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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 8793


Senator HARRIS (12:55 PM) —I am very well aware at this point in time that we have service personnel, Australian defence forces, in East Timor, and I very clearly understand that the jurisdiction that they serve under comes under four different areas: Australian domestic law for civilians, domestic law for the theatre of deployment, international law and the Defence Force Discipline Act. So there are clearly procedures in place now in respect of unmilitary conduct by our Defence Force personnel.

Again, I clearly intimate that the intention of this amendment is not, as the minister has inferred, in any way to imply that Australian Defence Force personnel have in actuality carried out any war crimes. However, if we go back to the history in relation to this War Crimes Amendment Bill 1999 , there have been issues raised in both houses regarding defence personnel who served Australia during World War II. The reason that the bill only refers to a certain group of Australian personnel is the time line in actuality that the bill refers to. So the time is a function of the bill itself.

Another aspect of this whole situation is that I believe that in Australia we need to protect the sovereign rights of the Australian people. In Australia we are clearly innocent until we are proven guilty. The government's proposal to remove section 22 from the War Crimes Act will remove the necessity for a person to prove in an Australian court of law that there is a prima facie case against Australian Defence Force personnel. That is in the light of doing two things: first, retaining our right to be innocent until proven guilty; and, second, supporting our defence personnel who have served their country.

We, as well as the minister, have spoken with the President of the RSL, and initially it is my understanding that he was not aware that the government was going to pass this amendment bill that had the possibility to impact on RSL servicemen. Obviously from the minister's comments, the government has subsequently been in touch with the RSL and, accepting the minister's reply, the RSL has accepted the explanation of the government. I do not doubt that in any way.

I reiterate that the purpose is to protect our returned servicemen and also to maintain in Australia that we have the right to consider ourselves innocent until we are proven guilty. There is an example of that just recently: it was very explicitly shown in the international courts, when the two Australian CARE workers were faced with the problem, that they were guilty until they proved their innocence; and we all know the protracted situation. It took an enormous amount of work on behalf of the Australian government to secure their release.

In commending the amendment to the chamber, I clearly reiterate that we are not about protecting any war criminals who are living in Australia. What we are about is ensuring that our Defence Force personnel have the protection of being innocent until they are proven guilty and, in essence, have somebody who would wish to extradite them come to this country and prove a prima facie case.

Amendment not agreed to.

Bill agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment; report adopted.