Australian Red Cross conference

  • Speech, E&OE
05 November 2014

[Introductions and welcome] I am delighted to be here to highlight the work of a key partner in many of the Australian Government's humanitarian and security efforts around the globe – the Red Cross movement.

Red Cross is held in high regard by the people of Australia who regularly show their generous support for your work in times of disaster. The Red Cross banner transcends borders. It is universally recognised as a symbol of neutrality, fairness, peace and compassion. That banner represents a tiered range of organisations, from the International Committee of the Red Cross, to International Federation of the Red Cross, to national societies like the Australian Red Cross – in its centenary year. And under that banner, the Red Cross can help communities often in ways that Government sometimes cannot. It can go places, gain access, across conflict lines.

In tandem with its efforts in the field, the Red Cross has worked to create the international rules to limit suffering. It is an important mission, and one the Australian Government unreservedly supports. One hundred and fifty years ago,12 European States collectively decided that there had to be limits to what was permissible in war. Society's ethical codes dictated it, and now, the law did too. The Geneva Convention of 1864 captured this first attempt at codifying the limits of acceptable action in war.

International humanitarian law has evolved considerably since that time and Australia has been a consistent advocate for those developments. For example, the Arms Trade Treaty due to enter into force in December, received the necessary 50th ratification. Australia is one of the seven co-authors of the original 2006 General Assembly Resolution calling for an Arms Trade Treaty, which culminated in its adoption on the second of April last year. The Treaty recognises the need to better regulate the conventional arms trade and to reduce the impact of armed violence on communities around the world.

But we all know that establishing rules is not enough. Establishing laws is not enough. Without proper implementation, all the rules in the world will not reduce the needless suffering of innocent civilians in conflict – the civilians. That's why Australia is offering practical assistance to help other nations implement the Arms Trade Treaty. Because we are a consistent advocate Australia has co-chaired negotiations, for example, with Jordan and Luxembourg in response to the Syrian regime's non-compliance with an earlier resolution that aimed to provide access in Syria for humanitarian purposes.

Your conference today is focussed on securing compliance with the laws of war and this discussion is more than timely. The various theatres of war around the globe demonstrate a growing disconnect between having the existence of laws and the effective implementation of them. The increasing prevalence of non-state actors has made the challenge of implementation even greater.

We see this at close range through Australia's work on the United Nations Security Council. In the almost two years that Australia has been a temporary member, the UNSC has witnessed major violations of international humanitarian law. In Syria, for example, perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of this century is unfolding and made worse by the Assad regime's calculated policy of denying humanitarian relief as well as the utter disregard for human life shown by the gruesome terrorist organisation ISIL or Da'esh as it is called in the Middle East.

The task of tackling the unspeakable brutality that's being inflicted on so many innocents in too many parts of the world is daunting. As the UN Secretary-General said in his report last year on the protection of civilians, "the current state of protection for civilians in armed conflict leaves little room for optimism." The Red Cross doesn't shy away though, just the opposite. Through the ICRC, IFRC and national societies like the Australian Red Cross, the Red Cross goes where many others fear to go.

Allow me to pay particular tribute to the fine work of Helen Durham in this field - the first Australian and also the first woman to become the Director of International Law and Policy of International Committee of the Red Cross in its 150 year history. Dr Durham has dedicated her working life in the pursuit of protection for victims of war and internal violence. She speaks with such passion to ensure that acts of sexual violence are investigated and prosecuted as serious international crimes.

This is a cause that I too consider a priority. I am a committed champion of the United Kingdom's Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative to combat sexual violence against women in conflict. It was instigated by former Foreign Secretary William Hague and Australia is contributing $4 million to combat sexual violence in conflict, administered through the Red Cross for this initiative.

The Australian Government is deeply committed to working with other nations and organisations such as the ICRC and IFRC to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law. It is the responsibility of all parties to armed conflict to respect, comply and work to strengthen these laws. Throughout Australia's history we have seriously committed to this responsibility whenever our defence personnel are deployed overseas.

Back in 1917 in the third year of the Great War, Sir Robert Menzies actually wrote, "No victory for the Allies could be called a victory at all if it did not involve the triumph of the principles for which the Allies expressly fought. If we have combated for the sanctity of international law, then victory for us must mean that in future, international law is respected." These words are equally true today. Our contribution to the framework for international peace and security is driven by the desire to strengthen the effect of those laws.

As Foreign Minister, one of my primary responsibilities is to help maintain peace at home and in our region and beyond. For we must recognise that we live in a world where armed conflict is all too common and so we must do anything in our power to ensure those conflicts are contained to the combatants and that all sides respect the laws of war.

Australia is pushing for greater accountability for violations of international humanitarian law – including through the International Criminal Court, commissions of inquiry and Security Council visits. A number of years ago I chaired the joint standing committee on treaties back in 2002 to ensure Australia was an early ratifier of the Statute of Rome. I hope as the International Criminal Court's jurisdictional reach broadens, so too will the understanding that serious violations of International Humanitarian Law will have consequences, and that as a result, compliance with these laws will increase.

Australia has been participating in the ongoing efforts of the joint Swiss and ICRC initiative to strengthen compliance, and I understand that this process has made significant progress towards a new compliance mechanism. We need these laws to be understood and respected throughout the world as they reflect our common humanity. And we must do everything we can to bring the perpetrators of heinous crimes to account.

Australia is also deeply focussed on finding better ways to protect health care workers in armed conflicts. Last year Australia co-chaired, along with the ICRC, the global workshop on "health care in danger" that brought together military experts from 27 countries. And we've seen in places like Syria, the inability of the people of that country to access medical care has had disastrous consequences, which have compounded the already terrifying impact of the war. So I'm keen for Australia's continued involvement in this project as we look forward to developing and implementing solutions.

Australia backs its words with money – money that is needed to make a difference. Australia is the 9th largest donor to the ICRC. We provided $22 million in core funding for ICRC's operations in 2014 and will provide $26.6 million in 2015. We also provide additional funding to ICRC's operations when disaster or conflict strikes, including in the Palestinian Territories, the Ukraine, Somalia and Central African Republic.

When I was in Ukraine in July during the aftermath of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17, I met ICRC people doing extraordinary work in the Netherlands and Ukraine to help reduce the suffering of the families involved and ensure respect for those who died.

The work of the Australian Red Cross comes into its own as it responds to the disasters that strike our own region. Through our partnership with the Australian Red Cross, we are contributing $9 million dollars this financial year for humanitarian training, disaster preparedness and risk reduction in our region. We top this up with additional funds for specific disaster-relief as required, such as the $40 million in response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last December.

We support the International Federation of the Red Cross Disaster Law Program to gain agreement on laws and protocols to make it faster and easier to deliver disaster assistance. And the Australian Red Cross is also a key partner in the Australian Volunteers for International Development Program. Whether it's providing health services in Afghanistan, water and sanitation in Nepal and Bangladesh, or supporting the Australian Volunteers for International Development program generally – I know the Red Cross will always uphold its core values – humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, volunteerism, unity and universality. They're the values which have made the Red Cross movement respected across the world and the work of the Australian Red Cross respected here at home.

The work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement is central to Australia's humanitarian efforts. Even when humanity is engaged in lethal combat, we have found ways to respect the rules of war. The twentieth century – wracked as it was by global conflict - was the first century in which all major belligerents acknowledged common humanitarian rules for the conduct of hostilities. While these wars brought untold sorrow, countless lives were saved through these rules.

It's my hope that in the twenty-first century we do far better, by both reducing the scourge of war and by ensuring that, when conflicts do occur, these rules become part of our common consciousness, protecting all, no matter which side you are on. Creating laws to govern us in our darkest times is not easy. Upholding them is even harder. But we must remain optimistic. We must continue to work towards the ethos the Red Cross movement embodies. The alternative is unthinkable.

I thank you all for the tireless work you do to make our world a better place.

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