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Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Page: 53

Mr RUDD (GriffithMinister for Foreign Affairs) (17:20): by leave—On behalf of the Australian government, I condemn the appalling and escalating violence in Syria. In the last few days alone the world has witnessed the barbaric massacre of civilians in Homs, with over 200 people killed within 24 hours. This violence has shocked the world.

For over a year now, we have seen violence and human rights abuses taking place across Syria. Well over 5,000 people have died—so many more in fact that the United Nations has had to stop counting as numbers are now hard to verify. The UN Human Rights Council has pointed to substantial evidence of gross human rights abuses by Syrian security forces. The regime is targeting innocent civilians, including by directing heavy weaponry, tanks and snipers against civilians and in major population centres such as Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa. These abuses are getting worse, as Syrian people are being subjected to unjust detention, sexual violence and torture. This is intolerable and is unacceptable to the international community.

The Australian government is profoundly disappointed at the veto of the United Nations Security Council's proposed resolution on Syria last weekend. What we saw in New York was a failure of key members of the international community to live up to their responsibilities to help, support and protect the Syrian people. This failure was an abdication of responsibility. There was no good reason to explain why this resolution was not passed. It was backed by 13 members of the council. It did not call for military action; it did not call for regime change; it did not call for an arms embargo; it did not even impose sanctions. It was a watered down draft which had been discussed and debated and wrangled over and repeatedly weakened to attract the maximum support in the council. What the resolution did do—crucially—was to call for support for the Arab League's own initiative to bring about a peaceful, Syrian-led political resolution to this crisis. Despite all the compromises on the text, China and Russia still rejected this regional peace initiative. The Arab solution was not supported.

China and Russia now must explain to the people of Syria and to the international community their alternative plans for ending the violence in that country. Under the emerging doctrine of international humanitarian law, the international community has a responsibility to act to protect the people of Syria from this appalling violence from their own regime. Just as the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and many other regional countries have now found new freedoms from more representative, democratic political life, so the Syrian people deserve the same opportunity. Freedom is a universal human aspiration. Under both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all members of the human family have basic human rights that must be protected: freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; freedom of expression; the right to self-determination; and the inherent right to life.

President Assad has lost all legitimacy and has shown a complete disregard for the rights and welfare of the Syrian people. Assad should step down and he should step down now. The violence by the Assad regime must end and it must end now. The Australian government has condemned the intolerable, intensifying human rights abuses in Syria from the beginning. For over half a year now we have urged the international community to act. We ourselves have taken our own steps:

We have imposed sanctions against the regime targeting 34 individuals and 13 entities.

We have imposed an arms embargo against the supply, sale or transfer to Syria of arms and related materiel.

We have called for the appointment of a UN Special Envoy on Syria.

Back in June last year, we were among the first states to provide dedicated funding to the International Committee of the Red Cross (at its specific request) to support the Syrian Red Crescent in providing support to people affected by the conflict.

We have co-sponsored resolutions on Syria in the UN Human Rights Council on four occasions.

We have called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

I have met with the Syrian National Council in Paris—the principal opposition group to the Assad regime—only a week or so ago.

The key question we now face is: where to from here? What options does the international community have given the UN Security Council has failed to respond to this crisis? There are two key points to be made here. Firstly, the Assad regime is doomed. Assad is isolated and has nowhere to go. The demise of the regime is only a matter of time and, tragically, of how many people will die in the process. Secondly, the UN Security Council's failure does not mean an end to international efforts to help the Syrian people. The Arab League has stood by the Syrian people and has shown great commitment and global leadership on this crisis. The Arab League and the people of Syria should know that they are not alone. Australia is united with our Arab, European and American partners in our commitment to do what we can to help.

Australian support for the efforts of the Arab League is unwavering. I therefore welcome calls by both our United States and EU partners to work with Arab partners to establish an international support group of like-minded countries to work in concert to support peaceful transition in Syria and the earliest end to the bloodshed. This would be a key mechanism for coordinating international assistance to the people of Syria, backing the diplomatic efforts of the Arab League, maintaining pressure on the Assad regime and of course ensuring this crisis remains on the agenda of the UN Security Council, despite the council's repeated failings.

Just last night I spoke to the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, on plans to work with the Arab League to set up such a body. Australia's ambassador to Qatar spoke this morning to the Qatari government, currently the chair of the Arab League, to underline Australian commitment to this initiative and to discuss how to build further international momentum for its formation. Over coming days I plan to speak to more of my counterparts, particularly those in the Arab world, to flesh out plans for this group and again to underline Australia's support as a responsible member of the international community.

Australia's commitment to the people of Syria remains resolute. Despite the failure of the UNSC to take action, the Australian government is committed to its own autonomous measures to pressure the Assad regime. Today I announce that we are taking further measures to underline this commitment. In addition to the sanctions we have already imposed on Syria, Australia will impose further autonomous financial sanctions and travel bans on 75 Syrian individuals and 27 entities not already listed by Australia. These measures are designed to hold those who have engaged in human rights abuses, including the use of violence against civilians, accountable for their actions.

The Australian government will continue to work with our partners in the international community to see what further measures can be taken to underline to Assad that he and his regime have no future. Meanwhile, we continue to consider what steps we can take to directly assist those suffering in the conflict now. We in Australia, as always, will play our part.

Australia has provided $3 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross to help alleviate the humanitarian situation currently faced by the Syrian people. Today, I am pleased to announce that Australia will provide a further $3 million to assist the work of the ICRC in Syria. This will help the ICRC's work with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to support those affected by the ongoing crisis by providing medical facilities and assistance. This funding provides nearly one-quarter of ICRC's current emergency appeal for $13.1 million.

The Australian government believes that the international community still has an important role to play in this crisis. Syria must remain on the agenda of the UN Security Council and we will continue to encourage this. Australia also looks forward to working with like-minded states on a possible resolution on Syria for consideration by the UN General Assembly. Such a resolution would be a critical demonstration of the international community's condemnation of the massacres that we have seen unfold in Syria in recent times.

The Australian government firmly believes that those committing acts of violence, human rights abuses and war crimes must be held accountable for their actions and that the Syrian people, like the other peoples of the Arab world, should enjoy the political freedoms which we in Australia take so readily for granted.

I seek leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Curtin to speak for 8½ minutes.

Leave granted.

Mr RUDD: I move:

That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent Ms J. I. Bishop (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) speaking in reply to the ministerial statement for a period not exceeding 8½ minutes.

Question agreed to.