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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7899

Mr SIMPKINS (11:05 AM) —I rise to speak of my support for the Geneva conventions and comment on how they have created order, even in the case of wars. I attended the commemorative service yesterday morning. I believe that adherence to the conventions is vital to maintaining integrity in the world. Of all my comments, one thing I am going to say will perhaps be disagreed with by some present—but perhaps not; we will see.

As others in this place have already said in this debate, the Geneva conventions have their origins on the battlefield of Solferino, where Henri Dunant was stunned and then outraged by the carnage he observed. Writing in 1862 about what he had seen, he proposed a neutral relief agency for alleviating suffering in conflicts by providing aid. Dunant’s proposal led to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which commenced lobbying for standards of treatment for wounded soldiers and enemy combatants. From these events, 10 articles of the first Geneva convention were adopted in 1864 by 12 nations. In that treaty, the Red Cross were provided with the authority to provide aid. The next treaty came in 1906 and dealt with the members of armed forces at sea. The third treaty related to the treatment of prisoners of war and was adopted in 1929. The fourth treaty was adopted in 1949 and it was created with a view to addressing the actions revealed by the Nuremberg trials and the realities of what occurred during World War II.

It is my view that these conventions—what are effectively rules of war—are absolutely vital to the minimisation of the loss of life and destruction of property during wars and conflicts. If you have rules that each side are confident are being observed then the more extreme acts of war are far less likely. In fact, it really makes sense to observe these rules if you are serious about winning the hearts and minds of those not yet involved in a conflict. It is smart to abide by the Geneva conventions because, in any case, if you do not win the war then you will be forced to account for your actions and any breaches of those conventions, let alone the fact that these conventions represent standards of human decency and respect that we should all be able to abide by if we consider ourselves decent human beings.

In researching this contribution last night, I had cause to look at an essay put together by Steven Ratner entitled ‘Think again: Geneva conventions’. In that essay in the March-April 2008 magazine Foreign Policy, Ratner questions a trend of doubt in the conventions by modern governments. He makes a number of good points, stating that, while some details may appear outdated, the core of the conventions and the value of the conventions remain as valid as they ever were.

While I believe that we will always have conflicts, I also believe that, regardless of our enemies’ disregard for the conventions and human decency, we should never stoop to their level. I have said before that when we speak of terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiah, Hezbollah, the Taliban, Hamas and al-Qaeda, just to name a few, we can never expect the same standards of human decency and compassion. That should never tempt us to adopt their standards. We will never win the support of the people in places like Afghanistan or Iraq by lowering ourselves to the base brutality and reckless hate of our enemies.

Whilst stating that point, I found one point where I disagreed with Ratner. It was with regard to what constitutes torture. The need to obtain information quickly from enemy combatants is no excuse for brutality, and to that end I say that waterboarding, deafening music, assault of any kind and humiliation of any kind do constitute torture. Interrogation that commences with a period of discomfort but no actual injury or ongoing psychological damage can be appropriate. To obtain information quickly but without injury or damage, sleep deprivation has always been highly effective. In the Army, sleep deprivation was one of the methods used, along with physical exhaustion and stress, to determine what a person was like under pressure. Similarly, the resistance of a person can be reasonably quickly broken through lack of sleep and then information obtained through questioning. I reiterate that this is not about physical harm or injury; this is more about weakening the character of a combatant to a point where they will provide the information they are asked for.

I would say that, while questioning can be undertaken immediately upon capture, if the information is not provided we should be able to place prisoners under the pressure of which I speak. It is also worth remembering the realities of wars and conflicts. Finding out what one’s enemy is planning is very useful. Prisoners are interrogated to try to obtain that advantage. One reality is that the information that can be obtained often declines in value with the passing of time. If a prisoner is not placed under some sort of pressure then they are not very likely to provide information that will be of benefit. Lives may depend on accurate information being obtained, and, while getting that information may not seem important to those not involved in prosecuting these conflicts, it is to those who are.

As I said at the outset, I stand by the Geneva conventions and their observance, regardless of what our enemies may do or how they conduct themselves. I reiterate that physical harm, assault and dehumanising or other long-term physical or mental damage are, and always should be, prohibited. We are here to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Geneva conventions. They represent a great step forward for humanity—an enshrinement of human decency—and I am confident that Australia will always stand by them and observe them, because that is the right and honourable way to act in all conflicts.