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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7906


Mrs D’ATH (11:36 AM) —I rise to also speak in support of this motion on the 60th anniversary of the four Geneva conventions of 1949. It is certainly an honour to be a member of this House and to have the opportunity to acknowledge the 60th anniversary and to give recognition to such important international humanitarian laws.

As other speakers have noted—including the Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland MP—tragically the world continues to experience armed conflict. There are many other speakers to this motion who are able to give much more detailed personal accounts of their experiences overseas that these conventions are in place to deal with and to provide protection from. Of course one such speaker was the member for Eden-Monaro. I think it is fair to say that all of the members of this parliament should thank the member for Eden-Monaro for not only his contribution on this motion but also his contribution in the military and his service, which he referred to in detail today.

I know many of the speakers have spoken about the events throughout history that these conventions have been in place to provide some support and solace for. I think this is also an opportunity to reflect on the conventions and the protocols themselves and on what they are meant to achieve. When I was studying law I made the decision to do an elective subject on international law. I found it an interesting area that I wanted to understand in more detail. I have to say that it was one of the most frustrating areas of law to study, especially when dealing with international humanitarian laws. To know the impact of these laws, these conventions and these protocols and what they attempt to achieve throughout the world and to watch over time the violations against these conventions, to watch countries and nations not sign up to certain conventions and to see the difficulty of enforcing these conventions and protocols at an international level was hard to come to terms with for me, as someone who believes that law is there to be enforced and to get results one way or the other.

I acknowledge the amazing work that organisations and individuals do throughout the world in trying to bring countries, political parties, organisations and individuals to account at an international level for what they have done, for the atrocities they have been involved in against other people. That is why I want to take the opportunity to just look at these conventions and protocols and to put them into the record so that anyone who revisits this motion and these discussions about the 60th anniversary understands what the intent of these conventions is. The International Committee of the Red Cross have worked tirelessly in some of the most oppressed areas of the world and have seen some of the worst atrocities that have occurred throughout world history. They best summarise through their web site what the 1949 Geneva convention seeks to achieve.

The Geneva conventions and their additional protocols are international treaties that contain the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. They protect people who do not take part in the fighting: civilians, medics, aid workers and those who can no longer fight—the wounded, the sick, and shipwrecked troops and prisoners of war. The first Geneva convention protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war. This convention represents the fourth updated version of the Geneva Convention on the Wounded and Sick following those adopted in 1864, 1906 and 1929. It contains 64 articles. These provide protection not only for the wounded and sick but also for medical and religious personnel, medical units and medical transports. The convention also recognises the distinctive emblems. It has two annexes containing a draft agreement relating to hospital zones and a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.

The second Geneva convention protects wounded and sick shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war. This convention replaced The Hague convention of 1907 for the adaptation to maritime warfare of the principles of the Geneva convention. It closely follows the provisions of the first Geneva convention in structure and content. It has 63 articles specifically applicable to war at sea. For example, it protects hospital ships. It has one annexe containing a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.

The third Geneva convention applies to prisoners of war. This convention replaced the prisoners of war convention of 1929, and contained 143 articles whereas the 1929 convention had only 97. The categories of persons entitled to prisoner of war status were broadened in accordance with conventions one and two. The conditions and places of captivity were more precisely defined, particularly with regard to the labour of prisoners of war, their financial resources, the relief they received and the judicial proceedings instituted against them. The convention established the principle that prisoners of war should be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.

We should not underestimate the importance of these conventions and, certainly, this third convention dealing with prisoners of war. We have heard of many atrocities over the years in relation to prisoners of war and the circumstances in which they have found themselves—the standards of their surroundings, their food provisions, the labour they were required to perform. We would all like to see an end to war in itself across the world. We must ensure that conventions such as these remain in place to ensure protections for any prisoners who are taken into custody during wartime.

The fourth Geneva convention affords protections to civilians, including in occupied territory—another worthy convention when you consider that the nature of war, and the nature of any sort of intervention in a nation, has changed considerably over the years. Although there is a lot less hand-to-hand combat and a lot more technology involved now, the reality is that we are still seeing many civilians being seriously injured or losing their lives as a consequence of these actions. We need to do more to protect these people, and that is why these conventions are in place.

The Geneva conventions, which were adopted before 1949, were concerned with combatants only, not with civilians, and that is why this particular convention, adopted in 1949, was so important. To think that prior to 1949 we did not have a convention that provided safety or any rights or protections for civilians is hard to believe, but in fact it only occurred as a consequence of this convention in 1949. The events of World War II showed the disastrous consequences of the absence of a convention for the protection of civilians in wartime. The convention takes account of the experiences of World War II. It is composed of 159 articles and it contains a short section concerning the general protection of populations against certain consequences of war, without addressing the conduct of hostilities as such, which was later examined in the additional protocols of 1977.

The bulk of the convention deals with the status and treatment of protected persons, distinguishing between the situation of foreigners on the territory of one of the parties to the conflict and that of civilians in occupied territory. It spells out the obligations of the occupying power vis-a-vis the civilian population and contains detailed provisions on humanitarian relief for populations in occupied territory. It also contains a specific regime for the treatment of civilian internees. It has three annexes containing a model agreement on hospital and safety zones, model regulations on humanitarian relief and model cards. Article 3 common to the four Geneva conventions marked a breakthrough, as it covered for the first time situations of non-international armed conflicts. These types of conflicts vary greatly. They include traditional civil wars, internal armed conflicts that spill over into other states or internal conflicts in which third states or a multinational force intervenes alongside the government.

Common article 3 establishes fundamental rules from which no derogation is permitted. It is like a mini convention within the conventions, as it contains the essential rules of the Geneva conventions in a condensed format and makes them applicable to conflicts not of an international character. It requires humane treatment for all persons in enemy hands, without any adverse distinction. It specifically prohibits murder; mutilation; torture; cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment; the taking of hostages; and unfair trial. It requires that the wounded, sick and shipwrecked be collected and cared for. It grants access to the International Committee of the Red Cross to offer its services to the parties of the conflict, and it calls on the parties to the conflict to bring all or parts of the Geneva conventions into force through so-called special agreements. It recognises that the application of these rules does not affect the legal status of the parties to the conflict. Given that most armed conflicts today are non-international, applying common article 3 is of the utmost importance. Its full respect is required. The problem is that we know that that particular convention is probably one of the most violated and breached conventions in the Geneva conventions of 1949.

The Geneva conventions entered into force on 21 October 1950. Ratification grew steadily through the decades, with 74 states ratifying the conventions during the 1950s, 48 states during the 1960s, 20 states during the 1970s, and another 20 states during the 1980s. Twenty-six countries ratified the conventions in the early 1990s, largely in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia. Seven new ratifications since 2000 have brought the total number of the states party to the conventions to 194, making the Geneva conventions universally applicable.

The 60th anniversary gives all of us—government and non-government organisations, businesses, community organisations and the broader community—the opportunity to reflect on these conventions and protocols, to stop and think about what they seek to achieve and how, as individuals and as a collective group, we can go forward into the future and to do more to cease hostilities and to limit human suffering around the world. I would like to support the Attorney-General’s recognition of the extraordinary contribution made by many individual Australians, including the Australian Red Cross members, volunteers and staff, in carrying out the humanitarian ideals expressed in the conventions and additional protocols. Let us all work together, now and into the future, to see that these conventions are actually enforced and to ensure that full human rights and humanitarian protections are provided to all citizens across the world.