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Thursday, 17 December 1992
Page: 5376

Senator ROBERT RAY (Minister for Defence) (5.26 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate—

(a)expresses its profound sympathy on behalf of all Australians for the suffering being endured by the people of Somalia as a result of famine, clan warfare and banditry;

(b)commends the efforts being made by those organisations and individuals who are working to relieve that suffering;

(c)affirms Australia's support for the efforts of the United Nations Secretary-General, his Special Representative and others to promote a political settlement in Somalia and to facilitate the distribution of relief assistance;

(d)endorses the aims of Operation Restore Hope as set out in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 794 to provide a secure environment for the distribution of humanitarian relief;

(e)expresses its support for the Australian contribution to Operation Restore Hope, and for Australia's continued participation in the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation, UNOSOM; and,

(f)expresses its full confidence in, and support for, the men and women of the Australian Defence Force who are being deployed to Somalia and looks forward to their safe return.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I understand that informal arrangements have been made to limit the time for the debate and that the speaking times during the debate will be as follows: the Minister, 10 minutes; Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, 10 minutes; the Democrats' spokesperson, 10 minutes; and other senators wishing to speak, five minutes. With the concurrence of the Senate I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

Senator ROBERT RAY —The situation in Somalia is an international tragedy. Devastating famine, factional conflict and gang warfare have already taken the lives of an estimated 250,000 Somalis. Two million more are assessed to be at immediate risk of starvation. Despite the chaos and lawlessness, Australian and other international non-government organisations have displayed remarkable courage in and dedication to getting food and medicine to the starving. As the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) said, the Australian community has been rightly proud of the efforts of these groups.

  The Australian community has also demonstrated extraordinary compassion and generosity in responding to the human tragedy of Somalia. Public appeals in Australia have now raised over $11m for Somalia and government has contributed direct humanitarian assistance to Somalia of some $8.5m so far this calendar year. Last weekend, the Australian people donated more than $600,000 to appeals for Somalia and other drought and famine stricken countries in Africa.

  The United Nations Security Council, in resolution 751, established a peacekeeping operation, UNOSOM, in April of this year in order to facilitate humanitarian relief to Somalia. UNOSOM, however, has proved unable to create the necessary peaceful environment to meet its prime objective of allowing for the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance. The offer by President Bush to provide substantial US troops to a new international coalition to enforce peace in Somalia was therefore welcomed by the international community. It offered the opportunity to break the impasse that had developed. Food donated by the international community was being plundered by armed gangs or had to remain in warehouses because safe passage could not be guaranteed.

  On 3 December, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 794 which called for the establishment as soon as possible of a secure environment for humanitarian relief in Somalia. As the Secretary General of the United Nations Boutros-Ghali said in a message to the people of Somalia, the United Nations is taking action in Somalia in the cause of security, humanitarian relief and political reconciliation. The United Nations intends to restore the hope of the Somali people.

  The resolution invited member states to contribute to the multinational force. In response to that resolution and at the invitation of the United States, the Government decided to contribute an infantry battalion group to the US led international coalition enforcement operation. Australia will join at least 20 other nations in the international coalition. The Australian battalion group is based on the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, from Townsville. It is part of the ADF's operational deployment force. The group will consist of 900 personnel and will include four rifle companies, a reduced squadron of 30 armoured personnel carriers, and logistic and engineer support elements. The Australian contingent will be commanded by Colonel Bill Mellor.

  The battalion group is the minimum sized unit that can fully support and protect itself and can readily integrate with the coalition forces. Possible tasks for the battalion group could include the security of major airfields, sea ports, key installations, food distribution points and oversighting relief operations.

  The Government has decided that the battalion group will be provided for 17 weeks. This timing has been made clear to our partners in the operation who have welcomed our offer. The estimated additional cost for the 17 week deployment is $19.557m. The coalition force will be United States led with the operational control of Australian forces delegated to the combined task force commander, but will remain under national command. These command and control arrangements are consistent with past combined operations, including the Gulf war. Rules of engagement are being developed in close consultation with the coalition and will be approved by the Government.

  Members of the Australian contingent will have the right to protect themselves, if threatened, at all times. They will be armed with their normal complement of infantry small arms and weapons, but I have to say that this operation will entail risks. As I informed the Senate on 15 November, a careful assessment of the security situation has been undertaken by the intelligence agencies and considered by government.

  If the coalition does not involve itself in disarming the Somali factions, the threat assessment for our troops will be medium to high. If, however, the task involves disarming the factions, the risk would be high to very high. No final decision has been taken by the UN on disarming Somalis. However, as I told the Senate, if the follow-on UNOSOM operation is to be successful, some attempt must be made to disarm the bands. Security resolution 794 authorises all necessary means to establish as soon as possible a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia.

  The main body of Australian troops will arrive in Somalia by mid-January 1993. A small reconnaissance party will leave for Somalia in the next few days with an advance party departing in early January. Equipment and vehicles for the contingent will be transported by HMAS Jervis Bay and HMAS Tobruk to arrive at approximately the same time as the main body of troops.

  As I said, the highest priority for the coalition is to allow food and relief to be brought to the starving Somalis. The coalition's other major task will be to create an environment in which the UN peacekeeping operation, UNOSOM, can take over and operate in a more secure and stable environment. Australia will continue to participate in the UNOSOM operation and will expand the size of the movement control unit, which we have already committed, from 30 to 45 personnel.

  Our contribution to Operation Restore Hope will be the largest commitment of Australian ground forces overseas in the last 20 years. It increases sharply our total contribution to UN mandated peacekeeping and other operations around the world. These contributions are a clear demonstration of Australia's support in ensuring that the United Nations is able to respond effectively to major humanitarian and security challenges.

  I am sure all honourable senators will join with me in expressing their support for and confidence in those men and women who are going to be deployed to Somalia. They carry with them the very proud traditions of the Australian defence forces. Our thoughts are with them and their families as they prepare for this important task. We do look forward to welcoming them home at the conclusion of their deployment.

  In the remaining time I have I will address some of the issues that have already been raised. Dr Hewson raised three issues in the other place. He asked whether the Opposition—and I assume other parliamentarians—could be kept abreast of the threat assessment in this area. The answer to that is an unequivocal yes. Secondly, the question of whether there would be cuts in the Defence budget to fund this operation was raised. The additional $19.557m is supplemented to the Defence budget, so no other capability will be reduced because of this commitment. Thirdly, Dr Hewson slightly misinterpreted the question of 17 weeks when he said 17 weeks from today. It will be 17 weeks from the date of deployment. I am not saying that Dr Hewson in any way deliberately misinterpreted this, but I thought that I would put the record straight.

  Finally, Senator Powell was kind enough to show me a copy of an amendment to this motion that she believed was necessary. Having negotiated a motion that everyone agreed to, I would not accept the amendment, but I have expressed in my speech the sentiments that would be reflected in that amendment. It is now our role as a partner in this matter to put our point of view. If that point of view prevails, we will certainly be in that situation. If it does not, we cannot unilaterally do that sort of thing without the help of our coalition parties. I understand that there is virtually uniform, if not uniform, support for this motion and I commend it to the Senate.