Interview with Anna Henderson, SBS World News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Visit to Bangladesh and Singapore; Rohingya crisis; Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 incident; Hamas-Israel conflict; New Caledonia protests and Australian Government assisted-departure flights.

Anna Henderson, Host: Penny Wong, thanks for joining SBS.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good to be with you.

Henderson: Can I just start by getting your reflections on the visit you've just made to Cox's Bazar and what you think Australia needs to do to help.

Foreign Minister: Look, thanks very much, Anna. Well, I am speaking to you from Cox's Bazar, where I spent the day visiting facilities in the camps. I've gone to schools and healthcare clinics that Australians help fund and spoken to girls and boys who have been benefiting from Australian-funded education services and primary healthcare services. And it's really quite moving to speak to these young women who tell me that because of what we are helping provide, they now have options to stay at school for longer. And they talk to me about what it means to them. I've also had the opportunity to visit a women's only space where I spoke with mothers about the challenges that they face, not just from a displacement, not just from having to flee their homeland, not just from being a refugee, but here in the camp. The security challenges, the health challenges, these are all things that they struggle with every day. So, it's been a really important and very profoundly moving example of what our humanitarian assistance does. When we talk about a peaceful, stable and prosperous region, Anna, part of that stability comes from ensuring we help respond to crises and this is the longest-running, greatest humanitarian crisis in our region.

Henderson: Do you think there's a way to provide more assistance in terms of the refugee intake to Australia from Cox's Bazar?

Foreign Minister: Look, there are a million or more than a million people who have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, to this area of Bangladesh. And in fact, over my shoulder, you can see beyond the border with Myanmar. And when I have spoken to Rohingya women here today, what they want is to be able to return to their homeland safely. So, the focus has to be on working with the international community to try and enable that to occur. That is what we need, and that is the best way for this crisis to be resolved. That's going to be hard. We know that. But it's very what we have to work with others over time to try and facilitate.

Henderson: Are you hopeful that India will be able to do more to assist in this crisis?

Foreign Minister: Look, we know from history, including recent history, that Myanmar, to find a pathway to stability and peace in Myanmar will require the support and engagement of many partners, of which India is a very important one.

Henderson: We're getting horrific reports about this Singapore Airlines flight Minister, have you had a briefing about what went wrong on that plane?

Foreign Minister: Not as yet, I am, however, going to Singapore overnight, so I will ensure I'm briefed there. I would first extend my condolences to the family of the passenger lost. Such a distressing situation. Also to all passengers, particularly those who are Australian, who are injured in what sounds like a terrifying event.

Henderson: We'll follow up that with you, of course, once you've had those conversations. While you've been in Bangladesh, we have just had confirmation that Spain, Norway, and we're also hearing potentially Ireland, are going to recognise Palestine. Is that something Australia would be open to doing as well, Minister?

Foreign Minister: Well, I've outlined Australia's position over the last couple of weeks and in the context of the UN vote, I have said we are supportive of a two-state solution. We have been for many decades. It has a greater urgency now because we have an immediate conflict and crisis and we know ultimately the long-term peace and security for the people of the region requires a two-state solution. As you know, we voted for a resolution in the United Nations, which gave Palestine additional rights and supported the principle of two states, which is so important. I've also said Australia, which has a position where we would be prepared to look to recognition as part of a peace process. Our test must always be, is our action going to contribute to the cause of peace? And I outlined that in the context of the UN vote.

Henderson: Do you think that the action now taken by Spain, Norway, and we're also hearing Ireland, could help to pave that path to peace?

Foreign Minister: Well, countries make their own decisions about the appropriate time. One of the things I have said is we do want to see more reform of the Palestinian Authority. We want to see movement towards peace from both sides. The first thing we need to deal with is the release of the hostages, an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and of course, the more access for humanitarian aid.

Henderson: Can I just take you to the International Criminal Court complaint, seeing the statement from your department, of course. But do you think that complaint has a basis?

Foreign Minister: Well, the first point I'd make is that there is no equivalence between Israel and Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organisation and is proscribed as such in Australia. The second point I'd make is that what we should be focusing on most of all is what we can do to bring about an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, what we can do to bring about the release of hostages and the agreement on a ceasefire between the parties. In relation to the International Criminal Court, whether or not warrants are issued will be a matter for the court. Australia does have an interest in the multilateral system, in the United Nations system continuing to be strong and robust and have the faith of the international community, and that's what we will always advocate for.

Henderson: That departmental statement I referenced says how Israel defence itself matters. Is Israel defending itself in an appropriate way?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think that that departmental statement outlines what the Prime Minister and I have both said on many occasions. We have said Hamas is a terrorist organisation and we have condemned what occurred on October 7. We know Hamas does not want peace. We have also said Israel does have an obligation to observe international humanitarian law. And we continue to assert that, that's something I've said privately to Israel as well as in my public statements.

Henderson: Just on the matters of your government trying to engage with Israel, can you provide any update about Mark Binskin's inquiry into the death of Zomi Frankcom or his investigation?

Foreign Minister: Well, first, the death of Zomi Frankcom and her colleagues was a tragedy and it was appalling. We know that humanitarian workers are protected under international law. Mr Binskin will provide information to me and when I am able to, I will ensure that I make that public.

Henderson: I understand that it might still be some time away, but has Mark Binskin been able to travel to Israel yet?

Foreign Minister: We are in discussions with the Israelis and I'm sure Mister Binskin will be afforded access to the information about the process they have undertaken in order to be able to report to me and to the government.

Henderson: Just briefly, there's so much going on in the world right now, we can't miss the opportunity to also just address what's happened with Iran. Have we acknowledged that death formally with Iran? And is this an opportunity for Iran to implore its proxies to hold back?

Foreign Minister: Well, first, you know, you've heard me say many times, Iran has been a destabilising force in the Middle East. Iranian proxies have contributed to instability and conflict in the Middle East. You've also heard me say that it's important for Australia, amongst others, to continue to have a line of communication with the Iranian regime. We clearly don't agree, but it is important that we continue to be able to put our views to the regime. We would always encourage Iran to desist from its destabilising behaviour in the region. We would always encourage Iran to encourage the release of hostages. We would always say to Iran that peace and stability in the Middle east requires respect for the existence of the state of Israel. So, these messages are consistent and have been consistent from Australian governments for many years.

Henderson: Just finally, Minister, New Caledonia is continuing to be a real danger zone for Australians. We have seen the pictures of Australian tourists managing to leave, but there is sort of a sense now of a lack of surety about what will happen tomorrow. Has it been hard to work with the French authorities to get permission for Australia to get access? And have you had to pick up the phone to your French counterpart to get those Australian planes in?

Foreign Minister: Well, obviously, we've been working and engaging both on the ground with officials in New Caledonia, but also with officials in Paris. As you would anticipate, where Australians are in a position like this, the government at an official level always will press for Australians to be safe and secure. And, yes, obviously, I did speak before I left for this trip to Bangladesh to the French Foreign Minister in order to facilitate the two flights. I'm very pleased that those flights were able to leave New Caledonia and I do want to thank the officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Defence Force and all officials who worked so hard over so many hours to make sure those flights were able to land and leave.

Henderson: There is some suggestion that the French President's arrival may well put some flights on hold tomorrow. Do you have any news you can share about what the likeliness is of more people being able to get out tomorrow?

Foreign Minister: Look, I don't have anything further at this moment. What I can say to you is we will continue to work to try and assure options for Australians that wish to leave. We understand this is a very distressing situation and we have made this a key priority in terms of our engagement with the French and with the New Caledonian authorities.

Henderson: Perhaps very briefly, just returning to the region. You're in Bangladesh at the moment, Minister, what do you take away from that visit about how first-world nation's need to provide assistance to those who are in the direst of need?

Foreign Minister: Obviously, as a matter of human compassion, you want to lessen suffering and you want to make sure that a child, if you can help them, has access to health care, has access to studying and education, that a woman feels safe. But there's another reason we do this, that is stability in our region. Our security, Australia's security requires a region that is stable. So, we can't pretend that this crisis is not happening in our region. We have to do what we are doing, which is contributing, to try and improve conditions here and to improve the conditions for peace.

Henderson: Penny Wong, thank you so much for your time. I'll speak to you soon.

Foreign Minister: Thanks very much Anna.

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