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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7911

Ms PARKE (12:03 PM) —I thank the Attorney-General for moving a motion to recognise these important anniversaries, and I welcome the government’s ratification yesterday of the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions. The Geneva conventions, whose 60th anniversary was celebrated yesterday, are part of the essential humanitarian codex. Indeed, they are one of the most recognisable sets of agreed international conduct. ‘Geneva conventions’ is itself a phrase that is often used as shorthand in other contexts for the kinds of rules that ought to govern our conduct in difficult circumstances. In a recent interview with CNN, Charlotte Lindsey of the International Committee of the Red Cross noted:

On a daily basis, living in a war zone, you see examples of the conventions being applied. Every time a soldier is captured and moved to a prison, or a wounded soldier is collected by an ambulance, that is an application of the Geneva Conventions.

People forget that they are rooted in the law because they seem such evident needs and evident rights that people have.

The Geneva conventions set down important protections for civilian populations, wounded combatants and prisoners of war. The recognised significance of these protections is underlined by the fact that the Geneva conventions still represent the only piece of international law to have been ratified by all member states of the United Nations. It is, as the Attorney-General has noted, a mark of their primacy that this is so. It is also a reminder, however, of the progress that remains to be made in reaching global consensus and adherence to many other crucially important instruments of international law.

Last year, for example, we saw the signing of the treaty banning the use of cluster munitions. Wherever they are used, cluster bombs lie unexploded on the ground and in trees, killing and maiming civilians and rendering vast tracts of land unusable for years after conflicts end. I saw this graphically for myself in Kosovo and Lebanon. The cluster munitions convention has now been signed by more than 100 states, including Australia, and it is to be hoped that the ban on these appalling weapons will eventually be supported by all.

The notion of ‘humanitarian warfare’ can rightly be regarded as perhaps the best or worst example of a contradiction in terms. Certainly, we should never allow the achievement of the Geneva conventions and other like instruments to in any way mask the fact that war itself should be avoided and opposed where possible or otherwise brought to the quickest end possible.

On the question of progress with respect to the scope of the conventions themselves, I note that in a recent interview, Knut Dormann, the head of the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has observed that the protections provided by the Geneva conventions do not extend far enough in the case of civil conflict. The adoption in 1977 of additional protocol II strengthened the protection for victims of non-international conflict, but it remains the case that there is more to be done in this area.

In June I moved a motion on the subject of the conflict in Sri Lanka. On that occasion, I expressed concerns that had been raised by the United Nations and by humanitarian NGOs on the ground in Sri Lanka about the conditions and circumstances of some 300,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in displacement camps. As most of the contributors to the debate on that motion clearly recognised, it is critical that civil conflicts and the aftermath of those conflicts are governed by appropriate humanitarian law. On this point, Knut Dormann has observed:

… there is currently no detailed framework establishing procedural safeguards for people interned for security reasons in relation to non-international armed conflicts.

Again, that is something the international community should be prepared to work towards.

As Chair of the Australian Parliamentary Association for UNICEF and the Australia-UN Parliamentary Group I also want to make particular note of the fact that when it comes to civilians affected by war it is often women and children who suffer the most. The Progress of the World’s Women 2008-09 report of UNIFEM, entitled Who answers to women?, which was released yesterday, noted that the use of sexual violence against women is now an established tactic in armed conflict. Such violence is a way of affecting an entire community into the next generation, because women may be too damaged from it to bear children, or they may become pregnant or be infected with HIV-AIDS following a rape. The UNIFEM report quotes a former United Nations forces commander saying:

… it is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in the Eastern DRC.

That is, the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This morning in my office I had a visit from the group Friends of ‘Comfort Women’, including a survivor of the military-sexual slavery system during World War II, Ms Gil Won Ok from Korea. Ms Gil Won Ok was taken by the Japanese military from Pyongyang as a 13-year-old child to China and kept in sexual slavery for five years, during which time she was forcibly sterilised and suffered so many torments that she says, ‘it would take months to tell them all’. She never saw her family again and has not been able to have a family of her own. She said, ‘I came into this world as a human being but I have not been able to live as a human being for 81 years. People think that because it happened so long ago we would forget, but I live with it every day, and every night I’m still fighting them in my dreams.’ The Friends of ‘Comfort Women’, supported by Amnesty International, are seeking an official apology from the Japanese government.

In June last year, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously for a resolution that recognised sexual violence as a war crime and a crime against humanity, and called for a security response. Now that this crime has been recognised by the international community, it is my hope that Ms Gil Won Ok and her fellow comfort-women survivors, who are now quite elderly, will receive the recognition and apology they so desire and deserve.

It must be acknowledged that challenges and imperfections do exist in the area of international humanitarian law. Conduct in breach of the conventions is certainly occurring even now—witness reports of atrocities, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, mistreatment of detainees and practices such as extraordinary rendition. Of course, the expansion of the field of application of international humanitarian law beyond situations of international armed conflict between states to more often situations of non-international conflicts involving non-state armed groups has raised a significant number of challenges. Oxfam has pointed to violence in Afghanistan, Columbia, DRC and Sudan as examples of the increasingly indiscriminate nature of modern conflicts. ICRC President Kellenberger has also noted the increasing complexity of armed conflicts and the difficulty of distinguishing between combatants and civilians as well as phenomena such as terrorism. However, this should not be regarded as evidence that the conventions themselves are ineffective, nor that the multilateral institutions that seek to uphold such law are ineffective.

The Geneva conventions remain, as I said at the outset, one of the greatest expressions of humanitarian principles and one of the most powerful frameworks of humanitarian practice. I worked for the UN in places like Kosovo, Gaza and Lebanon. The Geneva conventions were the shield that we used as protection for ourselves and the vulnerable populations we assisted. Unfortunately, and shockingly, United Nations staff have increasingly been the targets of attacks. I am keenly aware that 19 August next week will be the sixth anniversary of the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed more than 20 people—including several of my UN colleagues I knew in the Kosovo peacekeeping mission as well as my good friend Jean-Selim Kanaan. I dedicated my first speech in this place to Jean-Selim and his war against indifference. I am pleased that the Australian government, in its recently announced changes to counterterrorism offences, will be recognising that international organisations such as the UN can be the target of terrorist violence.

Significant progress has also been made in enforcing compliance with the Geneva conventions through the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the establishment of the International Criminal Court, among other international processes, which recognise that violations of the Geneva conventions are criminal offences for which individuals can be held accountable. Earlier this year, as a member of Parliamentarians for Global Action, I attended a workshop in Jakarta, the aim of which was to encourage Indonesia to ratify the International Criminal Court Statute, as it has committed to doing on a number of occasions. Now that the elections in Indonesia are over, we are hopeful that ICC ratification will occur in the near future and that many other countries will follow Indonesia’s example. Currently the Rome statute of the ICC has 139 signatories and 110 ratifications.

There are many Australian peacekeepers participating in humanitarian endeavours in trouble spots around the world. It is only right that on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Geneva conventions we remember and honour the good work that is done and we continue to believe that there is both the capacity and the will in humankind to make progress—even if it is achingly slow—towards the sometimes seemingly impossible ideals of global tolerance, cooperation, justice and peace.