploring areas to support Tunisia's reform process including electoral assistance and in the area of dry-land farming.

I confirmed this in my meetings with the Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi and Foreign Minister Mohamed Mouldi Kefi during my recent visit.

Yemen

Australia is gravely concerned about the deteriorating political and security situation in Yemen.

Rolling popular protests over the past two months have been met with a brutal response by the government of President Saleh, resulting in more than 70 deaths and hundreds wounded since January.

Australia condemns the large-scale use of lethal force against protestors and has continued to urge President Saleh and his government to exercise maximum restraint and to seek every means possible to achieve a peaceful resolution of the crisis through dialogue.

The resignations of senior government figures, including military commanders, government ministers and ambassadors in protest at the 18 March killings, and President Saleh's subsequent sacking of his Cabinet, underline the gravity of the political and security crisis facing Yemen.

Australia is concerned that recent efforts at reform announced by President Saleh's government may have come too late and that the window for dialogue is fast closing.

President Saleh has reportedly agreed to a plan put to him by an opposition member which would see him step down at the end of 2011, and has committed to the implementation of constitutional and electoral reform.

The main opposition is deeply sceptical of President Saleh's commitment to reform and continues to demand his immediate resignation.

The deteriorating situation in Yemen has attracted wide international concern.

The Arab League has condemned "crimes against civilians" in Yemen and urged the Yemeni Government to deal with the protestors' demands peacefully.

Canada, the United States, the European Union, Britain, France and the United Nations Secretary General have all condemned the violence against protestors, calling on the Yemeni Government to respect the right to peaceful expression and embrace reform.

This widespread concern reflects the clear strategic stake the international community, including Australia, has in a stable, peaceful and unified Yemen.

Yemen, a poor and populous country with few natural resources and a history of tribal-based conflict, faces a number of long-standing and major economic, social and political challenges.

Yemen is also one of the front-line states in the fight against terrorism.mA politically stable and economically strong Yemen is essential for combating terrorism in, and emanating from, the Arabian Peninsula.

Yemen's geography, poor infrastructure and tribal networks have enabled Al-Qa'eda-linked terrorists to operate in and from Yemen for over a decade.

Bombings in East Africa as early as 1998 had Yemeni links.

Prolonged political instability in Yemen has the potential to divert security forces from their efforts in countering terrorism and create fertile ground for the terrorist organisation to flourish.

The absence of a well-functioning government will serve to further entrench the terrorists' freedom of action and their possible en-meshment with opposition political forces.

Syria

I am deeply concerned by ongoing clashes in Syria, in particular in the southern city of Dara'a.

In recent days in Dara'a at least 10 people – and possibly many more – have reportedly been killed by Syrian security forces.

Overnight, Syrian forces reportedly fired on demonstrators who had gathered in and around the Omari mosque in Dara'a.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that at least six people were killed in this incident.

As UN Secretary General Ban and EU High Representative Ashton have said, the use of such lethal force against peaceful demonstrators in Syria is unacceptable.

Syrian authorities must exercise all restraint in responding to peaceful protest activity.

Claims by Syrian authorities that the demonstrations are being perpetrated by armed gangs are just not credible.

Syria has been ruled under emergency laws since 1963.

Understandably, the people of Syria are calling for greater freedom and political reform.

Australia supports peaceful efforts towards democratic reform.

Australia urges the Syrian Government to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the people of Syria and to pursue a course of dialogue and reform.

Bahrain

Bahrain has returned to relative calm in recent days following the security crackdown against protestors last week under a 3-month State of Emergency declared by the King on 15 March.

I spoke to the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid, on 20 March to register the Australian Government's concern about the recent violence against protestors and the denial of their right to peaceful protest.

This followed my meeting with Sheikh Khalid on 8 March during my visit to Abu Dhabi for the Australia-Gulf Cooperation Council Foreign Ministers Strategic Dialogue.

Noting the deployment of GCC security forces into Bahrain, I called for the exercise of maximum restraint by the authorities and their continuing commitment to a process of genuine and inclusive national dialogue towards further political reform.

I also suggested that Bahrain invite a global NGO, such as Amnesty International, to come in and inspect its activities to maintain international confidence in the actions of the Bahraini government.

Sheikh Khalid stated that the Bahraini Government continued to pursue dialogue with the opposition and that the GCC forces were in Bahrain only to protect infrastructure and the physical policing of the Bahrain people would be done by the Bahraini forces themselves.

The security situation in Bahrain is also complicated by the actions of Iran in support of the Shia population in Bahrain – with Iran still publicly claiming Bahrain as Iran's 12th province.

Middle East Peace Process

The Australian Government remains concerned about prospects for the Middle East Peace Process.

I condemn the bus bombing in Jerusalem on 23 March which killed one person and injured many more, as well as the recent rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel.

There is no justification for terrorism of any kind.

I express Australia's sincere condolences for the Palestinian civilians in Gaza killed on 22 March.

Attacks on civilians are unacceptable under any circumstances, and the Australian Government strongly urges all parties to exercise restraint and avoid a further escalation of violence.

Australia strongly supports a negotiated two-state solution that allows a secure and independent Israel to live side-by-side with a secure and independent future Palestinian state.

Violence such as that seen in recent days undermines prospects for a negotiated two-state solution.

Both sides must negotiate urgently on final status issues, and refrain from actions which undermine trust, including settlement construction and terrorist attacks, which are not helpful to the peace process.

This was the subject of a series of discussions I have had with Israeli and Palestinian Territory leaders in the last three months.

Conclusion

Just as the beginning of these protests and revolutions could not be predicted, neither can their end.

The future of the region is unclear.

The people of Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Morocco, Algeria and other countries, have called for a better future – a future with greater economic opportunity, greater political freedoms and respect for human rights.

The end result of their efforts is yet to be determined.

There are also real risks that some leaders of political movements may praise the principles of democratic revolution only to obtain power and later move to suspend these democratic freedoms.

Mindful of these risks, the process of political reform must nonetheless be embraced in response to the legitimate aspirations of the Arab people for democracy.

There are also risks that economic reforms will be slow to deliver prosperity, and the aspirations of better employment and higher wages will be slow to realise.

While there is a common demand across the region for greater political, economic and social freedoms, the situation in each country varies greatly.

Each country's democratic evolution will try and be different.

The Australian Government hold that democracy is a universal principle, consistent with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1976.

Australian diplomacy will continue to be active in the region – consistent with our national values, consistent with our national interests and articulated through the practice of creative middle power diplomacy.

These have been difficult and dangerous times for Australian citizens living in the region – and I urge them all to keep abreast of travel advisories both in the Middle East, Japan and elsewhere.

Our diplomats and consular staff have performed in the best traditions of the Australian foreign service.

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