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Friday, 16 August 1974
Page: 1065

Senator DEVITT (TASMANIA) -I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs whether he has seen a letter dated 31 July 1974 from the New South Wales branch of the Executive Committee of the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament which is critical of Australian policy towards South Vietnam and was sent to all members and senators. Is it true, as the letter claims, that the Australian Government is to participate in a World Bank project which is designed to bolster the Thieu regime in South Vietnam? Is it also true that, in accordance with Australian support for the Paris Peace Accords, Australia is obliged to recognise the Peoples Revolutionary Government but has not so far done so?

Senator WILLESEE -Mr McLeod wrote to me on 17 July and I replied on 29 July but in the meantime he had circulated, I suppose the same letter to all members of Parliament. Had he been prepared to wait for my reply he would have learned that the Government had no intention of participating in a World Bank or Asian Development Bank sponsored aid group for South Vietnam unless, as seems unlikely, a parallel arrangement could be organised for North Vietnam. The Government's contributions to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are made without restriction as to the choice of developing countries in which the contributions might be used. It would be inconsistent with our responsibilities as a member of these financial institutions to attempt to lay down such restrictions.

In reply to the second part of the question, neither the Paris agreement nor the International Conference on Vietnam required international recognition of the People's Revolutionary Government. The Paris agreement sought rather to give the PRG a recognised place in the political life of South Vietnam as part of the process of national reconciliation- a process which the Australian Government supports. I could go on for hours answering this question but I think the best way of dealing with it is to seek leave of the Senate to incorporate in Hansard my reply to Mr McLeod.

The PRESIDENT -Is leave granted? There being no objection leave is granted. (The document read as follows)-


Dear Mr McLeod,

I refer to your letter dated 1 1 July in which you invite my attention to a number of matters in the foreign affairs area discussed during your recent consultation in Canberra. This letter responds only to those points relating to Vietnam and Cambodia. A reply will be sent later on the other aspects of your letter.

Political Prisoners

The Australian Government is naturally concerned about any case of imprisonment or maltreatment of persons because of their political beliefs. It has expressed this concern in regard to cases affecting quite a number of countries including- and I mention only a selection- Chile, Indonesia, Vietnam, the U.S.S.R. and Uganda.

You will appreciate, however, that there are limits to the range of action open to the Government. It can make representations to other governments and in a number of cases has done so. But making representations to foreign governments about their treatment of their own citizens involves delicate questions of sovereignty and domestic jurisdiction. Such approaches need to be very carefully handled if they are to do any good, and we must always consider the question whether our approaches risk harming the interests of the prisoners themselves. These considerations apply, of course, not only to South Vietnam but also to other countries whose laws and regulations provide for detention of political prisoners without trial.

In the case of South Vietnam, the Prime Minister expressed his personal concern over the detention and alleged maltreatment of political prisoners to the South Vietnamese Ambassador last year. I subsequently raised the matter with the then South Vietnamese Foreign Minister in New York during the last session of the United Nations General Assembly. We naturally welcomed the resumption of discussions between the South Vietnamese Government and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam which resulted in an exchange of some thousands of prisoners during the early part of this year. The Government is aware, however, that both South Vietnamese parties still accuse each other of continuing to hold large numbers of prisoners, and we regret that contacts between the two sides on the implementation of the Paris Agreements have again broken off.

As is noted in one of the attachments to your letter, Amnesty International has in the past estimated that there were over 100,000 political prisoners in South Vietnam, and there have been other higher estimates. I am not aware of any recent estimates by Amnesty International or other outside organisations which take into account the latest releases. The South Vietnamese Government itself claims that it has now released all political prisoners.

Obviously it is not possible for the Australian Government to verify this claim or contrary estimates made by outsiders. The probability is that considerable numbers of political prisoners remain. We were encouraged, however, to learn of the release on5 June of Tran Ngoc Chau, the last of the prominent opposition politicians known to have been held under detention in South Vietnam.

I have recently received a despatch from the Australian Ambassador in Saigon in which he mentions an estimate of 30-35,000 as the total number of civilian prisoners held in all centres of detention by the GVN authorities. He further points out that this figure embraces civilian prisoners of all types, including- and indeed being mainly accounted for by- common cnminal detentions as well as persons temporarily detained in local lock-ups. The number of political prisoners, however defined, would account for a comparatively small proportion of the total prison population.

I believe it is also necessary to remind ourselves of another aspect of this subject. Amnesty International readily admits the unevenness of its data on political detainees around the world. It admits, for example, that the absence of estimates for North Vietnam or Tor the PRG controlled areas or South Vietnam should not suggest that there are no political detainees there but only that it has not been permitted access to any camps or to any relevant information. I do not think that we should permit ourselves to act in such a way as to suggest that the political rights of individuals (as we see them ) are being denied by only one side in the conflict, when we know, or suspect, that by our standards they are being denied by all the parties. In such a situation, a situation in effect of continuing civil war, we have indeed to consider whether we can fairly apply our own liberal democratic standards to any of the parties.

The issue of prisoners is, of course, also closely linked to the question of progress towards the implementation of the Paris Agreements, the development of a real settlement in South Vietnam and the establishment of some degree of reconciliation and trust between the contending parties, and all of them are objectives which the Australian Government warmly supports. I believe that it would contribute to these objectives if all the parties honestly stated the position about prisoners held by them and set out deliberately to negotiate comprehensive mutual releases.

As Tar as the Australian Government is concerned we shall continue to make our views known to the Vietnamese parties on the general question of political prisoners. The Government will also continue to participate in the discussion of this matter in appropiate international organisations.

Recognition of the PRG

A second question raised in your letter is that of relations with the PRG. Your meeting called for Australia to open diplomatic relations with the PRG with a view to establishing an equality in Australia's relations with the two South Vietnamese parties. You referred to the relevance of the Paris Agreements in this context.

The Australian Government supports the Paris Agreements because it believes that they provide a framework within which the South Vietnamese people may work out a national reconciliation which will bring peace to their devastated land and a chance to reunite and rebuild. We agree that the PRG has an important role to play in this process. We acknowledge this in our statements of policy. We also acknowledge it by the informal contacts which we have with the PRG and by our readiness to extend aid through international organisations to PRG-controlled area. We agree too that there can be no final settlement in South Vietnam without the involvement in it of the PRG. But Australia does not recognise the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam as a government in the accepted sense.

When Vietnam was divided in 19S4 two States were created and two Governments came into existence. Australia has long recognised the existence of both States and now formally recognises and has relations with both Governments, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in North Vietnam and the Government of the Republic of Vietnam in South Vietnam. Both Governments are parties to the Paris Agreements, as is the PRG. It cannot be inferred from this, however, that support for the Agreements necessarily requires or entails recognition of a third state and a third Government. The Agreements impose equal obligations on the 'two South Vietnamese parties (that is, the PRG and the South Vietnamese Government) and offer equal opportunities to them, but the agreements do not do so on the basis of any assumption or stipulation that the two South Vietnamese parties have the same characteristics.

It is important to note in this context that the countries which agreed in a limited sense to act as guarantors of the Agreements- the additional participants in the International Conference of February-March 1973- as well as the United States, North and South Vietnam and the PRG, all saw fit to include in the final act of the conference a penultimate sentence which read: 'Signature of this Act does not constitute recognition of any party in any case in which it has not previously been accorded . There is no mistaking the intention of the provision. It was an important provision, required as much by the North Vietnamese, the PRG, the U.S.S.R. and China (in relation to their non-recognition of the Saigon government) as by the Americans, the GVN French, British, Canadians etc, who do not recognise the PRG.

In general, the Australian Government does not believe that the introduction of a third government in Vietnam would help settle the problems of South Vietnam. The best course would be to hold free elections throughout South Vietnam, perhaps under international supervision, and with the new government thus emerging taking the place of the existing Saigon administration as well as the PRG administration in the 'liberated areas'. I have, however, taken note of the views of your association, and I shall bear them in mind in giving further thought to this matter.

Attendance by the PRG at the ICRC Weaponry Conference

Since Australia does not recognise the PRG as the government of South Vietnam it would be inappropriate to support its participation as a State at international conferences convened under the auspices of the United Nations or its Specialised Agencies. We should be pleased, however, to see PRG participation at such conferences as observers. Australia's position was made clear, for example, at the Diplomatic Conference on International Humanitarian Law, when our representative in a statement accompanying his vote regretted on behalf of the Government that the question before the conference had been posed as a choice between participation as a state and non-participation.

Australia has now received a letter from the ICRC inviting views on the possible participation by experts nominated by the PRG to the forthcoming conference of weaponry experts. The Government is obliged to reply by the end of the month, but the terms of that reply are still being considered.

Australian Aid to South Vietnam

As you have noted various suggestions have emerged for the establishment of a multilateral aid operation for South Vietnam under the aegis of the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development. Specifically, it has been proposed that a consultative group of donor countries should be established for South Vietnam. Approaches along these lines were made to the Government some months ago. Our response was that Australia would not be attracted by a consultative group for South Vietnam alone, but that we should also need to be satisfied that a parallel arrangement could be organised for North Vietnam. The problem here is that the North Vietmanese have resisted most forms of multilateral and United Nations aid, and have specifically criticised the World Bank and the ADB as 'tools of American imperialism'. While, frankly, regretting this attitude, the Government has felt, nevertheless, that it would be inappropriate to join in a consultative group for South Vietnam so long as North Vietnam holds to the attitude I have described. To do so would be to join in preferential treatment for the South, with Australia coming under pressure to increase its contributions when, as an act of policy, we are trying to establish some balance in aid allocations between North and South.

On the other hand the Government also feels that it must avoid the temptation, born of its abhorrence of a war which the ALP has condemned for a decade, to direct Australian assistance exclusively to the North. The people of the South must also be helped to build a better life of the kind they want on the ruins left by the war.

Thus, for example, I am strongly of the view that we should continue our bilateral aid to South Vietnam. This aid in any case consists of a type which is properly to be regarded as designed to improve the health and welfare of the people of South Vietnam, and should not be seen as Australian props under the South Vietnamese Government. In this regard, I strongly disagree with that part of your analysis ('Going Back on Vietnam ') which suggests that our development projects are meant to underpin the military structure of the Thieu Government. The power and water supply projects to which you refer will be a direct asset to the South Vietnamese people, including many thousands of refugees displaced by a tragic war. Abandonment of this sort of aid would in my view only be hurtful to the people without having any significant effect on their government's policies. It is of more than passing relevance, incidentally, that the flow of refugees to which you alluded earlier in your paper is normally into areas controlled by the GVN and away from areas of PRG-control. Humanity requires that Australia do what it can to alleviate their plight wherever they may be. Considerable Australian assistance is also being channelled through bodies such as the International Red Cross and UNICEF. This is done in the context of the Government's even-handed approach to Indo-China. Both these groups are well placed to disburse assistance to the whole of IndoChina, including North Vietnam, and areas under the control of the PRC, the Pathat Lao in Laos, and the antigovernment forces in Cambodia. The Government has made clear in this regard its wish to contribute to the reconstruction of the whole area.

Paris Agreements

Although your letter makes only passing reference to the implementation of the Paris Agreements, there was considerable comment on this matter in the attachments. I can reassure you here that the Government shares fully the anxiety expressed about the outlook for the Agreements. They are being breached, and daily. I am not sure, however, that the Government's information would co-incide with some of the presentations given to your meeting. Indeed our detailed assessments suggest that the contending parties in South Vietnam are both at fault, that breaches by the GVN of the political and military provisions of the accords are fully, and in some cases more than fully, matched by breaches by the DRV and PRG.


The Prime Minister andI have given considerable thought to the question of Cambodian representation in the United Nations. The present intention is that on any substantive resolution Australia should vote for retention of the seat by the government with which we have relations, namely the Government of the Khmer Republic, but that we should not support any procedural move or delaying device aimed at preventing the issue being aired and voted on. Australian policy was explained by the Prime Minister to Prince Sihanouk in Peking last November. Australia of course has for some time enjoyed an informal working relationship with Prince Sihanouk's government, mainly through our respective embassies in Peking.

As far as formal recognition is concerned Australian policy is to maintain our existing modest relationship with the Khmer Republic, while holding ourselves in readiness to recognise and establish relations with whatever alternative government which might come to power and which appeared to enjoy the support of the Cambodian people.

There are two additional observations I should like to make in concluding this letter. The first relates to the specific situation in Vietnam; the second has more general application.

The first point bears on what I have already said on the subject of political prisoners. While fully sympathising with the sentiment that political prisoners, wherever held, should be released, we must not forget that there has been war in Indo China more or less continuously for at least two decades. The contending parties even now are manoeuvring in what for them is a matter of life and death. In such a situation it might be too much to expect that the parties, any of them, would apply to political dissent the same rules to which we are accustomed in the tranquillity of Australia. It does no good in this regard to try to play favourites. All the parties in the Vietnamese conflict represent strains of Vietnamese nationalism. They may have different ideologies. They had and have different allies and supporters. But allare Vietnamese and it would be presumptuous for an outside Government to assume the office of judging that one or other represented a less genuine nationalist feeling.

My final observation is that the infringements of political and individual rights to which you refer are not confined to Vietnam or to Indo China, or indeed to the several other countries listed in the last paragraph of your letter. Unfortunately the liberal democracies are in a small, and dwindling, minority in the world. If the Australian Government chose to deal only with regimes whose internal policies it wholly approved of, it would rapidly find it had very few people left to deal with.

Yours sincerely, (D. R. WILLESEE)

MrK. J. McLeod, AICD Secretariat, P.O.BoxC327, Clarence Street, Sydney, N.S.W.2000.

Senator WILLESEE -I thank the Senate.

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