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Carlton Hotel, Brisbane: transcript of doorstop interview: UN changes to the Torture Convention, White Paper.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP

DOORSTOP TRANSCRIPT

DATE: 26 July 2002 VENUE: Carlton Hotel, Brisbane

TOPIC/S: UN Changes to the Torture Convention, White Paper

MR DOWNER: I am here to answer your questions, so you just fire away.

JOURNALIST: Why has your government decided to vote against the UN’s changes to the Torture Convention?

MR DOWNER: Well Australia ratified the Torture Convention some time ago in the 1980s, we have fully implemented our obligations under the Torture Convention. We don’t support an amendment to the Convention which would provide United Nations officials free access to Australian prisons without the permission of Australian State and Federal Authorities. If United Nations Officials want to visit Australian prisons, then I think it appropriate that they should first of all seek the approval of State and Federal Government’s before they do that.

JOURNALIST: Have we got something to hide?

MR DOWNER: Absolutely not. We are happy to have people come and visit our prison system, look at how our prison system works, and people do on many occasions. But I do think it’s appropriate bearing in mind the sensitivity of prisons that, um, if p, if ah, United Nations officials want to visit them, they should first of all seek the approval of the Federal and the relevant State government. I do think that that makes more sense. The reason why this amendment has been put forward without seeking seeking access to prisons without approval is of course, because of concern about torture, but I think I can comfortably say that there is no torture going on in Australian prisons and we have our own laws which ensure that doesn’t happen and of course we have obligations under the United Nations Conventions to ensure that we don’t go down that path. Anyway Australia would never do that.

JOURNALIST: Has the decision go anything to do with the detention centres?

MR DOWNER No it’s not related to the detention centres. We actually have allowed United Nations officials to visit the detention centres. We’ve allowed at least two groups of United Nations officials

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to visit our detention centres, but of course they’ve sought permission to come and do that and we’ve made arrangements for them. What we don’t want is a situation where, you know, officials from a whole range of different countries around the world under the flag of the United Nations can just wander into an Australian prison. They just land at Melbourne Airport and get a taxi to Pentridge and just walk into Pentridge. I think it would be… If they wish to go and visit Pentridge, it would be more appropriate if they first of all sought the approval of the Federal and the Victorian government’s to do that.

JOURNALIST: But isn’t that what they are doing everywhere? Isn’t that applying to all countries?

MR DOWNER: Well look, if this, lets not get carried away here. This is an amendment which has been proposed to a United Nations Convention. The amendment could be endorsed, it hasn’t been yet. The amendment is to be considered by the United Nations General Assembly. If it were to be endorsed by a majority of members of the United Nations General Assembly, then the amendment would be open for signature, so countries which wanted to adhere to its provisions, would then, would then obviously sign this what’s called additional protocol. In our case what we’ve said is we’re not so much opposed to looking at ways to improve the convention against torture. Obviously Australia is very much opposed to the whole notion of torture, but we did want a working group to examine how a consensus could better develop about how to draft this particular amendment and we were very much supported by the Japanese Government and we and Japan in the end moved an amendment at the Economic and Social Committee Hearing for this to be referred back to a working group and when it wasn’t and that amendment was defeated we voted against it in the Economic and Social Commission. We’ll have a look at the situation if and when it gets to the General Assembly and if it comes in to effect, this protocol, well then countries will decide, all of them will decide whether they want to sign up to it or whether they don’t.

JOURNALIST: I’ve been told that it was passed last night.

MR DOWNER: No. What has happened is, if I may say so, this is just a suggestion of the beat up here. What has happened is that a committee of the United Nations, call the Economic and Social Committee, passed a resolution in relation to this amendment, this additional protocol to the Convention Against Torture and that now will be referred to the United Nations General Assembly. If it’s then adopted by the United Nations General Assembly then it’s open for signature by countries that wish to sign up and ratify this particular amendment, but it hasn’t got to that stage yet.

JOURNALIST: Does it damage Australia’s international reputation?

MR DOWNER: Absolutely not. Australia is an incredibly well run country and sets very very high standards of human rights. This isn’t a country where people are being tortured in our prisons and I don’t think this is a country, I’m sure I speak on behalf of most Australians, but certainly not the parliamentary Labor Party, the federal parliamentary Labor Party, that honestly, we’re

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perfectly capable of running our own prisons without officials from the United Nations coming here without even our approval and just bursting into our prisons to see if we’re torturing people. We are not torturing people in our prisons and we’re perfectly capable of maintaining appropriate standards in our prisons ourselves.

JOURNALIST: Well if that’s the case why wont you let people in unannounced?

MR DOWNER: Well I’ve sought of explained that a few times, but we think that it’s entirely appropriate that we should manage our own prisons ourselves. We are happy for people who might have some particular interest in prisons systems to come and visit our prisons with appropriate approvals. But, you know, prisons are sensitive institutions and I think its appropriate if United Nations officials want to come and have a look at our prisons and see if we’re torturing people if they first of all make an appropriate appointment.

JOURNALIST: But that defeats the purpose.

JOURNALIST: Does that mean that other countries could follow that exact same line and use exactly that same principles?

MR DOWNER: Well yes it does, but I mean if a country didn’t want…. Let’s use a hypothetical example. If a country in its prison system was torturing people and it didn’t want the United Nations to know about this, well then they wouldn’t have to go along with the Convention. I mean, they can do what they like, they’re free to do what they like. How other countries these issues is a matter for them. Our position is this. Obviously, we are totally opposed to torture and nobody in Australia that I’ve ever met supports torture. And we would hope that other countries would also meet the high standards that we’ve set in relation to those things. Not all do, we wish they would. Some of the countries that we have concerns about may even be signatories to the Convention against Torture, some of them may not be. But, you know, these things are a matter for them.

JOURNALIST: The new white paper due for release, the US has been named Australia’s number one ally, that’s not the case currently, why is that?

MR DOWNER: I think since the signing of the ANZUS alliance, just to sort of answer your questions, you’ve asked it. Since the signing of the ANZUS alliance it’s always been understood by all political parties in Australia that the ANZUS alliance is the, is our central security alliance. There is a report which I have to say both the Secretary of my Department and I have unusually responded to today, which suggest that Australia want to “dump Asia for the US”. If I may say so that headline and the interpretation of the briefing given by officials in my Department yesterday is absolutely preposterous. On the contrary, this is a Government absolutely determined to continue to build up our relationships with Asia. We’re negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand and Singapore. We’re negotiating a closer economic partnership with ASEAN. We’re negotiating a, moving to negotiate economic agreements

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with China and with Japan. We’ve been building a web of security links throughout the Asian region. We are very dedicated participants in the APEC process. Actually, quite the contrary to the headline in the Financial Review which is a headline which I think is very damaging to Australia because it gets reported and picked up in the international media. Quite the contrary, I am heading off next week to Brunei to the ASEAN meetings where we’ll be putting forward proposals to enhance security in the region in the context of counter-terrorism. We’ll be putting forward proposals on addressing the problem of HIV AIDS and there will be a number of other initiatives as well. I have instructed my Department to call into my Department this afternoon the Asian Ambassadors and to explain them that this headline in the Australian Financial Review is totally false. That it is entirely misleading. That Australia far from wanting to dump Asia is building its relationships with Asia and I think it’s a very important national objective that we should continue to build very strong relationships with Asia. And we have done a lot over the years as a country, but we still need to do more in the years ahead. This was explained to the journalists who met with my Department yesterday I understand. I wasn’t there myself. This was explained to them. And in relation to the United States, the point was made that the United States economy as a proportion of global GDP has grown very substantially over the last twenty years, which is a statement of fact. That its relative military position has grown very substantially. We are dealing today with the United States which is very much stronger than the United States we used to deal with twenty years ago. That is a fact of life. But we really, in the country, ought to be able to discuss issues in a sensible way and not allow this sought of melodrama to creep into reporting which can be repeated internationally and can do us as a country, quite, and our standing, quite a lot of damage. So I’ve pulled in the Amb…., I’ve arranged for my Department to call in the Asian Ambassadors this afternoon and to ensure that my Department repudiates this headline and this notion that Australia has any intention of downgrading our relationships with Asia, on the contrary. Next week I will be in Asia doing what I always do. And that is continuing to build up our relationships with Asia.

JOURNALIST: Why not give them an equal footing on the White Paper like it was in the last case?

MR DOWNER: Well one of the things, we haven’t produced the White Paper yet. I mean the White Paper isn’t even written. The Government hasn’t approved, it’s a fair question… because you’ve just read the article. I sound as though I’m cross with you, I’m not. You just read the article, but. Let me make it, let me make it absolutely clear. When this White Paper is produced, we won’t be producing a hierarchy of countries, this country is important and this isn’t important. In our last White Paper we identified four countries which we said were the most important countries to Australia. This time we have taken, I certainly as the Minister have taken the view that we won’t sort of articulate which countries are most important. What we’ll simply do is discuss some of the issues that the region has to address instead of having a kind of hiearachy of countries. And let me assure you that the White Paper isn’t even written yet and when the White Paper is written and when its publishes we’ll have more to say on this matter.

JOURNALIST: In the lead up to that Brunei meeting, ASEAN has been described as somewhat of a toothless tiger, would you agree with that?

MR DOWNER:

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Well I think people who say that about ASEAN have an expectation I guess of ASEAN being able to do more than it could be , in my view, expected to do. For example, criticism of ASEAN has particularly come out of the ASEAN response to the Asian economic crisis in ’97-’98. But I think ASEAN is working cohesively and effectively. I’m impressed with the measures that ASEAN has taken on counter-terrorism. They are working to try and build economic integration more successfully amongst the ten ASEAN countries. They’re developing the ASEAN + 3 initiative with the North East Asian countries and ASEAN closer economic relations with Australia and New Zealand, they’re building links with India as well. So I think, you know, ASEAN moves ahead by consensus and therefore not as fast as some Western analysts would expect it to. Western countries don’t work so much by consensus. But I think it’s moving ahead pretty well.

JOURNALIST: How significant is the White Paper to campaigning for free trade deals with the US?

MR DOWNER: I don’t think the White Paper is going to be so significant. What we very much hope is that the various free trade irons that we have the fire will, you know, come out of the fire in an appropriate way. We hope to conclude this year the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore. We’ve begun work on a free trade agreement with Thailand. We hope to get into a negotiation next year with the United States on a free trade agreement with them. In the case of the United States, first of all they have to get the trade promotion authority through the Congress. That, of course, is very much touch and go, we can’t anticipate how that’s going to turn out. But once that’s passed, whether that’s passed in the next few days or whether that’s passed early next year, I just don’t know the answer to that. But once that’s passed we’ll be in a position to start negotiating a free trade agreement with them as well.

JOURNALIST: The Opposition says that it is a big step backwards in foreign policy, what do you say about that?

MR DOWNER: What is - a free trade agreement with the United States?

JOURNALIST: No No No - the White Paper.

MR DOWNER: Well we haven’t produced the White Paper yet.

JOURNALIST: Well if the US is your new ally.

MR DOWNER: Well that’s right, but the report is untrue. I mean I would share the view of the opposition actually, that if we were to dump Asia and just have a very tough, a very strong relationship with the United States, that would be worthy of criticism - of course it would. No Australia has to have, I mean Australia obviously makes no excuse about the very close relationship it has with the United States, I think that is an important priority for Australia - it makes sense in terms of our national interest. But, Australia can do more than one thing at once. Australia

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also needs to keep working on its relationships with Asia, keep building its relations with Asia, making sure we have really strong and effective links with that part of the world and that is what the Government is doing. Everything we do in Asia doesn’t always get reported, but I can assure you we are extremely active in Asia as you will see next week. OK

(ENDS)