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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 222

Senator MacGIBBON —My question is directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. What is the political objective which justifies the present commitment of members of the Australian defence forces to Somalia? Has that political commitment been defined? Is it realistic? Is it attainable and, if it is attainable, what progress has been made since the withdrawal of the 1st Battalion, RAR on 10 January 1993, 17 weeks after it was committed?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The political commitment is, of course, to a UN operation. Each one of those operations, while it has to be judged on its merits, is judged by us in an international context rather than by reference to immediate Australian defence needs. We certainly do not apply any kind of regional check list of relevance or considerations of that kind. The basic commitment is to strengthen the UN system in appropriate cases by making contributions that we can make. That is the basis for our commitment there, just as it has been the basis for our commitment in Rwanda, MINURSO and other situations from time to time.

  The whole situation in Somalia is obviously under very close review at the moment. It is distressingly the case that there has not been any significant progress and, in fact, some deterioration in the political situation on the ground since about March this year. Up until then, there was quite a high level of optimism prevailing—which I certainly shared as a result of a visit I made a few weeks earlier—that Ali Mahdi, General Aydid and the rest of the people involved could find a way through the political impasse and create a government or some form of political process that could manage a peaceful transition.

  It is much less clear now that that objective will, in fact, be obtainable. As a result, some very hard thinking is going on in New York, among troop contributors and all of those who participated in the original decision—including the UN Security Council obviously—as to whether that commitment should be sustained, at what level and beyond what date.

  It is against that background that the continued Australian involvement will be measured. In the sense of being operationally crucial for the UN presence, only one significant component of the Australian force is there—the air traffic controllers. It may be, however, that even that element is capable of replacement with locals now, as a result of training that has been taking place over recent months. The decision that we make when it is made will be against that total background. I do not think I can add anything further.

Senator MacGIBBON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I am glad the minister conceded that the situation is deteriorating from what it was before. But it has been a fundamental principle that we do not commit military forces unless there is a realistic and attainable political settlement in sight on these sorts of operations. Why is the minister putting Australian lives on the line when there is apparently no chance of success or just a muddled game plan at the present time?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Whether that particular criterion is applied depends on the nature of the operation. That is an operational criterion more in the familiar traditional peacekeeping context than the humanitarian intervention context which was, of course, that which motivated us and took us and the rest of the international community into Somalia. A traditional peacekeeping operation is when you have a political agreement which is capable of implementation over some finite time and you are there to monitor, supervise and see its implementation. Conceptually, Senator MacGibbon is a bit off beam.

  Beyond that, the other answer is that, having made the commitment for a particular finite duration, it needs pretty extreme circumstances to make any country renege on that. Our name would not be worth much in the international community if we turned tail just because we made a different assessment as to the course of events that have unfolded since we made the original commitment. The Australian commitment was not open ended in character; it was time limited. In the context of that time limitation, we will be making an appropriate decision.