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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9488


Ms PARKE (8:51 PM) —As a former United Nations staff member and as chair of the UN parliamentary group, I am very pleased to speak to the tabling of report No.105 of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties and, in particular, on the report’s recommendation that Australia ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel. Australia became a signatory to the optional protocol on 19 September 2006 after strongly supporting the negotiations that gave rise to it. Ratification will require amendments to the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Commonwealth) so that the current provisions which criminalise attacks on UN and associated personnel, and which provide for the prosecution or extradition of those responsible for such attacks, are extended in scope to provide equivalent protection to UN personnel involved in delivering humanitarian, political or development assistance in peace-building operations or to those providing emergency humanitarian assistance. As it stands, the convention, without the optional protocol, serves only to protect peacekeeping operations or other operations that have been declared to be of ‘exceptional risk’ by the UN Security Council or the General Assembly. It is worth noting that such a declaration has never been made, notwithstanding the sharp rise in the number and seriousness of attacks over the last decade.

The attack on 19 August 2003 on the UN Operational Headquarters—the Canal Hotel in Baghdad—stands as a reminder that United Nations projects and personnel are far from inviolable. On that occasion, 22 people were killed and more than 100 injured. The dead included the UN’s Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and my friend Jean-Selim Kanaan, about whom I have spoken in this place before.

In addition to the 16 peacekeeping operations that the UN administers, there are numerous UN programs and agencies whose personnel are not covered under the convention. These include the United Nations Children’s Fund—or UNICEF—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Program and the United Nations Development Program, which is, for example, on the ground in 166 countries working towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. No UN personnel engaged in those critically important and often risky operations are protected by the convention. For instance, the UN safety convention applied to me while I was working for the UN peacekeeping mission in Kosovo but not when I worked subsequently in the far more dangerous ongoing conflict situation in Gaza for UNRWA—the United Nations humanitarian agency for the Palestinian refugees.

I recall another terrible incident on 6 September 2000 in West Timor when a roaming militia stormed the UNHCR office in Atambua and used machetes to hack to death three staff members: Carlos Caceres, a 33-year-old American protection officer; Samson Aregahen, a 44-year-old Ethiopian supply officer; and Pero Simundza, a 29-year-old Croatian telecommunications officer. Their bodies were then dragged into the street and burned. Only moments before he was murdered, the American officer Carlos Carceres had written an email to a friend:

We sit here like bait, unarmed, waiting for the wave to hit. These guys (militias) act without thinking and can kill a human as easily as I kill mosquitos in my room.

His last words were:

I need to go now. I hear screaming outside.

Absurdly, none of those UNHCR workers were covered by the UN safety convention at the time they were killed. However, they would be covered now under this optional protocol, as would UNRWA staff. Anyone who has worked for the United Nations is likely to have known someone grievously harmed or killed in circumstances where UN operations have been targeted or at least recklessly ignored. That has certainly been my experience. No-one imagines that this optional protocol will by itself stop further injuries or deaths from occurring, but it is more than a symbolic gesture. It requires ratifying nations to explicitly acknowledge the special protection that applies to a much wider range of UN personnel, and it provides very real obligations when it comes to the prosecution or extradition of those who perpetrate attacks on unarmed humanitarian workers.

It is humbling to be standing in this place taking part in a process that will make a quiet but significant contribution to the safety of an organisation that I served with all my heart for eight years and to the safety of my former colleagues. The UN is more than a building in New York. It is tens of thousands of people spread across the planet far from their own homes undertaking difficult, life-affirming, necessary work in the cause of peace. Australia’s ratification of the optional protocol will send an important message that UN staff must be valued and protected. I commend report No.105 of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties to the House.