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Doorstop interview of Senator Robert Hill, Minister for Defence at the Regional Special Forces Conference: Bowral, NSW: 17 June 2004.



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SENATOR ROBERT HILL

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE

DOORSTOP INTERVIEW

Regional Special Forces Conference Bowral, NSW

Thursday, 17 June 2004

E&oe_______________________________________________counter terrorism and

Iraq

Senator Robert Hill

I’d just like to say something about the conference. That is that I really do think that this is an important initiative. For the first time ever that we’ve been able to bring together counter terrorism forces from fourteen countries within

the region to discuss their experiences, how they’re tackling the problem of terrorism within their own states. The only way to effectively combat today’s terrorism is through cooperation and the forces better at the sharp end of defeating this threat have not necessarily had a close relationship in the past. But it’s very important that they know each other, have confidence in each other so that if an event does occur that requires a cooperative response, they won’t be starting from scratch. So I commend the department for its initiative in bringing these people together today. I gather that from the last couple of days, I gather that they all believe - I had a chance to speak to them all - they all believe it’s been constructive and worthwhile and they will go home with different and new perspectives but in particular a better knowledge of each other, greater confidence in each other which is really its purpose.

Journalist:

Inaudible.

Senator Hill:

No we have as you know, we have bilateral exercises with a number of states. We’ve got one coming up in Thailand. We also exercise with the Philippines. We announced a week ago that we were extending the exercise program under the Five Powers Arrangement to include a counter terrorism scenario. So it’s a step in confidence building and basically learning the capacities, the capabilities of each other and being able to jointly respond if it proves to be necessary.

Journalist:

Are we close to resuming counter terrorism training with Kopassus?

Senator Hill:

Well Kopassus is represented at this conference through its Unit 81 which is its primary counter terrorism capability because we believe that’s in Australia’s security interests. If there was - one can imagine a terrorist scenario in Indonesia where that unit is called upon to respond and in those circumstances we believe it’s very important that our Special Forces know who’s responding, know their capability and can be able to offer assistance. It might be in

intelligence, to assist them in their task.

Journalist:

How far up the chain in command Senator, did the information about the Abu Ghraib behaviour go within the Australian Military and has anybody been disciplined for not passing it up to you?

Senator Hill:

Well when you say - the abuses that - the criminal abuses that have been subject to prosecution nobody knew until the allegations - the allegations were made public in January when the US said it was investigating matters and then of course at the end of April, early May the photographs came out and prosecutions were launched. So nobody knew of those. In relation to the more general work that was being done with the ICRC over the last year or so, that was, our contact was through legal personnel who either working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is in effect the defacto. So there was - the work- they were facilitating that, correct responses were being made to the reports and therefore there was no need for it to flow up the chain to government, they facilitated some of those meetings with the ICRC or lawyers who were working for the joint command and again they supported the work of the Red Cross the highest levels of Defence. Basically we need to know when something is not being appropriately addressed. If it’s being addressed appropriately then there isn’t the same need.

Journalist:

So there wasn’t a problem that if it didn’t get to your office and then consequently the Prime Ministers?

Senator Hill:

I don’t - you can look back and say in some ways it would have been useful to have some further information, say with the working paper of the Red Cross in February. But it was never delivered to Australia because we weren’t a party to whom it was directed. It wasn’t, and the final report, that’s the October working party paper and the final report of February wasn’t delivered to Australia either. And we still can’t get an official copy from Red Cross because they say that it’s not directed to us, it’s directed to the occupying powers which are the United Kingdom and the US and also to the defacto government as it was in Iraq.

Journalist:

(Inaudible)… hasn’t this been a public disaster for the Coalition?

Senator Hill:

Well the criminal abuses are appalling. There’s no doubt about that and they have certainly been counter productive to the efforts of the Coalition because what we’re doing in part in Iraq is bringing, is taking to Iraq the rule of law, showing the Iraqi people that there is a better way to live. And so in those terms it’s been very counter productive. There’s no double about that at all. But the thing is as soon as the allegations were made back in January, the US immediately launched an investigation. They were allegations against US personnel. They launched investigations, they announced publicly that they launched the investigation and it’s lead to prosecution. So at east we are demonstrating to the Iraqi people that when criminal abuses do occur, and sadly they occur in states that do believe in the rule of law, they will be appropriately responded to.

Journalist:

Criminal abuses aside, when do you believe you first were told that something was not quite right at Abu Ghraib?

Senator Hill:

Well the first - I said in early May when the photographs came out was the first time that I’d ever heard or seen of that sort of, those sort of abuses. And I think it was the first time any of us had seen it. There’s nobody in the ADF that knew more then the broader Australian public knew. So you can go right back over the last year and now we can reflect upon Amnesty International Reports and other reports that were saying that the detention arrangements were not good enough. They were made public, so the public, the international community was aware that there were criticism of detention practices, but I’m not really surprised by that. When you look back at the environment at the end of the major combat phase, fighting was still going on, there were large numbers of prisons, there weren’t really proper facilities for holding them according to the standards that we would like to see. So the fact that international agencies were saying this is not good enough doesn’t surprise me at all. But if you look at the scenario of responses you will see efforts to improve and in fact gradual improvement. What spoilt that of course is the ultimate reality that there were certain criminal abuses. We still believe that that was by a limited number of individuals and in limited circumstances and that the correct response, that they be prosecuted for their crimes, has in fact happened.

Journalist:

So can I just recap. You don’t feel any need for heads to roll within the Australian Defence Forces for failing to pass the information on to your office?

Senator Hill:

No, because - what are you talking about? The Red Cross Reports weren’t ever delivered to Australia because they said it wasn’t our business. The Australians who were working within the system seem to have been working constructively and positively towards better conditions in relation to prisoners and that’s good to see. The criminal abuses that came to light, the allegations in January and the detail in May have been responded to correctly through criminal prosecution. So the only - that hasn’t been a concern to me. The only thing that was a concern to me was that the department didn’t know that a

copy of the October Working Paper, albeit through unofficial means, had come back to Australia. And that’s a fault, but I’ve got to measure one mistake against really excellent performance of the department in the last few years in terms of supporting our combat forces in Afghanistan, in the Gulf, in Iraq and in the Solomon Islands and on that basis I just want them to learn from that mistake.

Journalist:

Senator who’s to take responsibility for the fact that the Prime Minister through all of this mislead the Parliament?

Senator Hill:

I just talked about there was a mistake in that we said that we didn’t believe that we had the October Report and that was passed to the Prime Minister.

Journalist:

He’s expressed his displeasure?

Senator Hill:

In actual fact it wasn’t a report, it was a working paper. I think that was part of the confusion and we regret that wrong information was passed to the Prime Minister. It was passed to me and from me to the Prime Minister. We regret that obviously. That’s not good enough. One mistake mightn’t seem much over a space of time, but we would prefer there to be no mistakes.

Journalist:

Given your experience, we’ve heard calls today for Mr Downer to say what his department knew about abuses in Abu Ghraib prison. Given your experience should he do that? Do you think he should lay bare what he’s known and when?

Senator Hill:

Well we had his department before the Estimates Committee. I was the Minister representing him and I think that everything his department knew is on the public record. If there are further questions we’ll do our best to answer them.

Journalist:

The Opposition said that this is a white wash and you should be sacked. What’s your response?

Senator Hill:

Well I had 13 years in Opposition and I know what Opposition is all about. You call for an inquiry or you call for a resignation and sometimes you call for both.

ENDS