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STANDING COMMITTEE ON PETITIONS - 27/05/2009 - Petitions presented up to 19 March 2009

CHAIR —Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to speak under oath, you should understand that this meeting is a formal proceedings of the parliament. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament.

We have a number of petitions before us today, as you would be aware. We might take each one and other members can follow on with questions. I want to go to a petition about the murder of an Australian citizen, Mr Renerio Arrogante, in the Philippines. The response from the minister is dated 10 October. Is the department able to provide any further advice to the principal petitioner and petitioners with regard to the investigation of Mr Arrogante’s murder? Have there been any developments on which the department is able to comment?

Mr Choi —Certainly. Our embassy in Manila has been monitoring the case very closely. Just as a start, given that this is a criminal investigation in the Philippines, we have no ability to intervene or to influence proceedings, just as we would not appreciate other countries commenting on our own judicial processes. But our embassy has been monitoring developments very closely.

As soon as we had heard about the murder, on 28 March 2008 our embassy had written to the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation seeking an update on the progress of investigations. We have continued to monitor developments in the case. Most recently our embassy wrote to the National Bureau of Investigation again on 15 May 2009 seeking an update. We understand that the alleged gunman behind the incident has been arrested. The trial has not yet proceeded. The Arrogante family has requested of Philippines authorities that the case be transferred to Cebu City courts. At the moment it is being considered in Bogo City courts. As a result of that petition, I understand that petition is being considered but the trial has not yet proceeded.

CHAIR —Because of the family’s request to have it transferred?

Mr Choi —To Cebu City jurisdiction.

CHAIR —Is there any indication of when that might be decided or heard?

Mr Choi —No, we do not know at this stage. I understand that there are two separate proceedings. One is the criminal prosecution and, as I said, the family’s petition is being considered by the Philippines authorities. A separate and civil case on the charges of illegal firearms is being considered. That initial hearing is being heard on 1 July 2009.

CHAIR —Could you advise the petitioners what sort of support you are giving the family in keeping them up to date?

Mr Choi —Yes. Obviously that is part of our consular role. We have attempted to contact the family both in the Philippines but also here in Australia. We tried to contact the next of kin here in Australia on 22 January, providing a letter updating our efforts to provide further details on the case. We have written to Mrs Arrogante via family contact but she has not returned our correspondence. Likewise, our embassy in Manilla has been trying to contact the family to provide them with updates but they have not responded. So we stand ready to provide assistance and we have offered that, to provide them with updates, but they have not returned our correspondence.

CHAIR —Are there any further questions on this petition? Mr Adams.

Mr ADAMS —Have you made physical contact with this woman? She may not read English, she may not—

Mr Choi —The family has called in to consular operations. We have followed up but they have not responded. We have made extensive efforts and they know that we stand ready to provide consular assistance as required.

Mr ADAMS —Has there been much improvement in the Philippines human rights record? Where do they sit on the measuring stick these days?

Mr Choi —Sorry, I do not think I am in a position to respond to that because I work on consular operations. I work on the individual cases as opposed to the political situation in the Philippines.

Mr ADAMS —Is there anybody with an overview?

Mr Trappett —I could comment on that. I take it more than anything you are referring to extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

Mr ADAMS —In my motivation, I went there many years ago and it was on the agenda then when they went to a more democratic process. They had a commission for human rights; they really worked at it. I was just wondering where it got to.

Mr Trappett —From around about 2001 to 2006 extrajudicial killings in the Philippines were very prominent and attracted the attention of the international community, including Australia. Since late 2006 they have declined considerably. I think it is fair to say that that is acknowledged by the international community and human rights groups as well. There are still some instances of egregious acts. There is a lot of dispute about the overall statistics on EJKs. But there has been an improvement. The government continues to raise EJKs, however, at ministerial level.

Mr BROADBENT —How do we go about generally keeping good relationships with the police entity in other countries? How do we do that? We have no rights whatsoever to be involved.

Mr Choi —You are absolutely right. We are not able to influence judicial processes. What we do though is simply register our interest in the case and request that local authorities undertake thorough investigations according to their usual processes. So it is literally simply based on our good relations that we build with counterparts in both the police but also Attorney-Generals and our counterparts in foreign affairs ministries.

Mr BROADBENT —Do we have a reasonably good name in that process?

Mr Choi —Yes, we do. It is not just with Foreign Affairs; we also have AFP liaison officers in country as well that do assist on a case-by-case basis in requesting the assistance of local authorities.

Mr BROADBENT —Are they generally well received by their hosts?

Mr Choi —Yes, they are. Certainly in this case we are.

Mr BROADBENT —I was not referring particularly to this case. Overall our position in the world is very important to this nation. When we are dealing with citizens, I just wondered about the effort. We obviously put a lot of effort into keeping very good relations, as best we possibly can, with agencies such as you are dealing with in this case.

Mr Choi —Yes, most definitely. It is a high priority for us, especially in consular cases, to ensure that we have those good relations. Again, we cannot influence these cases but we do draw on our capital and our good relations to ask for local assistance.

Mr BROADBENT —The reason I ask this line of questioning is that it is very important for the Australian people to know that this nation puts a lot of work into our relationships that are not public relationships but relationships with other countries at all levels. It makes it very important that we are able to act in concert with our neighbours when we need each other.

Mr Choi —I think it is one of our highest priorities—to build good relations so that we have those links to draw on when required, such as in this case.

Mr ADAMS —And we will monitor this case right through?

Mr Choi —Certainly.

Mr SIMPKINS —When you said that the family had asked for the case to be transferred to a different court, did you say they wanted it transferred to Cebu?

Mr Choi —That is right.

Mr SIMPKINS —I just find it interesting because part of the petition cast doubt on the Cebu City police—it looks like they have a great doubt as to whether Cebu City police would properly investigate or be involved in this matter.

Mr Choi —Mr Simpkins, I do not know the motivations of the family but certainly that is the petition that they have put forward.

CHAIR —We will go to a petition that is before us regarding human rights in Sri Lanka dated 23 September 2008. Since that petition was tabled and the response of the minister of 2008 we have received several petitions regarding the situation in Sri Lanka. Given the recent developments in Sri Lanka and the recent statements by Stephen Smith, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in the House, is the department able to provide a short statement outlining the current position of the Australian government on this issue? The principal petitioner and the petitioners have not only signed this particular petition but others as well.

Mr Holly —The situation now in Sri Lanka is that the government has declared that they have defeated the LTTE in their battle and that they have concluded their military campaign. The priorities now for the international community, Australia and Sri Lanka are to ensure that the civilians that have escaped the conflict area are treated for and cared for in an appropriate way in displaced persons camps, that there is early resettlement of the civilians back into the areas that they have been driven out of because of the conflict in northern Sri Lanka and that the Sri Lankan government starts a process of political reform. These are the key elements that we need to go through and they were the key points that Minister Smith made in his statement to parliament on 12 May.

The key issue at the moment is looking at the humanitarian situation. The Australian government has provided $23.5 million in humanitarian support since December 2008. It is quite a sizeable sum of money and really reflects the dire needs of the people in the particular area. We are also encouraging the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the UN and other international NGOs are able to get easy access into the area to ensure that aid and other relief can be delivered to the people there.

We are also looking more generally to try to see whether the early resettlement of civilians can take place, and the Sri Lankan government has committed itself to resettle over 80 per cent of the civilians by the end of this year. It will need help in doing so because many of the villages that people are from have been mined and need to be demined, and there will be a need, because of the conflict, to rebuild many of the villages that have been affected during the conflict.

In terms of the need to ensure that the Sri Lankan government starts a process of political reform, Minister Smith has said that in the moment of this military victory the Sri Lankan government ‘must show the humanity and self-interest to win the peace’ of the people. In that respect, we need to ensure that there is a political solution that meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of all Sri Lankans, and that process is very important to start with.

CHAIR —You mentioned in your statement the United Nations and other NGOs. Are you aware of whether any of them have been able to get access at this stage?

Mr Holly —They have been able to get access to some of the camps, but their level of access has been restricted in some areas as well. For example, the United Nations has indicated that it would like to be able to get into the last area of conflict because it is concerned that there are still civilians who have not been able to get access to aid and other medical facilities. There has been some denial of access or restriction of access by the Sri Lankan government as the Sri Lankan government goes through a process of determining whether people who are within the camps are LTTE members or in fact civilians. Until that process is sorted out, the Sri Lankan government is also limiting the access for some of these donors. Of course, the Australian government has been encouraging the Sri Lankan government, along with the international community, to ensure that that aid gets to the people as quickly as possible and that the United Nations is able to get in as quickly as possible.

CHAIR —Are there any further questions on this petition?

Ms VAMVAKINOU —I have a couple of questions on the issue of the Sri Lankan government’s reasons for denying access on the basis that they want to sift through who the Tigers are and who the civilians are. Are we aware of how they are making those distinctions, and are we satisfied that they have a system where they are able to process what they want to do in time to allow the UN to then move in and help the civilians? Is there an issue there?

The second question I have is this. Obviously, we have a very large Sri Lankan community in Australia and this issue affects them. Obviously we see it in Australian constituencies. In my own constituency, I have both groups. The Sinhalese tell me that they are very keen for reconciliation. It is important in our community that we manage a process that can become difficult. We have seen aspects of it, albeit isolated cases, but I know there is a big issue about the Tamil flag, and I know we get petitioned about that. It is an equally difficult time for us in Australia who have the large Sri Lankan communities as it is, I guess, in Sri Lanka. How they manage their reconciliation is one thing, but are we thinking about how we might want to approach that issue here?

Mr Holly —Thank you very much for both those questions. In relation to how the Sri Lankan government is going about the process of determining which individuals may be with the LTTE and which are civilians, I am not aware of the details of that. We would like to be able to get more information by allowing bodies like the United Nations and others to get access to the camps so that we can have more information in relation to that. I am not able to inform the committee any more.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —I understand. I did not think we would.

Mr Holly —In terms of the community here in Australia, you are quite correct: it is a divided community. This committee has received two petitions. One we are considering today concerns the plight of the Tamils. There is another petition that has been received, after 19 March, which talks about the atrocities that the LTTE are committing. I think that is just representative of the fact that the community here is divided, and we have seen in Sydney just recently some atrocities and attacks that perhaps are an expression of that division. As the minister has said in his statement in parliament, there is a need for the Sri Lankan community to unite and also to work at this time of the finalisation of conflict to mend any wounds that have occurred. We hope that the Sri Lankan government will take a strong leadership role in its process of—for want of a better term—reconciliation, and we hope that that will also be a cue for the domestic population, the diaspora here in Australia, to heed and work forward to ensure that we do not have any more violence within Australia.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —But beyond the call, I guess, DFAT itself is not involved in any practical measures at all or networking in any way where it would be a bit more proactive about bringing some of those groupings together?

Mr Holly —We meet very regularly with Tamil groupings and also Sinhalese groupings here. Most recently, for example, I met with a group of protesters who were representative of 3,000 protesters at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I met with three of the hunger strikers at that time. They conveyed particular messages to me. And of course we have other, not quite so public, meetings as well with groupings to understand both the situation in Sri Lanka and the concerns of the community here.

CHAIR —Considering the time, I think I can take one more question. We have a number of other petitions.

Mr CHESTER —How does the access issue affect the reliability of the information you are getting, and where are people sourcing their information? Are we confident that they are getting accurate information about the situation over there? Are you confident about the information you are receiving on the ground?

Mr Holly —The situation is very fluid. We are reasonably confident with the information we have received. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has just visited Sri Lanka—he was there on the 22nd and 23rd, I think it was—so we have a very good picture from his visit as to what the situation is. He has confirmed the need for a continuing focus on humanitarian assistance to the people there and for the camps to continue to have their facilities upgraded to ensure that the overcrowding situation does not continue. What we would like to do and what we have been doing with the international community is calling for additional access to those camps and to everyone who has been affected so that we can get a more comprehensive picture, but, as you can imagine, the developments over the last couple of weeks have been very significant and the information we are getting is fluid. But, through the international organisations, we are hoping that the information that we have is as accurate as possible.

CHAIR —We will now go to a petition concerning a social security agreement between Australia and the Philippines. We have not received a response from the minister—although, because we have received a response from Minister Macklin, I presume that a response from Minister Smith is therefore not necessary. But I would like to put on the record that the committee are very happy with the prompt response that we get from the department to a lot of our petitions. I am just wondering, since we do not have a formal response to this petition, whether we will be receiving one at a later date, or could we just go to questions now regarding it?

Mr Trappett —Chair, do you mean a response from Minister Smith?

CHAIR —Yes.

Mr Trappett —It is my understanding that one will not be forthcoming.

CHAIR —Because of the response from Minister Macklin?

Mr Trappett —Yes, that is right.

CHAIR —Fine. I will just go to a straightforward question then. Is the department aware of whether in this case there is a social security agreement planned between Australia and the Philippines?

Mr Trappett —The answer to that is that at this stage it is not planned to negotiate one. In November last year DFAT received FaHCSIA’s international strategy for 2008-2010. The Philippines was not listed as a priority in that strategy. I note that FaHCSIA officials testified before your committee in February. My reading of that was that they thought that a meeting between Philippine officials and them in November, I think it was, was more a sort of information exchange than a formal approach. This might be re-entered in FaHCSIA’s next forward international strategy, but at this stage it is not listed as a priority to negotiate a particular agreement.

CHAIR —Are there any further questions on this petition?

Mr SIMPKINS —Are we not doing whales?

CHAIR —Have you got a question on that?

Mr SIMPKINS —No, I thought we were covering it.

CHAIR —I do not think we have had a response to that petition yet. I am watching the time. We have the department in here quite often. We could go back to the petition that is before us, but we have still got a few here. We will go to Iraqi Christians. The Minister for Foreign Affairs stated on page 1 of his response to a question in writing:

On 19 December 2008 I announced the Australian Government would provide $1 million to assist Christian and other minority groups in Ninewa Province ...

Is the department able to provide any update on the expenditure of this money and advise on any observations of the situation there?

Mr Hawkins —Yes, Madam Chair. I will take your second question first. The Australian government continues to be concerned about the persecution of minority groups in Iraq, including Christians. Although the security situation has improved significantly, there continues to be instances of violence against Christians by extremist groups in Iraq. The Australian government continues to urge the Iraqi government to do all it can to protect the human rights of all Iraqis, including Iraqi Christians. Since the petition, during a meeting with his counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, on 12 March, Foreign Minister Smith raised concerns about the situation of Syrian Christians specifically. We continue to monitor the human rights situation in Iraq and we have instructed our embassy to make representations on human rights issues at every opportunity.

On 7 April this year our ambassador in Baghdad discussed human rights issues with the Iraqi Minister of Human Rights, Ms Wijdan Salim, who I note is also a Christian. Also, this year the embassy staff have discussed the treatment of minority groups with the Human Rights Committee of Iraq’s Council of Representatives, their parliament, and on 25 May Foreign Minister Smith met representatives of the Assyrian Universal Alliance. We are continuing to monitor the situation there very closely, but I would also note that the Iraqi constitution guarantees the rights of minority groups including Christians. In November 2008 the Iraqi Council of Representatives approved an amendment to the electoral law reserving parliamentary representation for minority groups including Christians, and in April this year Vice President Al-Mahdi called on Christians to stay in Iraq and acknowledged the responsibility of the government to look after Christians.

As to how the spending has proceeded, we have a brief provided by AusAID on how the money was disbursed. Half a million dollars was granted to the International Medical Corps and this was used to rehabilitate three schools in a district to which 2,000 families had fled. This particular district had a large proportion of Christians. Of course this assistance is not only for Christians. It also covers a large majority of Christians who fled Mosul in October 2008. Another $500,000 was disbursed by UNHCR for 4,000 families in Ninewa, which included about 2,000 Christians. Half of those families were Christian families who had fled sectarian violence. We can ask AusAID to provide more details on that if you wish.

CHAIR —If you could do that, it would be appreciated by the petitioners.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —I have one quick question. On the issue of human rights and Assyrian Christians in Iraq, obviously on the constitution front they are guaranteed rights that we would find acceptable, so how much of it is an issue of a struggle for self-determination by the Assyrian Christians within their own geographical region? I am just trying to work out where the emphasis is greater.

Mr Hawkins —We are aware that the Assyrian Christians have called for an autonomous region in the north of Iraq. This was a matter raised with Foreign Minister Smith, but ultimately this is a matter for the Iraqi government. Australia supports the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq as reaffirmed by the UN Security Council resolution. Within the Iraqi constitution the Kurds have a region, and so it is really up to the Christians to work within the Iraqi system if they wish to take that wish for autonomy forward.

CHAIR —I am going to refer to a petition from the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils—it called for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip—and the minister’s reply of 1 April. I note also a similar petition entitled ‘Stop the war on Gaza’ arrived just as the ministerial response to the earlier petition was received by this committee. I am just wondering if the department can advise on recent developments in Gaza and the current diplomatic position of the Australian government.

Ms Faulkner —So you are asking for an update on the situation in Gaza—

CHAIR —Yes—and the current diplomatic position.

Ms Faulkner —and the position of the Australian government? Okay. In terms of the situation in Gaza, the committee may be aware that unilateral ceasefires were declared by both the Palestinians and Israel around 18 January and that effectively those ceasefires have held. There have been some intermittent acts of violence since that time, but there has been a radical diminishing of violence since the December-January conflict and of course the rocket attacks that occurred in the second half of last year in particular.

In terms of the humanitarian situation, I do have here an update of the really important question of humanitarian access. The source of that is the May report of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. As the committee will be aware, the humanitarian situation of the people of the Gaza Strip has been a major preoccupation. The amount of humanitarian and non-humanitarian goods flowing into the strip have improved. It has improved since before the conflict. The statistic that may help is that 682 truckloads of goods entered into Gaza between 10 and 16 May as well as some shipments of industrial fuel. By way of comparison, in November last, prior to the conflict, there were on average 23 trucks a day that were entering Gaza. The UN and aid agencies are still reporting critical shortages of some items. In that, they cite clothing, schoolbooks, agricultural produce and some basic building materials. So obviously what is highly desirable in this situation is a sustained reopening of border crossings.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions on this petition and we have five minutes, I think we might go back to whaling—that sounds good, doesn’t it! As you are aware, we have a petition here concerning whaling. The minister wrote back to the committee on 16 October. The response we received from the minister was very comprehensive, and we thank him and the department for that. I wonder whether the department would like to advise of any changes in any of the policies outlined in the letter, given that it was written in October 2008.

Dr Adler —I will give you an overview of where our policy is at the moment. We remain resolute in our opposition to commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling, and we are pursuing all avenues for a diplomatic solution to this problem in the International Whaling Commission, with the end objective being an end to scientific whaling. Mr Smith has had a number of discussions with Japanese ministers over the last year, and the government, both at the level of officials and at the political level, is continuing ongoing dialogue with the Japanese. As I mentioned earlier, we are continuing to push strongly for an end to scientific whaling in ongoing talks on the future of the IWC, and we are very much taking the position that the IWC needs to take a modern approach to oceans management and focus on conservation issues associated with whale stocks.

The government has committed over $32 million in measures over six years to create the world’s largest international non-lethal whale research program, and this includes $6 million this financial year to kick-start non-lethal whale research and scientific partnerships with other countries, beginning in the Southern Ocean. Mr Garrett and Mr Smith have also appointed Mr Sandy Hollway AO as Australia’s Special Envoy for Whale Conservation. He has been the envoy since early October 2008. Mr Hollway has been deepening our dialogue with leaders in Japan and other countries to help find a diplomatic solution to the problem of whaling. That is in a nutshell where we are up to at the moment.

CHAIR —We do appreciate that.

Mr ADAMS —In regard to our obligations of safety at sea, international conventions et cetera, have there been any issues about the incident that occurred in the Southern Ocean some time ago in relation to one ship hitting another ship? My motivation on this is that working people have a right to some protection. I am concerned that this incident took place, endangering people’s lives. Has anything been lodged with the Australian government in relation to that? I know we do not let whaling ships into our ports unless there is an emergency situation.

Dr Adler —I will ask Dr Greg French to answer that question.

Dr French —The Australian government has consistently said—and Mr Smith is on the record as stating—that all vessels in that area, whether associated with whaling or otherwise, should act in accordance with their international legal obligations to ensure safety of life at sea, particularly in accordance with the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, as well as customary international law. In all of our communications, whether directly or publicly, we have been emphasising that we see it as paramount to ensure that human life is protected and that any parties to the dispute, irrespective of their views or their role, respect the international norms which govern safety of life at sea.

Mr SIMPKINS —I would just like to know what your feelings are about the next IWC session and how the numbers are going for the right side of the argument.

Dr French —I might defer again—

CHAIR —You might want to take that notice, because that is not really to do with the petition that is before us today.

Mr SIMPKINS —It sounds like there is still a comment, though, Chair!

CHAIR —We are out of time. That is not relevant to the petition before us. I would like to thank everyone for their participation today. The commitment of government departments to the work of the committee and thus to the work of the House is really appreciated. I also want to thank the secretariat staff, who do a fantastic job with the petitions committee, and Hansard. Thank you very much.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Simpkins):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 11.44 am