STEVE CANNANE: The Assange issue is one of many now occupying the attention of Foreign Minister Bob Carr, others including how the international community's dealing with the brutal regime in Syria and the detention in Libya of Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor.
Bob Carr joins us now from Rabat in Morocco.
Bob Carr, thanks very much for talking to us.
BOB CARR: Yes, thank you, Stephen.
STEVE CANNANE: A fairly unusual move, an Australian seeking political asylum in Ecuador. What communications have you or your department had with the Ecuadorians about this?
BOB CARR: Well I'm told that the Australian High Commission in London has contacted the Ecuadorians simply to establish what is being done. We stand ready to assist as a consular case Julian Assange. He's received more consular support than any Australian in a comparable timeframe and he'll continue to get it.
But bear in mind that his argument is with the government of Sweden which wants to extradite him to question him about allegations of sexual assault. It's not about politics. It has nothing to do with the release of classified material; it's an issue between him and the government of Sweden.
Australia can make representations, as we've done, to the government of Sweden about due process applying. We've done that. I'm proud to say we've done it. But we can't fight his case for him on a sexual assault matter or anything else. That's between him and the government of Sweden, as is the extradition between him and the government of Ecuador.
STEVE CANNANE: He's also brought the Government of Australia into this though. He says the Government of Australia has abandoned him, and he says he wants confirmation as to whether the US wants to extradite him for espionage.
Since you became the Foreign Minister, you've met with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and other US officials. You have raised the issue of Julian Assange and whether he will be extradited to the US with the secretary of state or other US officials?
BOB CARR: I've raised it with a US official. There has been no hint of an American interest in doing this. In theory it could not be ruled out, but it just strikes me as curious that if the Americans wanted to extradite him, they'd have every opportunity to extradite him from the United Kingdom, where he's been for some years.
There's an extradition treaty, I understand, between the United States and the United Kingdom and indeed there's some legal advice that it would be easier for America to do it with the United Kingdom than with the government of Sweden.
I repeat: this is the Swedes pursuing extradition to question Julian Assange about a sexual assault allegation. It's not about WikiLeaks, it's not about the release of classified information. And if the United States were interested in an agenda that involves extradition of Julian Assange, they could do it quite possibly more easily from the United Kingdom than from Sweden.
STEVE CANNANE: OK, but US WikiLeaks published internal emails from Fred Burton, the former State Department official, now vice president of the security consultancy Stratfor, that showed he'd emailed saying, and I quote, "We have a sealed indictment on Assange."
Have you sought confirmation as to whether there is a sealed indictment ready to extradite Julian Assange from Sweden to the US?
BOB CARR: The US ambassador addressed that publicly and I spoke to him about it. He's not aware what a so-called sealed indictment is. He's not aware what it is. Now I can't exclude the possibility that some section of the American government, the Justice Department, for example, has got this agenda.
But I can say when I've raised it with representatives of the American diplomatic community, they know nothing about it.
STEVE CANNANE: That's unusual that you say that because Australian embassy cables obtained under Freedom of Information by Fairfax last year have confirmed the US Justice Department was conducting an inquiry into whether Julian Assange can be charged under US law and most likely the Espionage Act.
BOB CARR: Well they may well be conducting an inquiry, but your earlier question was about whether there's a sealed indictment. I don't know what a sealed indictment is. The American official I raised it with didn't know what a sealed indictment is.
But I repeat to the very — I retreat to the very basic point here: if the Americans wanted to extradite him, why haven't they extradited him from the UK? They have an extradition treaty with the UK, and according to one lawyer, it would be easier for them to do it from the UK than from Sweden.
Julian Assange's argument here is with one government. That is the government of Sweden which wants to extradite him, which has pursued him in the UK courts to extradite him to ask him questions about a sexual assault allegation. It's not WikiLeaks, it's not about secrets, it's not about political persecution. The Assange argument is with the government of Sweden.
For my part, I continue to be proud that Australia has pursued consular support for Mr Assange as we would for anyone in argument in a foreign jurisdiction, but we cannot fight their case for them.
We extracted a commitment from the Swedes that he would have due process, that he would have access, if he is detained, with his lawyers, with his family, with his friends. We cannot fight the case in foreign courts for Australians who've got an argument with a foreign jurisdiction.
STEVE CANNANE: Your predecessor as foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, said that Julian Assange was not responsible for the leak of 250,000 US diplomatic cables, that the US was responsible. Do you agree with that assessment?
BOB CARR: Well I don't find it something that's fruitful to argue about, but certainly the US has got to deal with the level of security that surrounded these cables. That is something that can legitimately be put to the US.
STEVE CANNANE: So, should they take … ?
BOB CARR: I think if put to them — I think if put to them, you'd find America on the defensive about the level of security that surrounds documents that give accounts of conversations between US diplomats and people in different countries around the world.
STEVE CANNANE: One of the questions that's being raised about Julian Assange is whether he's a journalist and if he's a journalist whether he would be subject to the Espionage Act. As a former journalist yourself, do you consider Julian Assange to be a journalist?
BOB CARR: I have not a view on that, Stephen. I'd — like anyone — like every journalist I know, I'd need to get a lawyer's advice on whether journalists have that immunity or whether we would stand — whether we would stand subject to espionage legislation.
STEVE CANNANE: And has any advice been sought as to whether Julian Assange could be subject to the Espionage Act as both an Australian in the US and also a publisher and editor-in-chief?
BOB CARR: No, Stephen. We don't conduct defences for Australians who've got arguments in foreign jurisdiction. But again, this case isn't about espionage, it's not about the leak of classified material, it's not about WikiLeaks.
This is the Swedish government seeking extradition of someone who happens to be an Australian citizen for allegations of sexual assault made in Sweden. They want to interview him about it. They've sought his extradition because of it and we've made representations to Sweden about his humane treatment and about due process, should that happen?
But we can't fight his case for him any more than we could fight a case for an Australian who finds himself or herself in trouble in a Chinese court or in a court in Bali.
STEVE CANNANE: OK. Moving on to other issues, and on your trip you've met with Libya's prime minister and also deputy foreign minister to press for the release of Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor. How close is she to being released?
BOB CARR: Well I'm encouraged by the fact that I've had confirmed that there will be talks — or at least talks are planned — between the ICC, the International Criminal Court, and the government of Libya.
This is good news. I won't rest easy till the talks are actually underway; there's a lot that could go wrong. But, I think encouraged by the representations I've made, both sides are committed to talks.
If we can resolve the disagreement that the Libyans and the ICC have about the handling of the case of Saif Gaddafi then I think we're in a situation where the four ICC people who've been detained in Zintan can be released.
And in fact, I'm putting the case to the Libyans that they be released in advance of that. I hope to have another conversation with the deputy foreign minister of Libya shortly in which I say to him, "Separate your talks with the ICC from the issue of detainees. Let the detainees go and Australia will stand ready to facilitate any discussions, if you need that extra facilitation, with the ICC officials in The Hague."
STEVE CANNANE: So what chance that Melinda Taylor and the three other ICC delegates could be released before those talks?
BOB CARR: Well there are a lot of imponderables in this, Stephen, but I hope we're a long way from the prospect that was — which we were facing a couple of days ago, which was that she would face 45 days additional detention while the investigations were wrapped up and then quite possibly, it was put to us, another 45 days on top of that.
I'd like to think we've made a lot of progress since then. I was very gratified that the prime minister of Libya, who I think is a fine democrat, spent time with me as well as his foreign minister and his deputy foreign minister.
I'm very glad that judge Song of the International Criminal Court took time last night, European time, to talk through their approach and I'm gratified that he's pretty close to the position that I said would be useful in getting the Libyans to release the detainees.
STEVE CANNANE: If the prime minister of Libya agrees to release the detainees, will the authorities in Zintan agree to do that? Because there are reports that Zintan, where the four are being held, is effectively outside the control of the central government, and even if the prime minister may agree, they may not agree to release the four.
BOB CARR: Well Stephen, I know that view's been expressed and expressed by people who are much more intimately involved in Libya — in Libyan politics than I, and it's got to be said again — I've said this a lot: that the politics of Libya are somewhat clouded, they're fraught, they're complex.
But the prime minister and his foreign minister assured me that the detainees in Zintan are under the authority of their attorney-general.
It's also been put to me by ICC staff on the ground in Tripoli, working to get the release of their colleagues, that in Zintan the officials would be happy to be rid of problem, in the nicest possible way — to see the detainees released from the prison that they're running and I found that encouraging as well.
STEVE CANNANE: OK, if we can move briefly to Syria.
Russia has been arguing there should be no intervention in Syria, yet a Russian-operated ship said to be carrying military helicopters to Syria has been turned back after its British insurer removed coverage at the behest of the UK government.
Does this undermine Russia's argument that there should be no direct involvement in the crisis? It seems like they're involved in the crisis.
BOB CARR: I think the world needs to continue to work at the formidable challenge of engaging. The consensus is that a humanitarian intervention or an obligation — an intervention under the obligation to protect, the responsibility to protect, is not feasible.
Apart from anything else, it'd be vetoed by the Russians or the Chinese in the Security Council given the attitudes that they've taken out of the Libyan intervention. And there are great difficulties too about the prospect of the intervention in the civil war in Syria, practical difficulties that render it a whole lot more complex and challenging than was Libya.
Now, I think, given that, and given the fact that there's no ceasefire, that the six-point Kofi Annan peace plan has not been implemented, we've got to focus on engaging the one power that has influence in Damascus and that is Russia.
And we've got to talk to Russia about the prospect of moving their consideration towards something like the Yemen solution that saw a change in president in Yemen and saw a political dialogue, that saw a ceasefire, that saw the different sides coming together and the planning of a transfer of power democratically.
Now there are enormous difficulties. I'm the first to concede about taking the Yemen model and applying it to Syria. I've spoken to experts and they've reminded me of a whole lot of differences.
But given the stalemate we're in, I think engaging Russia and coaxing them towards assistance in the departure of president Assad, as the president of Yemen was persuaded to go, is probably as least-bad plan as we're going to have any time in this terribly fraught and complicated situation.
STEVE CANNANE: How does the West go about changing the mind of Russia? I mean, if you look at the most recent comments, David Cameron said that Putin does not want Assad to remain in power, then Russia's foreign minister came out and said that statement did not correspond with reality.
It seems uncertain whether Russia's position on transitional leadership has changed at all.
BOB CARR: Yes, if we laid out on the table all the statements made by Russia and indeed by other nations on this in the last few months, we'd be reminded of a lot of times when their positions have veered closer rather than further apart.
Russia, for example, other neighbours of Syria, indeed, some of the European nations, have nodded in the direction of something like the Yemen solution. As I look around, the only nation expressing views on Syria likely to have influence in Damascus, likely to have the remotest chance of persuading one part of this regime to step down and to move on and enable a political dialogue by what remains of the government, the government that chooses to — that part of the government that chooses to stay on and the opposition, is Russia.
And we should be encouraging Russia to show global leadership on this and to go beyond thinking in terms of what might be described as a more narrow national interest view of Syria.
STEVE CANNANE: Just finally and briefly, while you've been overseas there's been massive restructures announced in the news media in Australia, both Fairfax and News. What's your reaction been to those restructure announcements?
BOB CARR: I think it's a most depressing day in Australian history because if you think about it, the best writing in Australia comes from Australian journalists, can be found on the pages of Australian papers.
The best writing is Australia's not in the universities, it's not in the literary journals and it's not in the public service — believe you me, I read the public service documents — it's in Australian newspapers where the culture of the short declarative sentence still rules the day.
The newspapers have trained people to write, and if we lose that, we lose, not to sound pretentious about it, a big part of the culture of our country. Australian writing owes a great deal to Australian newspapers. You don't find better writing outside the boundaries of papers.
To see journalists losing jobs in these great numbers, to see a blow to the — a blow to Australian writing, published Australian writing, to see an end to newspapers is very, very sad. I don't know what takes their place. I don't know what other institution is going to train people to write.
STEVE CANNANE: Bob Carr, we'll have to leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us from Morocco.
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