Press conference, Australian High Commission, London

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Targeted sanctions in response to human rights violations in Myanmar and Iran; sanctions on individuals and entities in Iran over the supply of drones to Russia for use against Ukraine; Julian Assange; Australia’s identity and foreign policy

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thanks very much for coming. This evening I'm announcing a range of measures which demonstrate the government's commitment to holding perpetrators and enablers of human rights violations to account.

In our region it's the morning of the 1st of February, two years since the Myanmar military staged a coup d'état and seized power against the will of the people, plunging the country into a deep political, economic and humanitarian crisis, and in the two years since, the people of Myanmar have demonstrated their courage, their commitment to a democratic country, demanded respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and have shown determined resilience in the face of unspeakable atrocities. The military regime has responded violently to any form of opposition, including peaceful protests.

We know from credible reports that thousands of civilians, including children, have been jailed, tortured or killed. There is evidence of air strikes, bombardments and the mass burning of villages and places of worship, having been indiscriminately targeted, including civilians and civilian infrastructure.

I have spoken about these matters previously, and I've said in the face of so many of the things which occur in this world which we wish did not occur. But the government will bring all aspects to Australian power to our foreign policy, employ every strategy at our disposal towards upholding rights consistent with our values and our interests.

And I've said before, sanctions will rarely be our first choice. We have looked to support the work of ASEAN, and work with others to put pressure on the regime, including through the United Nations.

But it is ultimately about making the best judgment we can, about the right approach at the right time, my judgment is that the time has come for sanctions.

So after careful deliberation and consultation, Australia is imposing additional autonomous sanctions on those directly responsible for the military coup and ongoing repression and violence. This includes targeted financial sanctions and travel bans on 16 individuals who are key figures in the military regime and targeted financial sections on two military‑controlled entities.

Australia will continue to monitor the regime's actions. We will be looking to see improvements for people on the ground and moves towards the restoration of democracy including credible elections.

In this context we will keep our targeted sanctions towards Myanmar under review.

I can also announce that we are imposing further targeted financial sanctions and travel bans in response to the egregious and ongoing human rights violations in Iran.

16 senior Iranian law enforcement and military officials, including members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will be subjected to financial sanctions and travel bans, and we are also sanctioning an entity over its involvement in human rights abuses in Iran.

In addition we are imposing sanctions on four persons and four entities involved in the transfer of drones from Iran to Russia for use in Ukraine. Iran's material support of Russia in its illegal and immoral war against Ukraine is unacceptable and continues to further destabilise global security.

Australia stands with the people of Myanmar, the people of Iran and the people of Ukraine. Happy to take questions.

Journalist: Minister, the EU and the UK are both currently considering prescribing the Revolutionary Guard in Iran as a terrorist organisation. Why have you decided not to do this?

Foreign Minister: Well, I've made the point previously when asked this question, that we already have sanctions under both UN and Autonomous Sanctions Regime on the IRGC, and those have been in place since 2012 as well as a number of IRGC‑linked persons and entities, and today I have announced further sanctions on a number of individuals working for the IRGC and IRGC‑linked entities. As I've said previously, I've seen the calls for the IRGC to be listed. As the Attorney‑General said, we don't comment on what listings might be or might not be considered under the Criminal Code.

Journalist: Minister, do you agree with Prime Minister Albanese about his comments about Julian Assange, that it's time that he's released, and is that a topic of discussion while you are over here?

Foreign Minister: In relation to the first, that is the government's position, we've said that for some time, that we believe this matter has dragged on too long, and we will continue to raise it at the appropriate levels with both the US and UK governments.

Journalist: Your former colleague in the Senate, Rex Patrick, recently put an FOI request into your office asking for correspondence between yourself and the US Secretary of State, related to Mr Assange, if I could just finish the question, he ‑‑

Foreign Minister: I understand what the question is going to be, so ‑‑

Journalist: Okay, I'm nearly there.

Foreign Minister: Okay, that's good to know.

Journalist: Does that mean that you have not corresponded with the US about the case of Julian Assange?

Foreign Minister: I don't, well, we continue to raise it, as you would know, given your level of experience, not all things are done by letter in diplomacy, nor are they detailed to journalists.

Journalist: Does that mean you've done it verbally?

Foreign Minister: No, so I've answered the question, which is we have raised it at appropriate levels and we'll continue to do so, and the government's position is that this matter has dragged on too long.

Journalist: And when will Mr Assange be released?

Foreign Minister: Well, we don't, that's not a decision for the Australian Government.

Journalist: So you're confident on making progress?

Foreign Minister: That's not a decision for the Australian Government.

Journalist: So our entreaties are being ignored, or they're not very powerful in foreign spaces?

Foreign Minister: Well, we believe the matter's dragged on too long, and we continue to raise it. You will be familiar with the very many legal processes in which Mr Assange is involved, and you would also know, that both countries, the rule of law, or three countries that we're discussing, the rule of law prevails.

Journalist: In tonight's speech you spoke ‑‑

Foreign Minister: Sorry, Rob did you have a question mate?

Journalist: Yes, I wanted to talk about tonight's speech. Welcome to London Minister. I guess there seems to be a bit of a shift, we've obviously had, you know, nearly 10 years of a Coalition government who were very friendly with Britain and who have sort of portrayed Britain through, you know, the mother country, and things like that. Clearly your language tonight was very different. Do you see a sort of a shifting of the relationship, or I guess an evolution of the relationship under your government?

Foreign Minister: Look, our relationship with the United Kingdom is historic. It is a part of who we are, but more importantly, it's a part of our future, and the UK, the US, and other like‑minded nations are nations with whom we work, given not only our friendship, our partnership and our alliances, but because of the interest and values we share, and that fact matters a great deal today as the world is being reshaped, and it matters regardless of who's in government.

Journalist: But is that how our region is going to see it; are they going to see two like‑minded countries which share values working together in the region, or are they going to see two white colonial powers trying to tell South East Asia what to do?

Foreign Minister: We're not a white colonial power ‑‑

Journalist: Well you know PNG.

Foreign Minister: And one of, you know, I gave a speech at the Whitlam Institute actually. Whitlam Institute? Yes, which spoke about Whitlam and that process of being part of PNG's independence, and one of the very moving things about researching that was Gough saying that if he did – I'm paraphrasing – if he did nothing else in his political life other than be part of ensuring the independence of the PNG, he would be satisfied.

You know, one of the things I think is really important is that we engage with countries of our region, as I said tonight, respectfully, and recognising where they are. We also engage with them from who we are. You used a very old stereotype then.

Journalist: If we can go add value to that ‑‑

Foreign Minister: If I may finish. It's no longer who we are. One in two Australians were born overseas or have a parent born overseas. If you walk through our cities and our towns, you will see a very different Australia, and that's a wonderful thing. It also enable us to find common ground.

Journalist: All I'm saying, does having an alliance with the UK and the US actually add value to the picture you just painted or does it sort of, in the region, is it really helpful to have Britain working so closely with us?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, I think it's, you know, I outlined tonight, you know, our view on AUKUS, our continued support for it and the what and the why, and we have to remember that these arrangements, the partnership through the AUKUS partnership, our alliance with the United States, our engagement in the Quad, are all complementary to our deep engagement in the architecture of the region. As I said the East Asia Summit, I work as an ASEAN dialogue partner, we are deeply engaged in the region in many ways.

Journalist: Minister, you spoke about colonialism. I'm just wondering what message you were sending to the British by mentioning that?

Foreign Minister: No, it's not a message in the way perhaps you might imply. I was making a point about histories and talking about who we are, and that if we are able to speak about that multi‑faceted history, that it does give us a greater capacity to engage with the countries of our region. There is, it's a reality of who we are and it's a reality of our past and our present.

Journalist: When you talked to Pacific Nations about this, and you've been around these nations, what are they saying to you about their image of the British and what they would like to see from Britain?

Foreign Minister: Well, I tend to talk to them more about Australia, for obvious reasons. But there's been a lot of interest in our First Nations foreign policy, in talking about the contribution of First Nations. I think, I hope, that it's been of interest that we talk about our multicultural characteristics. I think these things are enormously powerful, I think the narrative and the story for Australia really is, is an enormously powerful part of our foreign policy, and I intend to deploy it.

Journalist: But are you saying the British should do a similar thing?

Foreign Minister: Well, that's a matter for the British.

Journalist: But in your speech you were referring this, you know, would be something that is, would help, you know, with their economic and trade ‑‑

Foreign Minister: I was speaking as an Australian Foreign Minister about our experience and about the way in which we engage with the world, and I'll leave it to my good friends to talk about theirs, but I think you can see the way in which Britain is engaging in Indo‑Pacific, in a very substantive way, and you know, a historically different way from some of the past.

Journalist: Minister, last week, the High Commission here held an Australia Day party that was sponsored by a Tory donor. Is that an appropriate way ‑‑

Foreign Minister: Oh right. This I did not know. Did you write about it? I'm sorry I've missed it.

Journalist: He was made a peer by Boris Johnson, and he's a major donor to, not only Brexit campaigns, and anti‑climate change groups and also the conservative party. Is that an appropriate funder for Australian diplomacy?

Foreign Minister: Look, I am not across the detail of those arrangements. Obviously these are decisions ‑‑

Journalist: Does it concern you?

Foreign Minister: I'm not across the detail of it, and you know, these are decisions made not at ministerial level, but we do engage, as you know, with the private sector to promote Australia, to promote who we are, and to encourage trade, investment, tourism, so I assume that's the basis on which those decisions were made.


Vision of the press conference can be found on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade YouTube channel.

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