United Nations Headquarters, New York doorstop interview

  • Transcript, E&OE

FOREIGN MINISTER I have just represented Australia at a Global Terrorism Forum that has been convened by the United States and Turkey to consider ways to counter terrorism in all its forms, including combatting the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters. The almost 30 countries represented at this forum have discussed ways that they are taking steps to counter terrorism at home and abroad. I spoke of Australia's efforts in changing our laws; enhancing the capability of our security, intelligence, law enforcement, customs and border protection and passport agencies; and I also spoke of further work that we will be doing in bringing together representatives of security and intelligence agencies, as well as the travel industry, so that we can work out ways to prevent terrorists from accessing aeroplanes and boarding flights. We also discussed the issue of paying ransoms for hostages and this practice must cease. For it is degrading our efforts to attack the terrorist organisations at their heart and we've made it quite clear that this practice must stop – paying ransoms for people kidnapped or hostages.

Tomorrow there will be a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council, convened by President Obama to debate the issue of foreign terrorist fighters. It's an open discussion, so I expect that many countries will take part. Last Friday, I attended a special meeting of the Security Council convened by Secretary of State John Kerry. At that meeting about 40 nations were represented and they were united in their condemnation of ISIL and its ilk – there are other terrorist organisations apart from ISIL that are carrying out atrocities and executions and brutalities across Syria and Iraq.

So there is a sense of universal condemnation of ISIL and its ilk. There is a commitment by all countries to take steps to ensure that we can keep our citizens at home safe and looking to combat terrorism, particularly in Syria and Iraq. And I'm looking forward to Prime Minister Abbott being here tomorrow to take part in this very important debate.

JOURNALIST Minister can you comment on the shooting death in Melbourne of the terrorist suspect?

FOREIGN MINISTER No, I can't. This obviously occurred overnight and I don't have any details that I can share with you.

JOURNALIST Minister, Turkey was co-hosting that plenary session. Do you think they could lead by example, maybe do a bit more to close their borders to ISIL rather than coming to New York and talking about it?

FOREIGN MINISTERI have spent a lot of time over the last few days meeting one-on-one with foreign ministers of a number of Arab State countries. Each one has expressed a deep concern; each one of them has condemned the activities of these terrorist organisations; and each one has committed to working as part of the international coalition to seek to combat terrorism in all its forms wherever it occurs. But Turkey has been particularly supportive; they've had a very difficult situation in that a number of their people, their citizens, have been held hostage and now that that has been resolved, we expect Turkey to take a very strong role in this. But each one of the foreign ministers that I have spoken to from Arab States has been committed to the international coalition.

JOURNALIST Minister, talking about the paying of ransoms – are you saying it shouldn't be paid? Are you talking about foreign governments paying ransoms or private families paying?

FOREIGN MINISTERI'm talking about the practice of paying ransoms because all it does is exacerbate the problem. It's funding the terrorist organisations. It's not the only way they receive funds but we have to combat terrorism at its very fundamental, basic roots. Military action is short term, what we have to do is to starve these organisations of funds, resources and foreign fighters. We're doing what we can from Australia in terms of preventing Australian citizens from leaving our country, and going to the Middle East to fight. But we also have to starve these organisations of funds and the practice of kidnapping hostages and then demanding ransoms has funded the terrorist organisations. Of course we have to re-double our efforts to ensure that circumstances don't arise where hostages can be taken.

JOURNALIST Minister, on Syria. Now that the US has begun a bombing campaign, is this something Australia would consider in the future? Supporting US efforts inside Syria as well as Iraq?

FOREIGN MINISTERWe have been asked to focus our efforts in Iraq. We are working closely with the Iraqi Government and we've been asked to consider taking part in operations relating to Iraq – that's our focus. Of course the United States was supported by other countries in the activities that took place overnight with the airstrikes in Syria, but Australia has not been requested to take part in that and our focus has been on working with the Iraqi Government, at its invitation and with its consent. Indeed, I met with the Foreign Minister of Iraq last evening and he expressed the deep appreciation for Australia's willingness to work with them to combat ISIL inside the Iraqi borders. We acknowledge that ISIL is operating with no regard to borders, no regard to human life, no regard to humanity, but our focus is on Iraq.

JOURNALIST Did he ask for help?

FOREIGN MINISTERThe Iraqi Foreign Minister?

JOURNALIST Yes. Did he ask for help? And if not, why not? Why the delay?

FOREIGN MINISTERThe Iraqi Foreign Minister, the Government, has already asked for help and we have stated our willingness to help and that's why we have pre-deployed to the UAE. So our support is there and the Iraqi Government has appreciated it but we're waiting for detailed operations to be explained and then we'll work out what role Australia should play.

JOURNALIST Why the delay? I mean, they're rampaging through northern Iraq, why the delay in taking action?

FOREIGN MINISTER The Iraqi Government is ensuring that its forces are well-trained, that its forces are able to defend themselves as well as attack ISIL. There is a lot of work underway behind the scenes. But Australia has pre-deployed so that we are ready to act should there be a prudent, proportionate role for us to take.

JOURNALIST Minister you are planning to go to Iraq. To what extent will that have an impact on what Australia does?

FOREIGN MINISTEROur Defence Minister, David Johnston, is in Baghdad, so he has already met with the Iraqi Prime Minister and is discussing ways that Australia can assist. I have been invited by the Iraqi Foreign Minister to visit Baghdad and I'm hoping to do that, and for a number of reasons, including ensuring that the Iraqi Government is embracing inclusive policies, ensuring that it is going to be a sustainable government and also speaking with the officials and members of the government as to precisely what their needs are and what the situation is on the ground. I've spoken to a number of people who have been to Baghdad recently, foreign ministers, Valerie Amos - who coordinates the United Nations emergency relief efforts – and the situation is dire. There is mayhem in Iraq but I intend to see it for myself so that we can make a prudent decision as to the role Australia should play.

JOURNALIST Minister, no one is pretending that it's going to be a short-term campaign. President Obama has said as much. Are we talking months, years? If you're looking at not just the initial bombing campaign but the follow through efforts of counter-terrorism at home and elsewhere, if you're looking at a timeline realistically, given that the war against terrorism is well over a decade old now, and this is the latest declaration of it, how long are we talking?

FOREIGN MINISTERThere are clearly stages. The first stage is to destruct, degrade the structure of these terrorist organisations. That's done through military operations, air strikes and the Iraqi Defence Force taking action. But of course longer term there have to be efforts such as starving the terrorist organisations of funds and fighters and weapons, but also trying to expose these organisations for the fraudulent, murderous, brutal regimes that they are. This is not about Islam. This is not a state.

JOURNALIST Minister, this sounds like a generational conflict.

FOREIGN MINISTER This will take a long time. I mean, in Australia we have to fathom how it is that young Australians would leave our country to be suicide bombers, to kill and execute others with these barbarians in the Middle East. So we have a lot to do – outreach programs in Australia as well. Every country that is facing this threat of foreign terrorist fighters has work to do in their own communities to ensure that we can reach out to parents, to religious leaders, to the whole community to keep our people safe and to prevent young people from being radicalised in this way. So of course it's a long term effort but short term we've got the military action.

JOURNALIST Minister, how did we let that happen? How did we let 160 people slip out of the country to go and fight for a terrorist group? And you were talking tomorrow about the UN Security Council, saying to stem the flow of foreign fighters, surely that's too late? Did we drop the ball on this?

FOREIGN MINISTERWell, when people leave the country with a legitimate passport and say that they are travelling to the Middle East, you don't immediately arrest them unless you've got evidence that would support an adverse security assessment. So what we have done is introduce, we're in the process of introducing legislation that would give authorities more power to prevent people from going overseas. I mean, Australia is a free country, we have freedom of movement, we have access to passports, Australians travel overseas, it's just a normal way of life for us.

This is a phenomenon that many countries are facing. We are now told that about 80 countries can claim to have foreign terrorist fighters amongst their citizens and so we have to do what we can to protect Australians at home, to prevent these people from going overseas, but also to take steps on their return to ensure that they are no threat to Australia and our citizens.

JOURNALIST I think also an acknowledgement though that as we increased our presence in this mission against the Islamic State that it increases the threat back in Australia. And that's why we're seeing the events that we've seen in the last week or so?

FOREIGN MINISTERThe increase in foreign fighters has pre-dated us agreeing to take part in operations in Iraq. I mean, we've had Australians killed by terrorists in Bali as far back as 2002. There were terrorist attacks prior to September 11. This has been a long struggle against extremism and radicalisation. The phenomenon we're seeing at present is a particularly brutal and virulent form of terrorism that is utilising social media and online technologies not only to terrorise people but to work as a recruitment tool. So the terrorist that we're seeing is younger, more mobile, more brutally violent than that which we've experienced before. So we have to adapt as quickly as we can and at least always be one step ahead.

JOURNALIST Minister, how important is the involvement and support of those Sunni Arab states for the US action in Syria? And with the Security Council meeting tomorrow, will it be considering beyond foreign fighters in this whole challenge?

FOREIGN MINISTER I imagine that it will be a broad-ranging discussion on the issue of terrorism, but the focus will specifically be on foreign terrorist fighters but wherever they might exist. So it's not confined to just a discussion on Iraq. It will also look at Syria and I imagine a number of countries will also share their experiences. Boko Haram in Nigeria is a particularly vicious terrorist organisation as well. But the immediate focus will be on what can be done to stop ISIL from spreading its cause beyond Syria and Iraq. It is vital for all countries that are affected by this to come together to coordinate operations to prevent this. From my discussions with the foreign ministers of a number of these countries, there is a deep commitment, a willingness to work together to ensure that we can contain, disrupt, degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL and its ilk.

JOURNALIST Is the US doing the right thing in launching a bombing campaign in Syria without Syrian or UN approval?

FOREIGN MINISTERThe foreign ministers that I've spoken to from the region support it. They see that this ungoverned space in eastern Syria is a breeding ground for this type of terrorism and I've spoken to many foreign ministers from the region and they support the United States' efforts.

JOURNALIST Just a technical question, we're saying we won't go into Syria. Mr Abbott said previously, because we don't recognise the government there and we would only do it if there was a resolution and so forth. What's the difference between our rationale and that of the US? Is it just that the US can do it because they want to?

FOREIGN MINISTERIt is that there is a legal line of defence – collective self-defence - part of the defence of the Iraqi people includes trying to prevent ISIL from coming back from Syria into Iraq. I mean, the border between Syria and Iraq is essentially porous, as far as ISIL is concerned. But Australia's efforts are focused on working with the Iraqi Government, that's what we've been asked to do. The Prime Minister didn't rule out Australia's efforts having an impact in Syria. So if you starve ISIL of fighters and funds in Iraq, it probably has an impact in Syria. But the United States is supported by a number of countries in the region, including Iran, in carrying out this action.

JOURNALIST You used a term there, Minister, 'ungoverned space'? Is that our way of saying that Australia could go into parts of what used to be Syria on the basis that it is now Islamic State?

FOREIGN MINISTERNo, it's my way of saying the fact is the eastern part of Syria is ungoverned space and the United States has indicated for some time that it intended to disrupt ISIL wherever it could find it and that includes in Syria.

JOURNALIST Now in the meeting before you said that you were going to be chairing a special meeting in November. That could be Australia's last act as…

FOREIGN MINISTERWe are holding the presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of November and there are a number of matters that we want to achieve during that month. One of them will be to focus on counter-terrorism efforts of this forum and build on the work that has been agreed to today but also to discuss the progress that has been made in the dismantling, degrading and destroying ISIL at that time. We want to ensure that the issue of foreign terrorist fighters remains an issue in the Security Council including during our presidency. It's not the only matter that we will be discussing but it will be a feature of the November presidency of Australia.

Media enquiries