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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 6644

Mr McMULLAN (Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance) (5:47 PM) —I thank the opposition for their support for this measure and I thank the shadow minister for foreign affairs for that contribution. As she was saying, the Autonomous Sanctions Bill 2010, which I of course rise to support, is to support what has been and remains an important facet of diplomacy—not just for Australia, but it has been substantially used by Australia in recent years—that is, autonomous sanctions. Australia is one of a number of countries which seek positive change around the world by supplementing United Nations Security Council sanctions and stepping in in circumstances where it is either inappropriate or not possible for the United Nations Security Council to act and impose sanctions which we as sovereign nation can implement under other legislation. This legislation does not need to cover a Security Council type sanction because we already have a legislative framework for that.

This bill will improve Australia’s capacity to respond quickly to issues of international concern by allowing greater flexibility in the range of measures Australia can implement beyond those that we can achieve under existing arrangements. I note the remarks, reported by the shadow minister, of the former foreign minister, Mr Downer, about the need for us to make these sorts of changes. This bill reflects the government’s intention to allow Australia to participate fully in concerted international action against individuals and regimes of concern.

I want to talk for a moment about why we need autonomous sanctions in Australian diplomacy. The UN Charter authorises the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions in situations that it has determined breach or threaten international peace and security. In order for UN Security Council sanctions to be implemented, two-thirds of the 15 members must agree on each of the sanction measures, and—this is usually the most significant element—all five permanent members of the UN Security Council must assent to the measures and be satisfied the situation in question does threaten or breach international peace and security. We can all think of examples where a country like Australia might have wished to take action but a consensus among the P5, as they are called, could not be achieved. There are therefore some situations of serious international concern that have not been subject to Security Council sanctions because one or more of the five permanent members have not assented or the Security Council has not determined that the situation threatens or breaches international peace and security by the required two-thirds majority.

Examples of such situations include, as the shadow minister mentioned, the situation in Burma, which is close to the hearts of many Australians and of course many Australians of Burmese origin, some of whom were in my office only yesterday talking to me about the situation in Burma, particularly on the Thai-Burma border, and welcomed the changes that the foreign minister announced in our approach, particularly with regard to development assistance in Burma—and that is very difficult issue.

We were particularly concerned about the violent crackdown by the Burmese regime on the pro-democracy protests in 2007, but there is a long history of these sorts of repressive activities, going back to the election when the National League for Democracy had the temerity not only to contest the election but to win it! That clearly was not in the regime’s plan. It was okay about them contesting it but not about them doing the unwelcome thing of getting massive public support. So the result was never accepted, and we have had serious extensions of human rights abuses since that time. In a place like Burma, where the human rights and the democratic aspirations of people have been denied, Australia has taken, and will be facilitated to take more effectively in the future, autonomous sanctions.

We have a complicated situation in our region with Fiji, one of Australia’s best friends. The military coup in December 2006 continues to deny the population of Fiji their constitutional rights. Some of the basic freedoms—for example, freedom of the press—are being seriously impaired and we cannot get an agreement for a prompt return to democracy. We need to look at targeted autonomous sanctions. We do not want to see the people of Fiji hurt, we do not wish to see the economy of Fiji collapse, but we do want to see a return to democracy. This requires a scalpel rather than a broadsword. We need to have an array of measures that allow a complex situation like Fiji to be dealt with. There is also, of course, the situation in Zimbabwe. The Mugabe regime has been responsible for many acts that were unacceptable to Australia and the international community. The post-election government of national unity is struggling to establish itself and re-establish the legitimate arms of government. This requires a targeted set of sanctions that are specifically designed for the emerging situation in Zimbabwe.

Australia is one of a number of like-minded countries—including the United States, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and other members of the European Union—which actively seek to bring about positive change by applying pressure through autonomous sanctions. It is not only in situations where the Security Council is unable or unwilling to act; sometimes there are situations where UN Security Council sanctions are in place but Australia and other states may seek to supplement them through additional measures of the kind approved under this legislation. The Security Council has dealt with issues relating to both Iran and the DPRK, and Australia and other countries have imposed financial sanctions and travel sanctions on a range of persons that are broader than required under Security Council sanctions.

Let me take a bit of time to look at Australia’s use of autonomous sanctions. Australia has actively applied autonomous sanctions as a foreign policy tool for a number of years. So, if we already do it, why do we need this legislation? As the shadow minister for foreign affairs stated in her contribution, we have been using a range of existing instruments that are laws developed for other purposes. We have used these laws for autonomous sanctions but they are imperfect instruments. This bill will allow us to be more effective. I will come back to some of the other implications in a moment, but let me give you some examples. There is the very important question of targeted financial sanctions. Australia has taken financial sanctions from time to time. They were considered to be the most effective sanctions in the case of South Africa. These sanctions are applied under the Banking (Foreign Exchange) Regulations 1959, which were, of course, originally promulgated for entirely different purposes to do with the protection of Australia’s currency and our foreign currency reserves. Arms embargoes are applied under the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations 1958. That does not make them inappropriate but it means they can only apply to tangible goods exported from Australia. They do not apply to intangibles like software or military services, so they are becoming less relevant to the 21st-century challenges we need to address. These are regulations designed in a different era. The government recognises that the types of measures Australia would like to implement whilst working with other like-minded countries are often likely to go beyond the scope of these instruments. Particularly in the future, as technology changes, we will need to take different types of measures that might reflect the significance of these changes but are not facilitated under existing legislation.

The purpose of the bill is to not only strengthen the regime but also ensure that our autonomous sanctions match the scope and extent of measures implemented by like-minded states. We need to keep up with 21st-century demands. What we have at the moment, which we inherited, is a cobbled together patchwork under which good things have been done in the past. But it is not a framework that is sufficient for the future. The bill will provide Australia with more options to achieve the objectives of autonomous sanctions, it will give Australia greater scope and flexibility to apply targeted pressure on oppressive and destabilising regimes across the globe and it will ensure that the adverse impacts on the people of the nations affected are minimised. It is a difficult balance to strike, but this bill will introduce measures that will enable us to do more of that. Our duty to the international community and to the Australian people is to have in place the most effective tools for applying sanctions against such regimes. The bill before us seeks to provide Australia with flexibility to implement measures beyond those achievable under existing arrangements.

I will not outline the details of the bill. That was done by the minister in his second reading speech, but it is important to note that no autonomous sanctions applied under this bill will be able to override our international obligations. They are designed to be measures to make people meet their international obligations. This is constrained by WTO arrangements and free trade agreements et cetera.

Finally, the bill provides and the government will ensure that Australia’s autonomous sanctions will continue to be subject to regular review and ongoing assessment with regard to changing international needs and pressures. This is a bill for which the purpose is agreed and has been agreed by Australian governments of all political colours for a long time but it will bring a 21st century set of tools to the task. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Albanese) adjourned.