Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National

  • Transcript
Subjects: Russian invasion of Ukraine; Australia-China relations; education for Afghan girls; death of Shokrollah Jebeli.
24 March 2022

Patricia Karvelas: NATO’s Secretary-General has confirmed the organisation will strengthen its military presence along its eastern border with Russia ahead of major summit tonight. There are growing fears that Russia could resort to chemical or even nuclear weapons as Ukrainian forces gain the upper hand on the battlefield. Tonight's summit will address the consequences of President Putin's invasion of Ukraine, discuss the role of China in this crisis and decide on the next steps to strengthen NATO's deterrence and defence.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs is Marise Payne, and she joins us this morning. Minister, welcome.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Are China and India the key to persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his invasion of Ukraine? And what steps is Australia taking to encourage them to do that?

Marise Payne: Well, frankly, there shouldn't be a key needed to prevent Putin from continuing this war. We all know it is illegal and unlawful. We all know it's a complete breach of international law and a wholesale breach of the UN Charter. But we have been working with the international community, and it is a very, very strong sense of unity around the world. In the Prime Ministers Summit with Prime Minister Modi at the beginning of this week they did discuss the very serious concerns about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. They reiterated the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities, including reinforcing the importance of the global world order built on the UN Charter and on international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

I've spoken with my counterpart about these issues as well. And, of course, Australia and India have a very strong bilateral relationship –

Patricia Karvelas: So is it your view that India has now taken a strong enough line on the invasion?

Marise Payne: Ultimately these are matters for each country to determine their own approach. Of course they are. And there's a range of approaches globally. But the importance of the unity in that coalition I spoke about – and let's think about this, it's the United States, it's the United Kingdom, it's the EU, it's non-EU European countries like Switzerland, it's Korea, it's Japan, it's Singapore, it's New Zealand, it's Australia, it's Canada, all of NATO obviously. This is a very strong and unified coalition against Russia's illegal war extracting the maximum cost on Russia that we can and providing as much support to Ukraine as we can. And we've seen through Australia's contributions that has come in the form of sanctions, in the form of humanitarian support and in the form of military support.

Patricia Karvelas: You've joined the US in accusing Russia of war crimes. Is it possible to find a diplomatic resolution to this conflict which also allows those who are guilty of war crimes to be brought to justice?

Marise Payne: Well, we never stop seeking a diplomatic resolution. Let me say that very clearly. And that is essential, and will be so in the coming days and weeks, as it has been in the last month. But the intentional targeting of civilians is a war crime. The bombing of civilian infrastructure, targeting schools where civilians are sheltering, forced deportation of residents, targeting air strikes on to a theatre where civilians were known to be sheltering, bombing maternity hospitals, we have 460-plus schools damaged, 43-plus attacks on healthcare facilities. Absolutely the intentional targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure is a war crime.

Patricia Karvelas: The Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to travel to Indonesia for the G20 summit in Bali later this year in October. Should he be allowed to attend?

Marise Payne: These are very sensitive issues. We are dealing on not just in relation to the G20 but multiple international and multilateral organisations and gatherings where this is a matter that we have to address. We'll work closely with other members of the G20 and particularly Indonesia on this. But Russia – Russia's participation in multilateral fora is a very serious issue, and it's something which the international community has to continue to examine.

Patricia Karvelas: Is expelling the Russian ambassador still a live option for Australia?

Marise Payne: I've said consistently that it remains a live option, to use your words –

Patricia Karvelas: But why hasn't it happened yet, given we're seeing war crimes now, according to the language you've used?

Marise Payne: Well, the option of expelling diplomats is something that is available to governments. But at the same time it is potentially useful to have direct lines of communication with, in this case, the Russian government. But that does not mean the government has excluded that option. Other countries have asked Russian diplomats to leave their countries but not in every case their ambassador. There may be diplomats who have been expelled for, quote, as I understand it, undertaking activities not consistent with their diplomatic status. That means something entirely different from expelling ambassadors. But we're working with partners – we always do – to determine the best approaches in this circumstance.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so are you currently looking at expelling people from the embassy that aren't the ambassador?

Marise Payne: I'm not going to speculate on Australia's approach. I have said it remains, however, a live option on the table for this government.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, you did just say, though, that you think direct lines of communications are important. I mean, we've been –

Marise Payne: They can be useful.

Patricia Karvelas: Yeah, they're useful, right. I get that, of course. We've been in this conflict for a month now. Have those lines been used?

Marise Payne: We have certainly engaged with the Russian ambassador and diplomats. And I have my own posts in Moscow as well which, of course, is able to convey appropriate messages as well.

Patricia Karvelas: And clearly, I mean, you know, with no disrespect, but they haven't really been heeded, if you look at the way Russia's behaving.

Marise Payne: Well, I'm sure, Patricia, that Australia is not the only country in that position.

Patricia Karvelas: No.

Marise Payne: There are many countries who are still engaging through the diplomatic process and, in fact, you asked me just a moment ago about ongoing diplomacy and the need for that. And we must continue to work through those channels wherever we are able to.

Patricia Karvelas: Now you've been Foreign Minister since 2018, Defence Minister before that. What lessons do you think China is taking from how Russia has been cut from global trade and finance right now?

Marise Payne: I think it's a lesson to all authoritarian regimes, or at least a matter to pay very close attention to, to all authoritarian regimes –and I would include a number of countries in that, frankly – that there is a cost to unilateral actions such as this for the, in this case, illegal invasion of a country like Ukraine in, as I said, complete breach of the UN Charter and in wholesale breach of international law.

The cost that the international community is prepared to extract – and we are demonstrating that now – is a real cost. And there is strong support across the globe for the rules-based order, for the rule of law, for international humanitarian law and international law itself. And I would say that any authoritarian country or any authoritarian state or regime would be looking at this very closely.

Patricia Karvelas: Should your meeting with the new Chinese ambassador two weeks ago be read as a sign that those diplomatic tensions are easing? Has there been any change since that meeting?

Marise Payne: I think it's appropriate for the Foreign Minister and other relevant office holders to meet with a new ambassador from nations such as China. But it should not be read as an indication that Australia would in any way, shape or form compromise the principles that underpin our national interests and our national security. We have consistently made that clear. We want constructive relations, but we're not prepared to compromise Australia's national interests, Australia's national security or to have conditions placed on relations.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have both said that Labor is China's preference. But hasn't that attack been essentially blunted by a report by Michael Smith in the Financial Review on Wednesday that said that China's military has lashed out at the Coalition and Labor defence plans, effectively saying that the Chinese Communist Party is concerned that Labor will hold the same line on Chinese aggression as the Coalition?

Marise Payne: Well, let's be clear – this is an article in a PLA newspaper which said that, as I understand it, Australia is exaggerating external security threats. But that comes from a position where we as a government have been very clear since we were elected in 2013 about the need to increase our defence spending. We have acted on that. We have implemented that. We have been consistent with those commitments.

I would note that China has increased its defence spending in the region by around seven per cent. They're entitled to do that. We don't criticise that. But ultimately what's essential here is transparency. Transparency is vital. Australia is completely transparent about the approach that we take on defence spending. And, frankly, I'd urge all countries to be that transparent about capabilities and intentions as we are.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but the question is that they clearly see Labor and the Coalition on this defence stuff as the same.

Marise Payne: Well, pardon me for not taking commentary in the PLA newspaper as an edifying observation on Australian politics.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. Why do you think we saw Afghanistan agree to allow girls to return to schools then backflip at the last minute?

Marise Payne: This is an appalling decision by the Taliban. The right to education is a fundamental human right for all people. And for girls in Afghanistan this will once again be heartbreaking, and it is an indication of all of those things of which we warned when we saw the Taliban return to positions of power in Afghanistan.

So we will continue to work very closely with our partners to ensure that where we can we are supporting our children and girls in particular in Afghanistan. But it is a deeply concerning reversal of policy by the Taliban regime and one which we will pursue through my Special Representative to Afghanistan, who of course is based in Doha at this point, with partners. Because the Taliban regime cannot expect international support to flow to that country while they are excluding girls from education in this way.

Patricia Karvelas: Yeah, it's pretty heartbreaking. Look, Minister, just on another issue, how will Australia respond to the death of the 83-year-old Australian Iranian Shokrollah Jebeli who was imprisoned in Iran for more than two years and died in prison, in a prison hospital, in Tehran on Sunday?

Marise Payne: This is a very, very sad case, Patricia. And, firstly, let me say that my sympathies and those of the Australian government go to Mr Jebeli's family and friends. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been in regular contact with Mr Jebeli's family to provide support at this time.

But fundamentally Iran refused right throughout the process of Mr Jebeli's legal case and conviction to accept that Mr Jebeli held Australian citizenship. He was a dual citizen. And we were refused the opportunity to be given consular access to Mr Jebeli as a result. Now that happens in other countries as well in relation to dual citizenship. But we nevertheless had consistently advocated for his interests and repeatedly sought his release because we knew given his age and given his poor health that he was in a very, very difficult situation. So on compassionate and humanitarian grounds we had sought his release.

We have very few options in these cases where dual citizenship is not recognised. And we also, therefore, appeal to the humanitarian issues at hand. So, again, my sympathy is very much with his family and we'll support them in any way we can.

Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, Minister, on domestic political issues, how is it that the Liberal Party finds itself without preselected candidates for half a dozen key seats in New South Wales just so close to when the election must be called?

Marise Payne: That process is underway. The preselection in Bennelong was held last night. My own preselection is on Saturday and I'm looking forward to that. It is important that we get those candidates in place. I'm working closely with those who are already on the ground, and I hope these are completed as soon as possible.

Patricia Karvelas: Thanks for your time, Minister.

Marise Payne: Thanks, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne.

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