Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 14 March 1968

Mr BARNARD (Bass) (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) - I would like to go on from where the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) left off. The Prime Minister inferred that there was no suggestion of torture. On the other hand we have the statement by a very competent war journalist who has clearly said that in his opinion there was torture. The Prime Minister dismisses this. But the Prime Minister clearly indicated in his speech that, as on so many other occasions since he was elected Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, he was prepared to make statements on his own initiative but was not prepared to stand up to them in Cabinet. It is abundantly clear - I use the word 'abundantly', because the Prime Minister used it tonight on a number of occasions - that during the last week the Prime Minister actively supported the Minister for the Army (Mr Lynch) on the establishment of a court of inquiry to examine allegations that had been made on this matter. For the first time, probably, in any parliament in the world-

Mr SPEAKER -Order! There is far too much audible conversation in the chamber. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition is entitled to be heard, and he will be heard.

Mr BARNARD - Mr Speaker, I was about to say that probably for the first time in any parliament in the world a Prime Minister has rubbished the Geneva Convention. Indeed, I believe that tonight he sneered at the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war.

Let me deal with the Prime Minister's speech in detail. He has not given reasons why he thought there should be or should not be an open court of inquiry. He has in effect replied to the original allegation without giving any explanation of the course the Government took for the whole of last week. I believe a further point that ought to be considered by the House at this stage relates to the need to take immediate action, referred to by the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Army, to get information from this girl. I think we ought to put the record straight on this question. The girl was captured on the afternoon of 24th October 1 966. She did not arrive at Nui Dat until 8.30 a.m. the next day and, according to the Minister for the Army, she was photographed by pressmen for 10 to 15 minutes and was then taken to the interrogation tent to be questioned. So the urgency was such that a whole night was allowed to elapse, plus time to pose for photographs, before her interrogation. Yet we have the Minister and the Prime Minister talking about the need for immediate action. The Prime Minister has certainly said nothing tonight which would overthrow the contention of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam), and the Opposition in this Parliament generally, that there is a need for an open inquiry into this matter. For the third time in less than a year the credibility of the Government and the administration of the so-called 'junior' portfolios are under challenge. The first occasion was in the Voyager' debate, in which the then Minister for the Navy, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Attorney-General denied that a statement by a naval officer could be corroborated. We have since seen substantial corroboration of this statement in the second Voyager' Royal Commission.

The second issue was the V.I.P. aircraft issue, which seems to have been responsible for the end of the term as Minister for Air of the unfortunate honourable member for Fawkner (Mr Howson).

On this occasion a junior member of this House, who has suddenly been elevated to a highly responsible portfolio, finds himself in an intolerable position, descredited by contradictory statements, grossly misled by departmental officers and dumped by his Cabinet. These three sorry episodes raise grave doubts about the whole defence administration of this Government. It is incredible that the Minister for Defence (Mr Fairhall) can sit in Cabinet and disclaim responsibility for any of these episodes. We have the situation that the senior defence Minister is in the Cabinet and the three Service portfolios are in the Ministry. Until the recent reshuffle the portfolios of Navy, Army and Air were at the bottom of the Ministry. Quite clearly the Government's policy of blooding its new Ministers in the Service portfolios has failed disastrously. In the past 18 months three Service Ministers have been unceremoniously sacked from these portfolios. The present Minister for the Army may survive, and the Opposition acknowledges his plight and concedes that his responsibility in this squalid episode is limited. However, quite plainly the Minister has contradicated himself most blatantly in three statements. In a television interview he said quite blandly that there was not a scintilla of evidence to support the allegations. After further investigations, following statements by a journalist and a freelance photographer, the Minister backtracked rapidly and announced that an inquiry would be held. Several aspects of that statement by the Minister are worth repeating. According to the Minister these allegations were fully investigated by an independent investigating officer of field rank who found that they were not substantiated. The Minister emphasised that Australia is a party to the Geneva Conventions and attached great importance to their scrupulous observation in the treatment of prisoners. He went on to indicate that the composition of the court and its terms of reference would be the subject of a separate announcement. Now the Minister has been put in the invidious position of announcing to the House that there will be no inquiry, after emphasising that the Army regarded any allegations impugning its behaviour with the utmost seriousness and that a searching investigation would be made into all facts of the case.

How can any faith be put in a Government which cynically changed its intentions in such a short space of time? Now we find that there is to be no inquiry either in camera or open to the Press and the public. This is an amazing sequence of events, probably without parallel in the history of this Parliament. The Prime Minister gained considerable credit for the way in which he opened the VIP debate by tabling relevant documents in the Senate - documents which it had been claimed did not exist. This spurred the subsequent attacks on the Holt Government's credibility in this House. The right honourable gentleman who has commendably emphasised the need for the utmost disclosure of information to the Press and the public has another opportunity to perform a signal service for this Parliament. We urge him to lay upon the table of this House the evidence given before and the report made by the officer of field rank who investigated these grave allegations in South Vietnam. There is no' reason why this should not be done if the Government is satisfied that this is only an isolated incident.

The Prime Minister should go a step further by reversing the . decision of Cabinet and establishing a. commission under a judge with full powers to test witnesses and assess these allegations. As the Leader of the Opposition has pointed out, these allegations can be tested only by judicial examination of the witnesses who saw and filmed this incident. We should remember here the spectacular results produced by the testing of Lieutenant-Commander Cabban's evidence which was vilified in this Chamber. I do not suggest that such an inquiry could produce similar results, but it certainly would establish whether this was an isolated occurrence or part of an accepted pattern of treatment of prisoners of war in Vietnam. The Opposition does not assert that the great majority of Australian troops engage in inhumane and humiliating treatment of civilians and prisoners of war. Certainly my experience of Australian soldiers during the last world conflict would not indicate that this was a feature of the activities of Australian troops. I have no reason to believe that the troops who are now serving in Vietnam are any different from those who served in the Australian forces during World- War II. However, the failure to inquire openly into these allegations can react only to the overall discredit of the Australian forces and in particular to the intelligence sections which conduct interrogation of prisoners of war. It is only just to these men that a full investigation be made of the procedure of interrogation and whether there is any pattern of abuse of the accepted conventions of treatment of prisoners of war. Such an inquiry cannot harm the morale of Australian forces in Vietnam. It can serve only to clear them of any stigma that may attach to them and in particular to the intelligence sections from these allegations.

The Geneva Conventions are quite clear on this issue. It is no mitigation of abuse of the Conventions to point up the fact that the woman in question was a Vietcong spy. The Leader of the Opposition pointed out that she has been referred to as a spy, an agent and a civilian. Article 85 of the Geneva Conventions of 12th August 1949 relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, states that prisoners of war prosecuted under the laws of the detaining power for acts committed before capture shall retain, even if convicted, the benefits of the present Conventions. If the Australian officers in Vietnam were satisfied that the woman was a Vietcong spy she could have been dealt with as a military criminal under military law. In fact this was not done. After interrogation this woman was transferred to the South Vietnamese authorities. Even if the woman were proved to be a spy, quite clearly under Article 85 she would still receive the benefits of the present Conventions.

I should like briefly to refer to the conditions specified for treatment of prisoners under these Conventions. Article 13 says that prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the detaining power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited and is regarded as a serious breach of the Conventions. The Article states that prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity. Article 14 states that prisoners of war are entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honour. Women shall be treated with all the regard due to their sex and shall in all cases benefit by treatment as favourable as that granted to men. la Article 17 it is emphasised that no physical or mental torture nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted upon prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind. In Article 129 the high contracting parties to the Conventions undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing or ordering to be committed any of the grave breaches of the Conventions. These breaches include wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, and wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health. Those are the relevant sections of the Geneva Conventions signed by Australia. As the Leader of the Opposition pointed out tonight, we are party to that agreement.

In his Press statement of 8th March the Minister said of these Conventions:

All Australian soldiers are fully briefed in this regard and instructions concerning humane treatment are quite explicit.

Quite clearly, whether there has been a breach of the articles of the Conventions can only be determined by an inquiry conducted by a judge and with evidence taken from the correspondents who observed or filmed the interrogation but were not asked to give evidence before the investigating officer. On the facts there must be very grave suspicion that sections of the Geneva Conventions so rightly emphasised by the Minister for the Army have been transgressed. It is most important that these allegations and the procedures of Army interrogation units be fully probed because the conduct of Australian soldiers in this war must be of the highest standard. I am not suggesting that there has been any consistent breach of that standard but the very nature of this war makes it essential that the allegations be fully tested and the interrogation and treatment of prisoners of war be put beyond reproach.

There are many reservations to be made about this miserable and agonising war. Those reservations can only be reinforced by even the slightest suggestion of torture. Any form of torture should be repugnant to any soldier worthy of the name and conscious of his fighting reputation. Torture can never be justified by the results obtained. It denotes not only suffering but also the most bestial and insulting form of contempt for humanity. There will always be human beings with moral weaknesses and defects who find outlets in the humiliation and degradation of others. We believe that the Army should take every step to ensure that this kind of person is not found in units interrogating and handling prisoners of war. We must reject all reasons adduced for the support of torture as vehemently as we reject the taking of hostages, the execution of prisoners, the imposition of collective sanctions against whole populations and punishment without trial.

This controversy again has exposed the complete lack of credibility of this Government. The Prime Minister's much wanted new broom has done nothing to remove the grave doubts about the Government's veracity. I do not want to be harsh with the Minister for the Army, but it is an incredible performance that in the space of 10 days he has made three completely contradictory statements. Quite clearly he was misled initially by his Department and by Army officials. In the second instance he acknowledged his rashness and made a commendable statement promising a committee of inquiry and emphasising that Australia subscribed to the Geneva Conventions relating to the treatment of prisoners of war. Now, under Cabinet pressure he has retracted his pledges and shelved the proposed inquiry on grounds which the Opposition finds highly unsatisfactory. This whole sequence of events is indicative of inefficient administration and sloppy government.

In fairness to the Minister and his predecessor, and in fairness to the Australian forces in the field, it must be established whether this was an isolated incident or part of a pattern of procedure. The Opposition asserts that this can only be done by a judge with full powers to summon civil and military witnesses in Australia and with full facilities to bring civil or military witnesses to Australia. Furthermore, the Government should table in the House the initial report of the investigation of the incident in South Vietnam so that honourable members can make their own assessment of these allegations.

Neither the Minister for the Army nor the Prime Minister gave any reason to the House why the findings of the committee of investigation in Vietnam should not be tabled. We believe that the House should be fully informed of the situation that applied in Nui Dat back in 1966. The Minister himself has indicated that what happened on that occasion was not in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. He tried to play down the whole episode but it is clear that there is a contradiction between the Minister for the Army and the Prime Minister on one side and, on the other, a very competent war journalist who witnessed the incident. In the circumstances I believe that the motion proposed by the Leader of the Opposition should be accepted by this House.

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The honourable member's time has expired.

Suggest corrections