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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1868

Senator MacGIBBON —I direct my question to the Minister for Defence. On 24 May in estimates hearings in response to a series of questions of mine about the deployment of Australian forces to Rwanda, Senator Ray told me that they would not be committed until:

. . . a clear mission, clearly established timetable and political processes put in place for a possible resolution. None of those currently exist.

The government is now moving to send Australian forces to Rwanda. What is the United Nations mission there? What is the timetable? And what processes have been put in place towards a resolution of the conflict?

Senator ROBERT RAY —First of all, this government has made no decision yet on Rwanda. Obviously it is considering a request from the United Nations and whether to respond to that request. Since the estimates committee on 24 May some progress has been made on some of those matters but, as Senator MacGibbon would have probably realised in the last two days, we are still seeking information. France has made initiatives—I suppose spectacular is the best way of describing them—the consequences of which we cannot assess. We cannot assess yet whether those initiatives will gain the support of the Security Council. We cannot assess yet the extent to which the Western union will give support to France on those matters. We are yet to assess the reaction of either side—the government and the rebel forces—in Rwanda and what effect that will have on UNAMIR II.

  Regrettably, there are still many questions to be answered before an Australian government can make a firm decision. Even if we were minded to commit some Australian forces to Rwanda, preceding that there would have to be an advance team to check out the feasibility of such an action. Many matters are unresolved.

  I notice that the shadow defence spokesman constantly puts out press releases demanding that we make some sort of instantaneous statement on this issue. These are extremely complex issues. On the one hand, there is an absolutely heart-wrenching humanitarian situation; on the other hand, there are Australia's national interests and our responsibility to protect our own people. Many of these things tend to be in conflict, and we are currently wrestling with those particular problems.

  The precepts that I set down on 24 May have not all yet been met, although there has been some progress on them. We are continuing to sift through these issues before making a government decision—yes, no or maybe—on Rwanda.

Senator MacGIBBON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his response. Clearly, the statement of the Minister for Foreign Affairs pre-empted a decision and any latitude on this matter. However, let us put aside the French involvement because it is very unlikely that will bring peace to the troubled country. Until there is a clear, workable political plan in place, how can the minister guarantee the security of the Australian forces which, quite properly, was his main concern on 24 May?

Senator ROBERT RAY —Firstly, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has not said anything on the public record that is in conflict with this. For all his reputation, he happens to be the best consulter in government on these sorts of issues. On the second issue—

  Opposition senators interjecting

Senator ROBERT RAY —I am just pointing to the dichotomy between the image and the reality. The minister and his department have continually kept in touch with the Department of Defence on these issues. But Senator MacGibbon is right to restate that, as a defence minister, I have a paramount responsibility to protect Australian forces and not to expose them to any unnecessary risks.

  There are always risks involved in any United Nations commitment. But, unless I am satisfied that those risks are acceptable, that every precaution is taken, that people are not put in a position where they become totally vulnerable to unnecessary injury or sickness or whatever else, I will not support it. As I stressed before, these are complex issues, we have made no final decisions, and we are still making assessments.