Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Interview - Sky News

Subjects: Haiti; Conference on Afghanistan.

Transcript, E&OE

24 January 2010

NEWSREADER: The failing war against the Taliban will be high on the agenda at a global conference on Afghanistan in London this week. Leaders from 70 countries will attend the summit, which will also discuss Afghanistan's governance and economic development.

For more, joining me now from our Perth studios, is Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith.

Foreign Minister, thanks for you time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.

NEWSREADER: Before we get to Afghanistan, there are reports around this morning that Non-government Organisations in Haiti aren't as focussed as they should be, and that they may be more concerned about publicity.

Is this the case?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I certainly wouldn't be drawn on such commentary. We know that throughout Australia and throughout the world, Non-government Organisations in the aid and humanitarian assistance area are very committed and work very diligently trying to help people who are in terrible circumstances.

The essential problem we have in Haiti is that we're dealing with a terrible humanitarian and human tragedy on massive scale. So, we're always going to get incidents of lack of coordination, or difficulties, and that's what we've been seeing in both the United Nations, the United States, the other countries in the region, through CARICOM, the regional organisation for the Caribbean, and the Haiti Government are working as hard as they can to deliver the emergency assistance required and to then set the scene for long-term reconstruction.

NEWSREADER: So, you don't believe these allegations that have been made in an article in the Lancet that some organisations are more concerned about publicity.

STEPHEN SMITH: I certainly haven't seen any evidence which would see me draw that conclusion. On the contrary, we've got people from governments throughout the region and throughout the world, and citizens of a large number of nations doing their best to try and render emergency assistance. We've seen an outpouring of support from the Australian people, through their own generous donations. Australia has already committed $15 million, and we indicated yesterday that we're providing specialist tactical assistance of some air-traffic controllers to help get the logistics right.

And the search and rescue effort is now over. In terrible circumstances, over 130 Haitians were rescued from the rubble. We've now got to get on with the job of delivering the emergency medical and food and water and shelter supplies, and then set about the long-term job of reconstruction.

NEWSREADER: How many RAAF air-traffic controllers are you - are we sending? And tell me more about their role?

STEPHEN SMITH: It will be a small number - probably about five. We expect they'll leave in the course of this week.

We've made it clear in the past to the United Nations and to other governments, including the United States, that we wouldn't be providing any defence or police personnel for any additional peacekeeping role, but we were happy to provide expert technical assistance where appropriate. And so, we received a request for assistance for air-traffic control. It's a large logistical exercise getting both peace-keeping, military and police services and forces in, but also getting in the aid and the assistance.

So, getting all of that through the airport at Port au Prince is a difficult job. So, we're providing that air-traffic control expertise. We expect about five from the defence services. They're very well regarded internationally. They've done this before in other parts of the world and that's a good contribution that we can make which is targeted, technical, requires expertise and we're world-class at it.

NEWSREADER: We've seen today the first of the roads being cleared. Is that the biggest hurdle? Do you think once we start getting those roads cleared that we really are going to see that aid penetrating where it's needed most?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's getting access through the airport. Getting access through the port. Getting access through the road system and as we've all seen from the pictures, the devastation is such that that has been extraordinarily difficult. And in the face of those enormous humanitarian and human tragedy - tragedies, we've also seen people under enormous pressure and they've responded accordingly.

We hope very much that that can be brought under control, and we're confident that steps are in place to ensure that that occurs. But these are always very difficult exercises in the face of a terrible natural and human tragedy, and we're confident that the contribution Australia is making is appropriate, targeted and effective, and we're rendering all the support we can to the countries and the organisations, including the United Nations, who have got primary responsibility and carriage of getting the assistance through.

NEWSREADER: Foreign Minister, you're heading overseas this afternoon. First to South Africa then London for the Afghanistan conference. What will be the focus of talks on Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm off to Botswana and then South Africa later today. That reflects our enhanced engagement with Africa. Botswana - one of our closest partners. I'll be the first Australian Foreign Minister to visit Botswana. South Africa - our largest and most important economic partner in Africa.

Then I travel to London, as you say, for the Afghanistan conference. It'll be the first opportunity for the international community to effectively meet with the new Afghan Government. The conference will be co-hosted by UK Prime Minister Brown, by President Karzai and by Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General and over 70 nations will be represented.

It's the first occasion the international community has had since the re-election of the Karzai Government to, essentially, set out the priorities for the future and, not only will they - will that be security matters and the transfer of security from the international security assistance force under a UN mandate to Afghan authorities, the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police, but also we'll be looking at what more we can do on the civilian front, on the civilian capacity-building front. What needs to be done so far as political reconciliation and re-integration in Afghanistan is concerned and also, how Afghanistan's neighbours and region can be more effective in helping to bring about peace and security in Afghanistan.

NEWSREADER: Well, speaking of that Barack Obama has pledged 30,000 more troops to the war. Do you think there'll be a call for other countries, such as Australia, to increase deployments?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. Well, we increased our military deployment in March-April of last year from 1100 to 1550 and the increase was essentially aimed at providing a greater presence in Oruzgan Province where we are to train the Afghan National Army. So, our focus in Oruzgan Province is training the Afghan National Army to be in a position to take care of these security matters themselves.

What I have made clear, is that we are looking to see whether there is a greater civilian capacity-building, civilian development assistance contribution that we can make to assist on the non-military front. That includes the prospect of training of police, but it also includes building the Afghan Government's capacity in Oruzgan Province to deliver services to the people in Oruzgan Province; health, education, infrastructure and the like.

So, we're looking very carefully at what additional development assistance or civilian capacity-building contribution that we can make and that will be one of the focuses that we bring to the conference.

NEWSREADER: Is there a deadline for you making a decision on that?

STEPHEN SMITH: We're looking at weeks and months, rather than months and years. I hope to - well, certainly the conversations I have with my colleagues in London will be very helpful in coming to detailed conclusions. But certainly we're looking at making decisions on the front in the first quarter of this year.

We do see that there is a role for a greater contribution on the capacity-building or development assistance front and that is what our focus is on. As we've made clear in the past, myself, the Prime Minister, Senator Faulkner, the Defence Minister, we believe our military contribution is appropriate and we're not proposing to enhance that and we haven't received any requests to increase that.

NEWSREADER: Foreign Minister, as you well know the Dutch are withdrawing from the mission Oruzgan Province. Is there a chance that the US may request that Australian soldiers take over their role?

STEPHEN SMITH: We've made it clear that we're not proposing to take, what's called the lead, in Oruzgan Province. The Dutch currently have the lead. As the lead military partner in Oruzgan Province, we've made it clear to the Dutch and to the international security assistance forces through the NATO Secretary-General and through the United States, that we're not proposing to take that military lead.

That will be one of the matters that I'll no doubt have discussion with some of my colleagues about. But the Dutch haven't yet finalised what presence, if any, they'll leave in Oruzgan Province, so we need to get a decision from the Dutch as to what ongoing capacity, if any, they will continue to have or to see, or provide in Oruzgan and in Afghanistan.

But we've made it clear that we believe the military lead in Oruzgan needs to be effected by a senior NATO partner and that's the point we've made to the United States and also to NATO.

NEWSREADER: Can the war still be won?

STEPHEN SMITH: Our objective in Afghanistan, and the objective of the international community, is to put Afghanistan into a position where it can no longer be a training ground or a hotbed for international terrorists, and that's the challenge and that's the task. That's what it's always been, so in that sense, the objective is a focused one and a narrow one.

We want to put the Afghan authorities in the position of being able to take care of security arrangements for themselves, to provide for their people, so that Afghanistan no longer provides a basis for the training of international terrorists, which is a threat to all members of the international community, including Australians, whether they're in Europe or whether they're in south-east Asia.

NEWSREADER: Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith. We know you have to catch a plane. We better let you go, but thank you for your thoughts and contribution this morning here on Sky News.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.

[END]

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