Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Transcript, E&OE

26 November, 2009

Doorstop interview, Commonwealth Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Port of Spain

STEPHEN SMITH: I've been in the Caribbean this week. I started in Cuba and then came to Port of Spain for the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Meeting. Can I just make some remarks firstly about Australia's engagement with the Caribbean?

My visit to Cuba and my meeting in the Port of Spain with CARICOM Foreign Ministers, with the Foreign Ministers from the Caribbean Community is part of our enhanced engagement with the Caribbean. And we're looking now to formalise a dialogue arrangement with CARICOM. 12 of the 15 CARICOM members of course are also members of the Commonwealth.

For the last two days we have been engaged in the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers' Meeting and a number of I think important points to make.

Firstly, it's the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth and we have had as Foreign Ministers cause to pause to reflect on some of the values and principles of the Commonwealth - democracy, freedom of speech, respect for the rule of law, and to reaffirm those values and those principles.

Secondly we've also looked at some potential reforms to the Commonwealth, particularly reforms to the capacity of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to take a more robust role so far and Commonwealth affairs are concerned on an ongoing basis.

But it is true as we anticipated that the key subject of conversation by Commonwealth Foreign Ministers has been climate change and here Foreign Ministers see CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, tomorrow and Saturday and Sunday, as the last major leaders meeting between now and Copenhagen.

So I think it's true to say that all Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth are looking to the prospect of political momentum on climate change out of CHOGM to Copenhagen. Australia welcomes President Obama's announcement overnight that he will attend Copenhagen. We also welcome the fact that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will also attend.

So we've had extensive conversations. I've put Australia's position which is we want a positive outcome out of Copenhagen. We are proposing, when the Prime Minister is here, to make a major announcement so far as climate change financing is concerned particularly as that applies to small island states whether they're in the Pacific, the Caribbean, or the Indian Ocean. Climate Change financing so far as adaptation and mitigation is concerned particularly assisting the least developed countries.

I've also made the point that in Australia's case in the context of a good outcome from Copenhagen we're looking at a 25% reduction on 2000 year levels by 2020 and of course made the point that the first act of this Government nearly two years ago was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The Prime Minister of course has been very active on this matter as a friend, so called friend of the Chair, or part of a circle of friends of Prime Minister Manning working very hard to try and get a positive outcome. And so climate change will clearly by the key feature of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting over the next couple of days.

Now a couple of other issues which I'll refer to.

Can I welcome very much the release of Nigel Brennan and Amanda Lindhout from captivity in Somalia. Early this morning Port of Spain time they arrived safely in Nairobi. They were met by Commonwealth and Canadian officials. As Nigel's family made clear yesterday, Nigel will now effectively get a full medical check-up.

We welcome very much his release. I know that all Australians will be as relieved and pleased that he will be able to successfully and safely reunite with his family. This has been a very difficult exercise. His family have shown great tenacity and great courage in never giving up hope of securing his release.

I've seen some comments in the papers overnight. Let me make a couple of points.

Firstly I'm not proposing to get into a running commentary for a range of important reasons. I've seen some comments about the Government's approach to this matter, and whilst as I say I'm not proposing to get into a running commentary, a range of comments that I've seen today I don't regard as being valid in any way or manner.

One fundamental point is the Australian Government does not pay ransoms. This is longstanding Australian policy adhered to by successive governments and that's done for very good reasons. For the Australian Government to pay a ransom for a kidnap victim would only encourage kidnappers, would only put Australians more at risk into the future. This is not a view which the Australian Government has in isolation. The Canadian Government also strongly shares that view as do other governments around the globe.

So within that framework, while the Australian Government not paying a ransom, the Australian Government did in a very flexible way everything it could to render assistance to the family both in a consular and other ways.

In the event, after a period of time, the family chose to conduct the matter itself as was always within its capacity, always a matter for the family's discretion, and we welcome very much the successful outcome.

There are a range of operational or procedural matters which I certainly would not discuss in public and that's for this very good reason: to go through those matters would essentially be to reveal tactical and strategic matters to kidnappers.

We continue to have kidnap victims in Somalia and around the world. And in the course of this very difficult exercise we have been not just in contact, in consultation, and worked very closely with the Canadian Government, other governments we have sought their support both in Europe and in Africa, but other governments who have kidnap victims of their own have sought our own experience and lessons that we've learnt.

So I'm certainly not proposing to go through negotiating tactics or operational, tactical or strategic matters for the very sensible reason that the only people this would advantage in the government's view are kidnappers or future kidnappers.

So having made those remarks about CHOGM and Australia's engagement with the Caribbean, climate change, and the very welcome and happy release of Nigel Brennan, I'm happy to respond to your questions on those and other matters.

JOURNALIST: So you don't see anyway in which he could have been released earlier, any action that could have done that? And on the issue of ransom, are you aware of any payment made by others on his behalf.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well of course not just the Government but the family, all Australians, and the Canadian people and the Canadian Government would have wanted both kidnap victims released earlier. I'm just very pleased and very relieved that in the event it's been a happy outcome. I'd much rather a happy outcome over a longer period of time than a tragic or a terrible outcome over a shorter period of time.

JOURNALIST: So are you saying that you don't believe the Australian Government could have done anything more to secure an earlier release?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm very confident, having lived with this exercise for a long period of time, having the Australian Government apply substantial amount of resources both in personnel and in time, apply itself very diligently both in Africa and in Australia, I'm absolutely satisfied that within the very strict parameter of the Australian Government not paying the ransom we did everything that we reasonably and sensibly could in a very flexible way to try and secure Nigel and Amanda's release.

In the event our efforts were not successful. Ultimately the family and others were successful and we welcome that very much. But we applied very considerable resources both in a consular sense and in another sense to the family to try to help them. And we just welcome the fact with great relief that we've seen a successful outcome.

But I've seen as I said a range of commentary in the papers today. I don't accept the validity of a lot of the commentary and very many of the suggestions which go to views that release could have been effected earlier are really either in code or by implication saying that the Australian Government should have paid a ransom. That is something that we would never or did never contemplate and that was something that the family understood from day 1.

That was also the very strong view of the Canadian Government. So some of the suggestions I've seen are essentially by implication suggestions that we should have paid a ransom. That would not be in the interests of Australians.

JOURNALIST: Did someone pay a ransom to get him out?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm responsible for commenting on the conduct of the Australian Government. You would need to address that question to others. I'm not commenting on behalf of others.

JOURNALIST: But if a ransom was paid then would it follow that more people would be at risk from kidnappers if that was the position of the Australian Government and the reason that the Australian Government wouldn't pay a ransom?

STEPHEN SMITH: The Australian Government makes its policy decisions and we adhered to them in this case over a long period of time. What other individuals do is not a matter that the Australian Government can compel or require. Provided people conduct themselves in accordance with domestic and international law, it is entirely a matter for the exercise of their own discretion.

And I'm certainly not, certainly not proposing in any way to be impliedly or expressly critical of anything which has occurred in this matter or anyone who has had a role in this matter - from the family, to other people who have been named today who have rendered assistance, from some of my Parliamentary colleagues, or indeed from any number of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials, Australian Federal Police officers, and officers of other agencies within the Australian Government, who've worked very diligently to seek to secure a result.

So I'm not proposing to be critical of anyone's conduct in this matter and I'm certainly not going to get into a running commentary about what particular things people may have done.

I've just made some very important points on the part of the Australian Government. We don't pay ransom. Within that policy framework, in my view we did everything reasonably and responsibly and flexibly that we could and we're very pleased that both Nigel and Amanda have been released.

It also causes me to underline this point: that the fact that the kidnapping over a 14 month period and the fact of their release, does underline the point that since the year 2000, 2001 our travel advisory for Somalia has been to not travel to Somalia. And one of the reasons details in our travel advice for that is the risk of kidnapping. And the tragic circumstances which occurred to Nigel and to Amanda underlined that and reinforced that.

JOURNALIST: How important is this CHOGM meeting for the UN Security Council bid?

STEPHEN SMITH: Everywhere I go when I have consultations or discussions with my counterparts invariably I raise Australia's commitment to multilaterally, our commitment to regionalism, our very strong view that the challenges that we face in the modern world. Whether its climate change, global financial crisis, pandemics, disaster relief, transnational crime, people movement and people smuggling, we can only deal with these issues by working together, by acting together.

The premier international institution is the United Nations. The premier peacekeeping and peace and security armoury of the United Nations is the Security Council. We are very well credentialed to play a role in the Security Council. I raise that wherever I go and in appropriate circumstances as I have with a range of my colleagues in the course of an extensive number of bilateral meetings over the last couple of days. And I am very happy to make that clear.

It reflects along the lines our commitment to regionalism and to an international approach so far as Australia is concerned. The General Assembly, the Non-Aligned Movement Summit, the African Union Summit, and the Commonwealth are the four largest plenary gatherings of nation states. So yes of course I raised our UN candidature with my colleagues at the Commonwealth.

JOURNALIST: Is focusing this conference on climate change where you would have wanted CHOGM to go at this time of year. And secondly do you have a comment on a Commonwealth Society report issued this week which raises serious questions about the future direction of the Commonwealth?

STEPHEN SMITH: When we were in New York for the General Assembly, in the margins of the General Assembly, Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meet, a number of us had conversations about this meeting as you would expect. And we all came to the conclusion that given the proximity of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to Copenhagen that it would be inexorable and inevitable that the focus of this CHOGM would become climate change. So it's been of no surprise to everyone.

The Commonwealth brings with it I think some very important factors and criteria for climate change. A large number of small low lying states, not just in the Pacific in our own backyard but in the Indian Ocean and in the Caribbean. So the views and interests of the low-lying small island states are particularly relevant. They're the nations who have contributed least to the difficulty but will stand to lose the most as a result of the adverse consequences.

I think pretty well all members of the Commonwealth who have signed up for the UN Framework Convention. I think all but four are non-annex 1 countries. So you see the diversity the Commonwealth brings from the most developed to the least developed.

So the Commonwealth can speak on climate change with an especial credential. And we've added to that with the invitation by Prime Minister Manning to the Secretary-General, to Prime Minister Rasmussen, the chair of the meeting in Copenhagen, and to other leaders. So no surprise and from both the plenary conversations and the bilaterals that we've had, Foreign Ministers from all countries have taken to that with gusto and everyone is committed to trying to add to the momentum to get a positive outcome from Copenhagen.

JOURNALIST: Have you discussed the issue of people smuggling with your Sri Lankan counterpart at this?

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes I have. Not just my colleague from Sri Lanka, but with a number of my colleagues. We've had discussions about the difficulties of people movements and displaced people.

But yes I had a good bilateral with Foreign Minister Bogollogama. We're very pleased with the outcomes that came from my trip to Sri Lanka both in terms of Australia's support and greater assistance for resettlement out of the camps.

Our strong view which I then relayed to Foreign Minister Bogollogama that Sri Lanka has to not just win the military battle but win the peace. There needs to be a process of reconciliation and healing so far as Sri Lanka is concerned so that all members of the Sri Lankan community believe that they have a role and a say in the future of Sri Lanka. We also spoke about our enhanced cooperation on people smuggling and I was very pleased to relay to him the success of a couple of major disruptions against criminal gangs in people smuggling activities in Sri Lanka in the last couple of weeks.

JOURNALIST: Minister, do you have any concerns about human rights abuses in Gambia and in Uganda and particularly in relation to Uganda existing legislation and pending legislation that would make some proposed crimes punishable in relation to homosexuals by execution:

STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't had the opportunity in the course of this meeting of having a formal bilateral meeting with my Ugandan counterpart. But as a general proposition the Australian Government through its officials, through Ministers when we meet, where we have human rights concerns these are regularly raised.

We also raise human rights concerns as part of the periodic reviews of countries before the Human Rights Council. And with a number of countries we also have a human rights dialogue. So I haven't had the opportunity of discussing those matters with my counterparts from those countries.

But I can make one point which is I saw I think in today's paper or yesterday's papers suggestions that human rights issues may not have been raised in my conversations with my Cuban counterpart. This is not the case. Anyone who would check the record of the Human Rights Council Periodic Review of Cuba earlier this year would have seen the statement that Australia made.

I had a good conversation with my counterpart about ongoing periodic review of Cuba so far as the Human Rights Council is concerned and Foreign Minister Rodriguez and I agreed that this would form part of our regular conversations between Australia and Cuba.

Australia over the years has regularly made human rights points so far as Cuba is concerned and I was very pleased to raise this with Foreign Minister Rodriguez and very pleased to get a positive response which is this is a matter that Cuba is ready willing and able to have an ongoing conversation with Australia.

JOURNALIST: Specifically though can you comment on legislation in Uganda that would make it a crime punishable by execution for a parent to harbour a homosexual?

STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't seen the legislation and I haven't had the opportunity to discuss that with my Ugandan counterpart in the course of this meeting. I'm very happy in the normal course of events to consider those matters and if we have concerns they will be raised as Australian officials and ministers regularly raises matters either in the United Nations context or in the bilateral context.

JOURNALIST: Just on Nigel Brennan, why did the Australian government find it necessary to urge the media in the Australia not to report the case when the Canadians were openly reporting it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well what the Canadian media did is a matter for the Canadian media and I didn't seek to influence the Canadian media.

I certainly as you know urged the Australian media to be very careful in its reporting of this matter for the very obvious reason that all of the experience of other countries, all the experience and the advice that we received from governments and countries and in Europe or in Africa whose citizens have been victims of kidnapping, were that kidnappers deliberately used the media to focus on the victims to increase the price and to add to the consternation of families.

The media is used as a deliberative tool by the kidnappers to try and extract a maximum price from innocent victims.

And I, as I said in my statement early this morning Port of Spain time, late last night Canberra time, when I was able to confirm the safe arrival of Nigel and Amanda in Nairobi I was very pleased to complement the Australian media on what I regarded as a very responsible approach to a very difficult situation in circumstances where the natural instinct of the media is to report. And that's not said in any critical way.

There were occasions where the Australian media felt compelled to report aspects of this matter. I understand that entirely. There were occasions when I didn't agree with the decision that'd been made either by journalists or by editorialists but as a general proposition I welcome very much the very responsible approach that the Australian media took so far as the reporting of this matter was concerned.

JOURNALIST: It's looking likely now in the Senate in Australia that Australia might night have the nucleus to take to Copenhagen. How difficult does that make climate change talks here?

STEPHEN SMITH: I made the point in my contribution on climate change in the Foreign Ministers Plenary Session that Australia was seeking to bring to Copenhagen a range of policy measures. I indicated as I have to you that the Prime Minister's proposing to make some remarks, make some announcements about Climate Change financing. We see that as being a very important contribution to the debate particularly in the capacity of developing countries or less well off countries in the adaptation or mitigation area, that we had made a commitment domestically for, in the context of a good outcome in Copenhagen, for a 25% reduction on 2000 levels by the year 2020.

Also we were strongly in favour of an international agreement with legally binding obligations and to underline and make that point. At this very moment we were seeking to get through the Australian Parliament a domestic emissions trading system which would legally bind us unilaterally in the domestic context.

So our view has always been that an emission trading scheme legislated for in Australia is a good outcome to take to Copenhagen. It shows our policy credentials, it shows our desire to get a broadly based international binding agreement. It would be an advantage and it will be in my view a very strong disadvantage if we're not in position to make that point and I hope that ultimately good sense will provide out of the Parliament and the emission trading scheme legislation goes through.

[ENDS]

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