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Thursday, 6 September 1984
Page: 520

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(10.11) —I table the Government 's response to the Joint Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee report on regional conflict and super-power rivalry in the Horn of Africa. I seek leave to make a statement which was also made by the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) in the House of Representatives yesterday.

Leave granted.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I seek leave to have the text of the statement incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows-

I would like to take this opportunity to comment upon the Report of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence on Regional Conflict and Superpower Rivalry in the Horn of Africa, which was tabled in this House on 29 May 1984. The Government is indebted to the Joint Committee for the concise way in which it has canvassed the many complicated problems which beset the countries of the Horn. This Report will serve as an extremely valuable reference work for members of the Parliament, researchers and political analysts. It reflects a further result of the Committee's visit to and deliberations upon this important area of the world.

Situated on the Indian Ocean, and more importantly at the entrance to the Red Sea, the countries of the Horn-Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti-command some of the world's busiest sea lanes. This strategic significance ensures that the major world powers take a close interest in the region, and in recent years the Horn has become yet another arena of East-West confrontation. Australia, as a nation dependent on international trade, shares a Western interest in the fate of this region, a fact which has perhaps been overlooked in previous years. The attention of the JFADC has done much to redress that situation.

There is a high level of Australian community interest in Ethiopia. This owes much to the suffering caused both by the recurrent drought which has beset that country in recent years, and by the conflict in Eritrea. The Eritrea conflict ( to which the Joint Committee has devoted a full chapter of its Report) is one of the longest standing on the African continent. It has significantly de- stabilised Ethiopia, and indirectly other parts of the Horn. The Eritrean conflict has contributed in a major way to the intervention of the major powers in the region. The root of the Eritrean situation lies in the claim of the Eritrean people to exercise their right to self-determination, including the possibility of forming an independent State. The Committee-in my view, correctly -has refrained from drawing any firm conclusions as to the validity of the claims of the contending parties. This approach also conforms to that which Australian Governments have taken to the Eritrean issue.

At various times calls have been made for Australia to raise the Eritrean issue in the United Nations and other international forums. Such calls have been resisted mainly because the nations of Africa, which are better placed to respond to this African problem, have not publicly recognised Eritrea's claims to self-determination. Until such time as the issue is recognised by the Organisation of African Unity as an international matter, and not an internal Ethiopian problem, Australia should not, I believe, take a stand in relation to the dispute.

In the area of human rights, however, Australia and other like-minded countries have a legitimate interest in the Eritrean situation. The Joint Committee, in paragraph 4.99 of its Report, concluded that there was sufficient evidence of violations of human rights in Eritrea for Australia to seek explanations from the Ethiopian Government. The allegations made about such violations consisted mainly of claims that the Ethiopian armed forces have used chemical weapons, including nerve and poison gas, as well as napalm and inhumane weapons indiscriminately in Eritrea, and that substantial elements of the civilian population have been affected.

The Government is concerned at any report of the use of chemical weapons and has strongly supported measures to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations to investigate allegations of their use. The Government also attaches a high priority to the early conclusion of a comprehensive convention to ban the production, stockpiling and use of all chemical weapons. We are working actively for this objective in the Conference on Disarmament.

The Government has therefore investigated carefully the allegations contained in the Committee's Report. Inquiries have been made of other Western Governments , with the Eritrean Relief Committee and the advice of the Australian High Commission in Nairobi has been sought. These inquiries have, however, failed to produce any independent corroboration of the reports. Allegations of the use of chemical and inhumane weapons in Eritrea are not new, and most of those in the Joint Committee Report appear to relate to incidents which are at least two years old. Information available to the Government indicates that while there is some evidence that weapons such as fragmentation bombs have been used in Eritrea , over the last few years there has been an overall improvement in the human rights situation in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, the Government has seen fit to express to the Ethiopian Government, through our Ambassador, the Australian Government's concern with reports of human rights violations in Ethiopia, with specific reference to the allegations contained in the Joint Committee's Report. Our Ambassador also reiterated the Government's strong support for the early conclusion of a comprehensive chemical weapons convention.

The response of the Ethiopian Government was to deny the allegations made in the Report and to affirm Ethiopia's support for a comprehensive convention to outlaw chemical weapons. The Ethiopians also claim that they have never used napalm in Eritrea.

The Joint Committee Report also considered Somalia's claims to parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, another issue causing confrontation and tension in the Horn. The Report points out that Somali claims and their consequent invasion of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia in 1977 led directly to the large-scale intervention of the Soviet Union and Cuba, and to Ethiopia's hardening against the West, especially the United States. It also led Somalia to break off relations with the Soviets, depriving the latter of naval facilities, which were then made available to the United States. The Joint Committee's Report goes into this problem in some detail. While again reaching no firm conclusion as to the merits of the competing claims, the Report nonetheless underlines the implications that disputes such as these have for the international balance of power. It also demonstrates clearly the fragility of the power balances in the Horn of Africa.

As with Ethiopia, Australia enjoys cordial relations with Somalia. The Australian High Commission in Nairobi has reporting responsibilities for Somalia and sends officers to visit Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and other parts of the country on a regular basis. Honourable Members may be aware that the Somali Foreign Minister, Dr Abdirahman Jama Barre, has just visited Australia as a guest of the Government. The visit provided an opportunity to focus on developments in this important region. The Australian Government was also able to take the opportunity to make clear to the Somali Government that Australia sincerely hopes that the problems of the region will be solved by peaceful means , and preferably in the context of an agreement among the countries concerned.

The Joint Committee's Report on Australia's Diplomatic Representation in Africa (of December 1983), recommended that Australia open a resident mission in Addis Ababa. The Government has carefully considered this recommendation. It has been decided that it would be in keeping with Australia's interests in this region, and with our intention to focus Australia's foreign policy more toward the Indian Ocean and East Africa, to establish a small resident mission in Addis Ababa.

An Embassy in Ethiopia will provide Australia with a direct channel of communication with the Ethiopian Government and our first resident diplomatic presence in this part of the world. The Embassy will further serve as a point of contact with the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, both of which have their headquarters in Addis Ababa. As is the case in many areas of government, workloads and priorities vary over a period of time. It is a normal function of the management of a Foreign Service to review the activities of overseas missions in terms of relative priorities and performance, with a view to ensuring that maximum benefit is derived from the financial and personnel resources that are available. I have to say that the opening of a mission in Addis Ababa can only be achieved through the redeployment of existing resources within Australia's diplomatic network.

In conclusion, Mr Speaker, I would like once again to express my own congratulations to the Joint Committee as well as the appreciation of the Government for its significant contribution to a clearer understanding of the problems besetting the Horn of Africa. Although the overall impact of the Report on the Horn is not optimistic of quick solutions, it is important to Australia to have a better understanding of this significant region of Africa.