EMMA ALBERICI: The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr, joined me a short time ago from our Parliament House studio to discuss the situation in Syria.
Senator Carr, welcome to Lateline.
BOB CARR: Thank you.
EMMA ALBERICI: Can you tell us what was going through your mind when you saw those images over the weekend, those distressing scenes of 110 people dead in Houla, 40 children butchered with knives, shot at point-blank range?
BOB CARR: Lives snuffed out, crimes against humanity, war crimes, atrocities. Committed most likely by a regime hanging onto power despite everything and unlikely – I suspect they'll regret to let go and make way for a political settlement. I think a brutal, horrific massacre.
EMMA ALBERICI: Do you think Houla marks a turning point of sorts in the Syrian conflict?
BOB CARR: Well, given the difficulties of securing a unanimous and strong Security Council position, I'm encouraged by the fact that Russia, Russia, which had resisted action before, asked for a Security Council meeting to hear a full report on this. I'd like to think this is a turning point.
Where we go from here is to get agreement on a ceasefire, which was the first recommendation of Kofi Annan, the joint Special Envoy employed by the UN and by the Arab League, to intervene in Syria and produce a political settlement.
The first thing is to get an effective ceasefire, which we failed to achieve since he made his recommendations back in April.
EMMA ALBERICI: Well that ceasefire you mention, that peace plan, that six-point peace plan, it's six weeks old now.
It does, would you agree, look like it's nothing more than a paper plan now? It certainly seems that the regime has thumbed its nose at it, in fact all sides seem to have ignored it.
BOB CARR: Yes, certainly this is the confirmation that the first recommendation, the ceasefire, has not remotely been achieved.
So I've just spoken to our Ambassador, Gary Quinlan, in New York. The focus is very much going to be to get Chinese and Russian support for a stronger Security Council position and to work to see that that may represent pressure on the Assad government to adhere to a ceasefire.
And then, working down those six recommendations, to get to the point where some political engagement with the opposition forces can take place. Even mouthing these words I've got to say nothing gives me optimism, but the only game in town, the only plan around is the Kofi Annan plan and we've got to summon all the support we can in the United Nations to give that some traction.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, Ban Ki-moon says in fact there is no Plan B at all. Now that's a fairly grim position for the international community to be in, isn't it?
BOB CARR: Well, it is a very grim position. Here you've got an international community that has enunciated a proposition called Responsibility to Protect. The United Nations has agreed on this.
Out of the experience of Rwanda and experience in the Balkans, the international community said, "we never want to stand by while mass crimes are committed by any regime."
Yet here we have a demonstration of the sheer difficulty of applying that principle in all circumstances, specifically in this case where a regime is strongly motivated not to give up power and to trust the people to make a decision about the future of Syria.
EMMA ALBERICI: You've sent a message to the Syrian regime saying that Australia will pursue a united international response to hold those responsible to account. How do you do that?
BOB CARR: One thing you do is to refer this to the International Court of Justice to see that as soon as possible evidence can be collected from witnesses to this crime. That the evidentiary statements are built up so that those responsible know that they will have their day in court.
As dictators are increasingly finding, we have an international criminal justice system that is working and holding people responsible for mass crimes. So that is the first thing.
Second, beyond the quest for a ceasefire and for political engagement, a political settlement in Syria, we hold in reserve the quest for United Nations sanctions. Now, that's not the highest priority at this moment; the ceasefire is. But bear in mind that the European Union, Australia, the United States have applied sanctions, autonomous sanctions, but the United Nations has not yet done that.
We know that sanctions are hurting the regime, but sanctions can get a whole lot tighter.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now Australia has, as you mention, already imposed certain sanctions. You've got travel and financial restrictions on 106 people and 28 entities as well as an arms embargo. What additional sanctions are you specifically considering?
BOB CARR: We talked to our friends in the UK and in the European Union and the United States about that. The European Union has applied oil sanctions. I would need to get advice on what other sanctions Australia would be in a position to apply and what the sticking point would be with trade and further financial engagement with Syria.
EMMA ALBERICI: Senator Carr, there are estimates of civilian deaths now ranging between 9,000 and 15,000.
How many more lives will need to be lost before the international community does once and for all put a stop to this carnage, other than references to the International Criminal Court and so on? There seems to be a more urgent need to stop the killing, doesn't there?
BOB CARR: I share your sense of despair at this. Looking at those pictures, I understand anyone who says the UN is a talking shop. But diplomacy is the only resort we have. You can't get stronger action unless you get agreement at the Security Council. There is simply nothing apart from this quest for a ceasefire and for a political settlement.
In the short run, though, I've got to say there are no encouraging movements or suggestions out of New York, except the quest for a ceasefire and beyond that getting the Assad regime to negotiate with its opponents.
EMMA ALBERICI: Why do you think it is that the US and the UK and France were so persuasive in convincing the rest of the Security Council to intervene in Libya and yet they haven't been able to do the same in this case?
BOB CARR: Oh, it's very specific. Russia and China voted for the Security Council resolutions on Libya. Russia and China believe that the Security Council-mandated action by NATO went beyond the scope of those Security Council resolutions. And their disappointment is shared by other countries – disappointed they will not support what they see as a repeat of that intervention in Libya applied to Syria.
I've got to say I find that acutely disappointing, but you've got resistance from two nations that enjoy a veto power as permanent members of the Security Council.
The United Nations can only go as far as a unanimous vote on the Security Council can take it. The veto one of those five permanent members of the Security Council can block needed action.
EMMA ALBERICI: Are you frustrated about that personally?
BOB CARR: Of course I am, but we live in a world where international action is constrained by the need for unanimity. And it's not forthcoming, at least at this stage.
I hope the revelations that have shocked so many in the world will have a bearing on those nations that have resisted the necessary resolve at the level of the Security Council.
EMMA ALBERICI: You said back there about gathering witness statements about what's been happening in Syria, but at the moment there are only 300 UN monitors within the country.
The Italian Foreign Minister just in the past day or so has suggested that we probably need something more like 10 times that number and he's also raised the possibility of arming those independent observers. Do you think that it's possible we could be headed down that route?
BOB CARR: Well, I spoke to a member of the US Senate when I was in Washington in April about Syria. He was an advocate for arming the opposition. But others have pointed out that if you arm the opposition with Kalashnikovs or anti-tank weapons, it would be interpreted by the regime as an opportunity to slaughter more of them, to step up the slaughter.
I think there are real difficulties about doing that and in the meantime it is a very dangerous area for UN observers to operate.
EMMA ALBERICI: Amnesty International says in its latest report that it's actually a failure of leadership at the UN Security Council which is rendering it irrelevant. Is that a legitimate criticism, do you think?
BOB CARR: Well I can understand people saying that, but the United Nations is organised on the basis of a charter. And it's the rule book of the UN, it's the constitution of the UN, and unfortunately, there's nothing we can do about it.
The compromise in establishing the UN meant that we had to accept the sovereignty of the now 193 members of the United Nations and get agreement in the General Assembly, but ultimately the Security Council, before you get even desperately needed action.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now William Hague has issued an ultimatum to Russia to intervene in Syria before it's too late. Has Australia made any direct representations to Russia or China?
BOB CARR: No, only the negotiations at UN. That is where the action is. I'll be speaking to William Hague tomorrow. Our Ambassador is speaking to his Russian and Chinese counterparts whenever he gets the opportunity in New York. There's no doubt that Russia and China understand the argument of many others in the world community.
EMMA ALBERICI: Is it possible, do you think, that Russia could be inclined to agree with Barack Obama's plan of some sort of Yemeni-style transfer of power?
BOB CARR: Yes, but that then raises the question of Russia's influence on the government in Damascus. Russia not only has reservations, I should point out, about the Libyan intervention, but Russia also has a long-term relationship with the Assad regime. Syria is the biggest purchaser of Russian arms. Russia has a naval port in the Mediterranean located in Syria.
There is a complex consideration of Realpolitik here in the Russian attitude and I don't think anyone can overlook that.
EMMA ALBERICI: Finally, Minister, the drums are sounding again about the PM's leadership. We know that you've already dismissed the speculation. But can that talk ever be stopped whilst Labor is faring so badly in the polls?
BOB CARR: Yes, it can. The only thing for a government to do in this position when it's going through a rough patch in the polls is to close ranks and unite behind the leader. You know, I've said several times today that this is a huge beat-up, that it's not supported by any base of evidence and I think very largely media driven. Am I happy with it? No.
EMMA ALBERICI: The economy is strong. We hear all members of your Government talking up the credentials of this Government – unemployment is low, relative growth to other countries is high. The country is doing fairly well and policies that your Government promulgates are generally well-accepted in the community.
So if it's not the Prime Minister, what is it that's making your Government so unpopular?
BOB CARR: Well I'd even add to that list: unemployment and interest rates are below 5 per cent. Inflation is not a problem. The budget is balanced. The Government's got room in the budget to support disability – a disability support scheme, to support parental leave.
If you told someone 30 years ago that Australia in 2012 would be in this position, they would've thought it wildly optimistic. I don't know an economist, a business economist, an academic who would've said 30 years ago that this was a likely prospect for Australia, but there we stand.
And I just think the Government's got to redouble its effort to talk through the welter of negativity in the media, the chaos generated by the Opposition and continue to assure the Australian people that this is how it is, this is living reality.
EMMA ALBERICI: Senator Bob Carr, thank you so much for being with us tonight.
BOB CARR: Thank you very much.
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