Thursday, 13 August 2009
60TH Anniversary of the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949
Debate resumed from 12 August, on motion by Mr McClelland:
That the House:
- notes the sixtieth anniversary of the Four Geneva conventions of 1949;
- congratulates the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement for continuously fostering the principles of international humanitarian law to limit human suffering in times of armed conflict and to prevent atrocities, especially against civilian populations, the wounded, and prisoner of war;
- recalls Australia’s ratification of the conventions and of the two Additional Protocols of 1977;
- affirms all parliamentary measures taken in support of such ratification;
- encourages the fullest implementation of the conventions and Additional Protocols by the military forces and civilian organisations of all States;
- encourages ratification by all nations of the conventions and Additional Protocols; and
- recognises the extraordinary contribution made by many individual Australians, including Australian Red Cross members, volunteers and staff, in carrying out the humanitarian ideals expressed in the conventions and Additional Protocols.
I rise to speak of my support for the Geneva conventions and comment on how they have created order, even in the case of wars. I attended the commemorative service yesterday morning. I believe that adherence to the conventions is vital to maintaining integrity in the world. Of all my comments, one thing I am going to say will perhaps be disagreed with by some present—but perhaps not; we will see.
As others in this place have already said in this debate, the Geneva conventions have their origins on the battlefield of Solferino, where Henri Dunant was stunned and then outraged by the carnage he observed. Writing in 1862 about what he had seen, he proposed a neutral relief agency for alleviating suffering in conflicts by providing aid. Dunant’s proposal led to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which commenced lobbying for standards of treatment for wounded soldiers and enemy combatants. From these events, 10 articles of the first Geneva convention were adopted in 1864 by 12 nations. In that treaty, the Red Cross were provided with the authority to provide aid. The next treaty came in 1906 and dealt with the members of armed forces at sea. The third treaty related to the treatment of prisoners of war and was adopted in 1929. The fourth treaty was adopted in 1949 and it was created with a view to addressing the actions revealed by the Nuremberg trials and the realities of what occurred during World War II.
It is my view that these conventions—what are effectively rules of war—are absolutely vital to the minimisation of the loss of life and destruction of property during wars and conflicts. If you have rules that each side are confident are being observed then the more extreme acts of war are far less likely. In fact, it really makes sense to observe these rules if you are serious about winning the hearts and minds of those not yet involved in a conflict. It is smart to abide by the Geneva conventions because, in any case, if you do not win the war then you will be forced to account for your actions and any breaches of those conventions, let alone the fact that these conventions represent standards of human decency and respect that we should all be able to abide by if we consider ourselves decent human beings.
In researching this contribution last night, I had cause to look at an essay put together by Steven Ratner entitled ‘Think again: Geneva conventions’. In that essay in the March-April 2008 magazine Foreign Policy, Ratner questions a trend of doubt in the conventions by modern governments. He makes a number of good points, stating that, while some details may appear outdated, the core of the conventions and the value of the conventions remain as valid as they ever were.
While I believe that we will always have conflicts, I also believe that, regardless of our enemies’ disregard for the conventions and human decency, we should never stoop to their level. I have said before that when we speak of terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiah, Hezbollah, the Taliban, Hamas and al-Qaeda, just to name a few, we can never expect the same standards of human decency and compassion. That should never tempt us to adopt their standards. We will never win the support of the people in places like Afghanistan or Iraq by lowering ourselves to the base brutality and reckless hate of our enemies.
Whilst stating that point, I found one point where I disagreed with Ratner. It was with regard to what constitutes torture. The need to obtain information quickly from enemy combatants is no excuse for brutality, and to that end I say that waterboarding, deafening music, assault of any kind and humiliation of any kind do constitute torture. Interrogation that commences with a period of discomfort but no actual injury or ongoing psychological damage can be appropriate. To obtain information quickly but without injury or damage, sleep deprivation has always been highly effective. In the Army, sleep deprivation was one of the methods used, along with physical exhaustion and stress, to determine what a person was like under pressure. Similarly, the resistance of a person can be reasonably quickly broken through lack of sleep and then information obtained through questioning. I reiterate that this is not about physical harm or injury; this is more about weakening the character of a combatant to a point where they will provide the information they are asked for.
I would say that, while questioning can be undertaken immediately upon capture, if the information is not provided we should be able to place prisoners under the pressure of which I speak. It is also worth remembering the realities of wars and conflicts. Finding out what one’s enemy is planning is very useful. Prisoners are interrogated to try to obtain that advantage. One reality is that the information that can be obtained often declines in value with the passing of time. If a prisoner is not placed under some sort of pressure then they are not very likely to provide information that will be of benefit. Lives may depend on accurate information being obtained, and, while getting that information may not seem important to those not involved in prosecuting these conflicts, it is to those who are.
As I said at the outset, I stand by the Geneva conventions and their observance, regardless of what our enemies may do or how they conduct themselves. I reiterate that physical harm, assault and dehumanising or other long-term physical or mental damage are, and always should be, prohibited. We are here to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Geneva conventions. They represent a great step forward for humanity—an enshrinement of human decency—and I am confident that Australia will always stand by them and observe them, because that is the right and honourable way to act in all conflicts.
It is a pleasure to follow my friend the member for Cowan, as both of us in a previous life spent a lot of time working together in support of these major pieces of humanitarian law that we are discussing and commemorating and whose 60th anniversary we are celebrating. There is an old expression that is attributed to Plato that says ‘Only the dead have seen the end of war’. That is obviously a very pessimistic view of human affairs and is one that we in this place have an obligation to work in contravention of as we continue to forge the paths of peace. In that respect I often refer to the Talmudic scholars who said, ‘You are not obligated to complete the task of achieving a better world, but neither are you free to desist from it.’ And that is really what the story of these Geneva conventions is all about.
As the member for Cowan highlighted, it has been a long evolutionary process to the point that we are at now in the law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. There are two streams in the history of that evolution—what we refer to as Geneva law and Hague law. Hague law effectively governs what we call the methods and means of combat. It also regulates weapons systems and the employment of weapons systems. We saw in the most recent versions of that last year the passage of the convention on cluster munitions, but there are many others besides that regulate landmines and incendiary weapons et cetera.
The four Geneva conventions that we celebrate the 60th anniversary of today are part of the Geneva law tradition which regulates those who are hors de combat or the victims of warfare. They began famously with the experience of Henri Dunant, the Swiss businessman, who witnessed the terrible sufferings of the wounded and sick on the battlefield at Solferino in Italy, which led to the first Geneva convention of 1864. There was a period where a number of conventions were developed to deal with the specific issue of the treatment of the wounded and sick on the battlefield or, in the early years of the 20th century, of the wounded and sick and shipwrecked at sea and then, moving into the 1920s, of the treatment of prisoners of war.
It is important to note that the fundamental principle that was evolving through this period was an understanding that there was a limit to war. At the same time we started to see emerging not only the humanitarian aspect or issue of how people were treated on battlefields but also the additional dimension of the industrial abilities that mankind was able to bring to that situation, which raised the threshold of inhumanity itself. Of course, we had the experience of World War II and the terrible atrocities wrought by the Nazis in relation to civilian populations, and that experience led to the creation of the main development in the 1949 conventions of the fourth Geneva convention relating to the treatment of civilians under the authority or control of military forces.
The four Geneva conventions have been supplemented and added to by three additional protocols. The first of those expanded the conventions relating to the varying types of international conflict that we were seeing emerge post the Second World War and the second protocol dealt with situations of civil war where there were organised armed forces confronting existing governments but not extending further into the Hobbsian situations we have often seen in these failed state scenarios of warring factions against each other in multiple, fractured components not necessarily involving state forces. Then the third additional protocol, which we ratified yesterday, adds the new protective emblem to the armoury of the International Committee of the Red Cross in their seeking to perform their task. The other essential element of these Geneva conventions was the way they fundamentally and formally incorporated the role of the ICRC in the objectives of those conventions.
Also today, I would to pause to salute the work of the ICRC. Over many years, they have not only performed those tasks as set out in the conventions with great dedication and great effect but also been at the heart of the evolution of the law itself. Even today, they continue to pursue that evolution through their projects to do with distilling customary international humanitarian law and also in their current dialogue in defining what is meant by direct participation in hostilities by those who are hard to distinguish from combatants. Their work continues to this day and I salute them for that.
The law has also been complemented by the contributions of tribunals beginning with the Nuremberg tribunal through to those governing the conflicts in the former Yugoslav republic and in Rwanda. That, of course, as part of the revolutionary trend itself, led to the creation of the International Criminal Court, which has helped to develop and distil the laws through its definition of crimes and, most recently, following on from the 1980 statute, the development of the elements of war crimes and crimes against humanity et cetera. In that development, we have seen the law seeking to come to grips with the challenges posed by internal conflicts and dealing with these elements of asymmetric threats and terror. That is a long evolutionary process in itself which we are continuing to see develop.
The ICC statute has now had 109 states sign up to it and it is starting to get some traction and get a roll-on in dealing with the current situations we face internationally. I had wished that I had had something like an international criminal court to support me in the operation I was involved in in Somalia, where we were attempting to deal with serious warlords who had engaged in atrocities and genocidal activities. It was very difficult to find the means to deal with them other than by recreating the local justice system, which in itself was problematic because the end result of that system was that any person convicted would end up being executed. If we had had the International Criminal Court available to us then we could have used that to deal with these serious warlords and violators of fundamental human rights.
My own background is that I have been closely involved with the Geneva conventions through these last 20 years in the Army before I entered parliament. In particular, I also was involved closely with the ICRC as a pool military officer that they drew upon to try and advance the cause of the work of the ICRC in their efforts around the world. It was a great privilege for me to have worked in support of the ICRC, in particular in Bosnia and Croatia during the war there. That is why I have such a deep admiration and respect for the work of the ICRC. In particular, if you are a soldier, you will want to know that the ICRC is being respected and facilitated. If you are a captive then it is only the ICRC that will have the ability to ensure that you exist, that you are being dealt with humanely and that at some point, some day, there is a chance that you will be released. I continue to respect and do whatever I can to promote the cause of the ICRC’s work.
It was also a privilege to have been at the meeting of experts in Geneva in 1998 to draft the Australian statement on our position on the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Fourth Geneva Convention has been a great tool of mine in various conflict situations where Australia accepts or promotes a broader interpretation of the application of that convention to situations not just arising in the context of international armed conflicts but where military forces find themselves in the control of civil populations.
The most extensive example of my reliance upon that convention was in Iraq for the year that I was there from 2003 to 2004. Using the framework of that law, we were able to do a great deal of good in Iraq, something which is often lost in the context of the overall problems of that operation. Using that framework, we were able to establish a central criminal court which is still functioning extremely well and dealing with the most serious crimes in Iraq, and is well respected by Iraqis. We were able to use it as a tool to defeat the major international maritime oil smuggling operations that were bleeding Iraq dry at the time. We were able to create frameworks and operations based upon our use of that law. We were also able to use it for economic reconstruction purposes, and I participated with my colleagues in Iraq in developing over 100 laws for that country which are still being relied upon today as Iraq tries to move forward as a free-market democracy, respecting fundamental human rights. Many of the things that we implemented at that time—freedom of the press, right of assembly and various other measures to create the free-market framework—are still in place today and helping to move the country forward.
Unfortunately, of course, that experience was significantly offset by the dark aspects of what occurred in Iraq in relation in particular to interrogations and the treatment of detainees. Part of the all-consuming aspect of my struggle there was to deal with this detainee issue and create a framework that would meet decent humanitarian standards and the scrutiny of organisations like the ICRC. I worked closely with them in Iraq to try and achieve that. But we were undermined by an atmosphere and an approach that was promoted by various authorities which led to the situation that we saw unfold at Abu Ghraib. That experience itself is all you need to look at to understand the importance of these conventions. That experience undermined the position of our forces. It undermined our position not only within Iraq but, more importantly, internationally in terms of sustaining international support and domestic support for that operation. This is the key thing about these conventions.
In terms of practical military application, our compliance with these conventions helps us to maintain moral authority, to sustain our operations and to win that strategic battle for moral authority. It also has extreme practical military applications in relation to economy of effort and in the process of taking care in targeting; it makes life a lot easier for us in situations when we have to deal with the backwash behind our combat operations. Also of course there is a very serious practical effect in relation to our troops. If we are able to provide an environment for them and provide training for them, it enables them to fight a war and engage in conflict in a moral and just way. Then, at the end of the day, after the conflict is over, they will have less to deal with in terms of psychological and other traumas. You only have to look at some of the experiences of those who have been involved in breaches of these conventions to understand how important that is and what the effect can be in terms of suicides et cetera, and the impacts on anybody associated with those who suffer from those traumas.
We have the major challenge of facing asymmetric warfare and the tactics of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban et cetera have been referred to. Their tactics are used to exploit our application of these conventions. These people use civilians as human shields. And, of course, there is their own non-compliance—and I refer here particularly to the ongoing situation of Gilad Shalit, who has been in the hands of Hamas in the Gaza Strip for three years now without having been visited once by the ICRC. In dealing with this, we have to shape our tactics properly and that does not mean varying from the framework of the conventions. We must still maintain our application of them to maintain the moral high ground and win this battle in the longer term.
It does mean that we have to be very intelligent and capable of shaping the battle space to deny the opportunities for these enemies in that respect. That means being able to apply soft power as much as kinetic power to achieve that. But, when we do need to apply kinetic power, it means that we have to apply that force precisely, which is the key to that. We must avoid collateral damage at all costs and of course make sure that those persons we are targeting are the ones who should be targeted. That is really the secret to success as we face the challenges today of Afghanistan.
We have to also take care of the politicisation of the law, and we have seen what can occur in relation to the ICJ’s case on the Israel security barrier. The judges on the ICJ basically adopted positions in line with the political positions of their home states, which confused and clouded the application of this law to the great detriment of the way the troops would be required to apply this law in the field. So it is something that we have to bear in mind. That also means that we as politicians and as governments must make sure that we make very clear statements about the application of this law for the benefit of the practitioners of it at the sharp end in terms of our troops.
We have an opportunity to promote international humanitarian law and the work and the role of ICRC, and we have to take that as a solemn responsibility. The road to a humanitarian and peaceful world leads ever on, and we have many to miles to go before we can sleep. (Time expired)
I rise today to make a contribution on this motion before the Main Committee. I acknowledge the previous speaker’s wealth of experience as a military officer and the 20 years in the Army that he brings to this debate. I commend him on his speech and his commitment in relation to the work he has done throughout his military career. Of course, this is an opportunity to put it on the public record, which will stand forever more. One thing in this place is that the words we say will be here forever more and recorded in Hansard for, quite seriously, generations to come. It is an important forum for all of us and I commend the parliamentary secretary for his contribution.
Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the Geneva conventions which were agreed upon initially in 1949. They came into existence on 12 August 1949, just three days short of the fourth anniversary of that dreadful war, World War II, and the armistice in the Pacific region, which was on 15 August 1945. The four Geneva conventions, in essence, protect wounded and sick soldiers, both on land and at sea. They protect medical personnel and hospital ships, and they protect religious personnel during times of war. The Geneva conventions also call for the protection of prisoners of war from mental and physical torture, as well as the protection of civilians in war zones and occupied territories.
Australia signed the Geneva conventions in January 1950 and ratified the agreement in October 1958. Even though we were a young country, we too were well aware of the atrocities that our service men and women had witnessed or had been victims of in battle in war zones. Indeed, the atrocities that were committed in the Second World War serve as a reminder to us, even today, of the long-lasting damage of war and the depraved acts of warlords—of the Nazis and of the Japanese in the Second World War. They are a reminder to us all of the importance of these conventions.
Sadly, violations of the Geneva conventions are still happening across the world as humans continue to wage war against each other. Perhaps it will only be when there is truly peace that there will be no violations of the conventions and, hopefully, one day there will be no need for them at all. But for mankind a peaceful utopia is still out of our reach, and until then we as Australians and members of parliament must make sure that we continue to uphold and encourage the upholding of the Geneva conventions so that the ravages of war are never again as horrific as those witnessed in World War II.
In the world’s recorded history there have always been many wars and conflicts and despicable acts of genocide and torture and of vengeance and domination. But there is always a silver lining to every cloud, and from the depths of war emerged charitable organisations such as the Red Cross. It was formed in 1863 after a Swiss citizen, Henry Dunant, witnessed the violence of Italy’s battle of Solferino, in which 38,000 soldiers lay dead, dying or wounded. They are just incredible numbers, numbers that in a modern world you cannot relate at all in your mind to human beings. Those 38,000 soldiers who lay dead or dying or wounded had no-one to care for them. After rallying female civilians to help provide first aid, Dunant organised for makeshift hospitals to be built and for care to be administered to the soldiers. Later he wrote a book called A Memory of Solferino, calling for the establishment of volunteer groups to take care of casualties in wartime and calling for countries to protect first aid volunteers and medical personnel.
From those very humble beginnings, Red Cross has grown to become a worldwide recognised symbol of humanity. But their humanitarian aid is not just limited to the battlefield. Red Cross in Australia run a blood donation drive, provide first aid training courses, deliver Meals on Wheels in many communities, provide employment services for people with disabilities and offer counselling services. They provide respite services and give assistance to personnel supporting refugees and asylum seekers. Earlier this year it was the Red Cross who were very much on the front line in the aftermath of those tragic Victorian bushfires. That work is continuing today as we speak in this parliament.
I am a member of the Parliamentary Friends of Red Cross. When I was asked in this parliament to be a supporter of the Friends of Red Cross, I did not hesitate. If there is a symbol of humanity that stands large and bold out there in my eyes and my mind, it is the Red Cross. Yesterday in Federation Mall in front of Parliament House, at 7 on a very cold morning, it was a real privilege for me to join other parliamentarians and Red Cross volunteers in commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Geneva conventions. Robert Tickner, a former minister in the Hawke and Keating government who is now the CEO of the Red Cross in Australia, addressed those of us gathered on that cold lawn in front of Parliament House and presented to the Attorney-General a bound copy of the conventions, with the inclusion of the new convention. It may be symbolic, but I think it was important that that book, be it small, is a gift to this parliament. I understand it is the intention of the Attorney-General to make sure that it finds an appropriate place, either in the Parliamentary Library or another part of Parliament House. As I said, it is symbolic but also terribly important and a reminder of the great work of the Red Cross and the importance of the Geneva conventions.
I want to commend the work of Red Cross in Australia. Yesterday’s commemoration was wonderful in recognising not only the conventions and their work, and what it stands for and means for us all as a model, but also the dedication of the Red Cross to helping people, regardless of their religious belief or the colour of their skin. I just say the Red Cross’s work is admirable. It has no boundaries; it is about humanitarian support and aid. Quite clearly, Henry Dunant’s vision has been recognised and the work continued. I am sure, were he with us now, he would be so proud of his work in establishing the Red Cross so long ago.
Last week I travelled with our defence subcommittee to Timor-Leste. I had visited Timor-Leste on three occasions before ,when we were there with INTERFET helping the East Timorese establish their own democracy, which they had voted for. They wanted independence from Indonesia. I was able to witness some of the work that had gone on, albeit rather slowly but again as part of all the operations that have gone on through international support and AusAID. And there are some 610 Australian military personnel who are still helping them bring about a new democracy. The work also of many NGOs that I saw there is invaluable. One of those is the Red Cross. I also want to acknowledge the work that they have done in so many areas of conflict around the world, and in peace time here in Australia, but particularly the work that they are doing in Timor-Leste.
I will just take a couple of moments to recognise the work of the Red Cross volunteers in my own electorate. I remember growing up as a little boy in Roma, a country town in western Queensland. The office of the Red Cross and the symbol of the red cross is something that remains an indelible imprint on my mind, along with the work of the volunteers. They were always doing it silently. They collected clothes and provided money or food assistance for those who were needy. They always did it silently, and they volunteered their time. I just want to acknowledge all of those people in my electorate. There are many Red Cross branches in my electorate. I want to acknowledge the work that they do. They are among the unsung heroes in our community, and I just continue to admire the work that they do. I want to recognise the work of the Red Cross volunteers in my electorate and across so many parts of Australia. It is just an honour to be part of this motion before the House. I commend it to the parliament.
I rise to also speak in support of this motion on the 60th anniversary of the four Geneva conventions of 1949. It is certainly an honour to be a member of this House and to have the opportunity to acknowledge the 60th anniversary and to give recognition to such important international humanitarian laws.
As other speakers have noted—including the Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland MP—tragically the world continues to experience armed conflict. There are many other speakers to this motion who are able to give much more detailed personal accounts of their experiences overseas that these conventions are in place to deal with and to provide protection from. Of course one such speaker was the member for Eden-Monaro. I think it is fair to say that all of the members of this parliament should thank the member for Eden-Monaro for not only his contribution on this motion but also his contribution in the military and his service, which he referred to in detail today.
I know many of the speakers have spoken about the events throughout history that these conventions have been in place to provide some support and solace for. I think this is also an opportunity to reflect on the conventions and the protocols themselves and on what they are meant to achieve. When I was studying law I made the decision to do an elective subject on international law. I found it an interesting area that I wanted to understand in more detail. I have to say that it was one of the most frustrating areas of law to study, especially when dealing with international humanitarian laws. To know the impact of these laws, these conventions and these protocols and what they attempt to achieve throughout the world and to watch over time the violations against these conventions, to watch countries and nations not sign up to certain conventions and to see the difficulty of enforcing these conventions and protocols at an international level was hard to come to terms with for me, as someone who believes that law is there to be enforced and to get results one way or the other.
I saw the amazing work that organisations and individuals do throughout the world in trying to bring countries, political parties, organisations and individuals to account at an international level for what they have done, for the atrocities they have been involved in against other people. That is why I want to take the opportunity to just look at these conventions and protocols and to put them into the record so that anyone who revisits this motion and these discussions about their 60th anniversary understands what the intent of these conventions is. The International Committee of the Red Cross have worked tirelessly in some of the most oppressed areas of the world and have seen some of the worst atrocities that have occurred throughout world history. They best summarise through their web site what the 1949 Geneva convention seeks to achieve.
The Geneva conventions and their additional protocols are international treaties that contain the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. They protect people who do not take part in the fighting: civilians, medics, aid workers and those who can no longer fight—the wounded, the sick, and shipwrecked troops and prisoners of war. The first Geneva convention protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war. This convention represents the fourth updated version of the Geneva Convention on the Wounded and Sick following those adopted in 1864, 1906 and 1929. It contains 64 articles. These provide protection not only for the wounded and sick but also for medical and religious personnel, medical units and medical transports. The convention also recognises the distinctive emblems. It has two annexes containing a draft agreement relating to hospital zones and a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.
The second Geneva convention protects wounded and sick shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war. This convention replaced the Hague convention of 1907 for the adaptation to maritime warfare of the principles of the Geneva convention. It closely follows the provisions of the first Geneva convention in structure and content. It has 63 articles specifically applicable to war at sea. For example, it protects hospital ships. It has one annexe containing a model identity card for medical and religious personnel.
The third Geneva convention applies to prisoners of war. This convention replaced the prisoners of war convention of 1929, and contained 143 articles whereas the 1929 convention had only 97. The categories of persons entitled to prisoner of war status were broadened in accordance with conventions one and two. The conditions and places of captivity were more precisely defined, particularly with regard to the labour of prisoners of war, their financial resources, the relief they received and the judicial proceedings instituted against them. The convention established the principle that prisoners of war should be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.
We should not underestimate the importance of these conventions and, certainly, this third convention dealing with prisoners of war. We have heard of many atrocities over the years in relation to prisoners of war and the circumstances in which they have found themselves—the standards of their surroundings, their food provisions, the labour they were required to perform. We would all like to see an end to war in itself across the world. We must ensure that conventions such as these remain in place to ensure protections for any prisoners who are taken into custody during wartime.
The fourth Geneva convention affords protections to civilians, including in occupied territory—another worthy convention when you consider that the nature of war, and the nature of any sort of intervention in a nation, has changed considerably over the years. Although there is a lot less hand-to-hand combat and a lot more technology involved now, the reality is that we are still seeing many civilians being seriously injured or losing their lives as a consequence of these actions. We need to do more to protect these people, and that is why these conventions are in place.
The Geneva conventions, which were adopted before 1949, were concerned with combatants only, not with civilians, and that is why this particular convention, adopted in 1949, was so important. To think that prior to 1949 we did not have a convention that provided safety or any rights or protections for civilians is hard to believe, but in fact it only occurred as a consequence of this convention in 1949. The events of World War II showed the disastrous consequences of the absence of a convention for the protection of civilians in wartime. The convention takes account of the experiences of World War II. It is composed of 159 articles and it contains a short section concerning the general protection of populations against certain consequences of war, without addressing the conduct of hostilities as such, which was later examined in the additional protocols of 1977.
The bulk of the convention deals with the status and treatment of protected persons, distinguishing between the situation of foreigners on the territory of one of the parties to the conflict and that of civilians in occupied territory. It spells out the obligations of the occupying power vis-a-vis the civilian population and contains detailed provisions on humanitarian relief for populations in occupied territory. It also contains a specific regime for the treatment of civilian internees. It has three annexes containing a model agreement on hospital and safety zones, model regulations on humanitarian relief and model cards. Article 3 common to the four Geneva conventions marked a breakthrough, as it covered for the first time situations of non-international armed conflicts. These types of conflicts vary greatly. They include traditional civil wars, internal armed conflicts that spill over into other states or internal conflicts in which third states or a multinational force intervenes alongside the government.
Common article 3 establishes fundamental rules from which no derogation is permitted. It is like a mini convention within the conventions, as it contains the essential rules of the Geneva conventions in a condensed format and makes them applicable to conflicts not of an international character. It requires humane treatment for all persons in enemy hands, without any adverse distinction. It specifically prohibits murder; mutilation; torture; cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment; the taking of hostages; and unfair trial. It requires that the wounded, sick and shipwrecked be collected and cared for. It grants access to the International Committee of the Red Cross to offer its services to the parties of the conflict, and it calls on the parties to the conflict to bring all or parts of the Geneva conventions into force through so-called special agreements. It recognises that the application of these rules does not affect the legal status of the parties to the conflict. Given that most armed conflicts today are non-international, applying common article 3 is of the utmost importance. Its full respect is required. The problem is that we know that that particular convention is probably one of the most violated and breached conventions in the Geneva conventions of 1949.
The Geneva conventions entered into force on 21 October 1950. Ratification grew steadily through the decades, with 74 states ratifying the conventions during the 1950s, 48 states during the 1960s, 20 states during the 1970s, and another 20 states during the 1980s. Twenty-six countries ratified the conventions in the early 1990s, largely in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia. Seven new ratifications since 2000 have brought the total number of the states party to the conventions to 194, making the Geneva conventions universally applicable.
The 60th anniversary gives all of us—government and non-government organisations, businesses, community organisations and the broader community—the opportunity to reflect on these conventions and protocols, to stop and think about what they seek to achieve and how, as individuals and as a collective group, we can go forward into the future and to do more to cease hostilities and to limit human suffering around the world. I would like to support the Attorney-General’s recognition of the extraordinary contribution made by many individual Australians, including the Australian Red Cross members, volunteers and staff, in carrying out the humanitarian ideals expressed in the conventions and additional protocols. Let us all work together, now and into the future, to see these conventions are actually enforced and to ensure that full human rights and humanitarian protections are provided to all citizens across the world.
I rise to support this motion from the Attorney-General and to support the comments that have been made by all speakers in the debate so far. Yesterday was a day of confirmation and celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Geneva conventions. To start with one family anecdote, a nice surprise for me from yesterday’s celebration was the finding of a new relative in the Hon. Robert Tickner. As of yesterday, we have now established that we are cousins of some form, probably much to the shock of half my family and much to the pleasure of the other half.
For another reason I want to give another family anecdote, and that is that I am the grandson of someone who is probably a lot of the reason the Geneva conventions were established and we have them today. My grandfather was one of the five officers and 15 other ranks who survived to the end of the Sandakan death marches, as I have mentioned previously, and to the victory in the Pacific, on 15 August, 1945. However, two weeks after that date, on 27 August, those 20 individuals were murdered at the hands of their captors. They fell into the very difficult legal gap of not technically legally being prisoners of war yet not technically legally being able to be dealt with as civilians being murdered because documents at the end of the war were not technically signed until 2 September, so there was a very difficult window of about three weeks. I would have loved to have met my grandfather and I would hope he would have loved to have met me. And that is just one such example of someone falling into a legal trap at the end of the war: not technically a prisoner of war but not technically a civilian and therefore not able to be dealt with under international law.
But out of those end of Second World War situations we saw negotiations start and we saw good principles develop through the four Geneva conventions. And the very good words in article 27 of the fourth Geneva convention give some small solace, I hope, for families in similar situations to our family who are ask: what is the point of those deaths? The point of those deaths, in some small way, is that we now have some established international law that leaves no-one behind. So Article 27 is important. It says:
Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity.
Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault.
Without prejudice to the provisions relating to their state of health, age and sex, all protected persons shall be treated with the same consideration by the Party to the conflict in whose power they are, without any adverse distinction based, in particular, on race, religion or political opinion.
These are good solid principles that I would hope every member of this place supports and, where possible, actively fights to protect and uphold. Whilst they are broad words—and quite often in international law we see words that are so broad that they can often be left to interpretation for the moment and really not achieve anything—I think what these four Geneva conventions over time have done, from way back in 1949, is set some broad principles which we have seen be defined by various courts of law and various international tribunals. From that slow evolution of the defining of these laws, I think today we have some really solid principles with some practical application. An example is the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia, which has done some really good, sound definitions of what is and what is not a prisoner of war and all those difficult questions about—I think it is article 3—armed conflict within a sovereign nation, what is and what is not armed conflict and what does and does not fall under these Geneva conventions. I think these are now all starting to be defined and 60 years later we have a stronger document and a stronger set of principles than we had in 1949.
A good example of that is going on right now. I think Australia can be extremely proud of, and should probably talk more about, the work that is being done in Cambodia with the international tribunals in the prosecution of various principles attached to these Geneva conventions. The name Gareth Evans, for anyone who goes to Cambodia, is held in very high esteem. The Australian government generally is held in very high esteem and Australian law officials are intimately involved in what is happening now with the Duch trials and the various trials in the prosecution of these Geneva conventions.
These are not broad, symbolic, flowery statements. They have practical applications. I was lucky enough to be in Cambodia in the early days of these trials and to see villagers coming with awe, shock and wonder to stand in the court and to listen to the evidence being given over 30 years later. This said to me that it has real practical application for the hearts and minds of individuals and families all around the world. That is the upside of the delivery of these Geneva conventions and something Australia should be, in that particular circumstance, very proud of.
The downside is—the point was already made—man’s inhumanity to man and the folly that is attached to a lot of the decision making that goes on in the world and world affairs and what drives people to conflict. In the Cambodian situation, I would love every Australian to walk through those killing fields—to walk through S21—to get a real sense of the absolute brutality of the loss of principle that goes with man’s inhumanity to man when it all goes wrong. From that we drive home the importance of international conventions—and these Geneva conventions in particular—and within every single one of us the importance of the vigilance of protecting and upholding an understanding of these principles so that, whether within Australia or in any capacity where we have an engagement with the world, we do not allow ourselves, our friends, our family or our communities to go off the rails in dealing with our fellow man.
That is probably a nice link into some local work that we are trying to get off the ground, and that is the expansion of the brand of the United Nations throughout the mid-North Coast of New South Wales. Within political circles and within public debate in Australia—and I have mentioned this before in public addresses—I do think the United nations has copped some rough trade. An organisation that is doing some difficult work is an easy target at times. It is important for an area like the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, where there is probably not the amount of contact with the international community as you might find in many metropolitan communities or in Canberra, to try to engage better. That is why right at the moment we are trying to roll out the United Nations Association branches throughout the mid-North Coast, and we are getting some really good feedback from community members wanting to be involved. It gives me a lot of comfort that there is an interest and a desire within the Australian community to engage with the world as a friend, on peaceful terms, so I will certainly be following that work up and supporting it and helping wherever possible to promote the international message within the local community. It is a bit of a cliche in this place that all politics is local; in a lot of ways that is true but also, attached to that, international documents like the Geneva Conventions can be as local as you want them to be. The obligation on all of us in this place is to make these documents local, make them relevant and endorse and promote Australia’s international role of being a good fellow citizen within the world community. These documents are an excellent way of doing that.
I finish where I started, in that my example of the family story is told 100 or a 1,000 times over around the world. Unless we have international law that can prosecute when things go wrong and protect those, whether they are prisoners of war or innocents caught up in an armed conflict situation, unless we have documents in place and unless we have people in place willing to uphold those documents, the world is a worse place. That is why these Geneva conventions are so important, the 60th anniversaries are so important. I hope that all members of this chamber will take the time to do a Wiki search or get a quick understanding, if they do not have one already, or just reconfirm and then go about the business of promoting these principles far and wide.
I thank the Attorney-General for moving a motion to recognise these important anniversaries, and I welcome the government’s ratification yesterday of the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions. The Geneva conventions, whose 60th anniversary was celebrated yesterday, are part of the essential humanitarian codex. Indeed, they are one of the most recognisable sets of agreed international conduct. ‘Geneva conventions’ is itself a phrase that is often used as shorthand in other contexts for the kinds of rules that ought to govern our conduct in difficult circumstances. In a recent interview with CNN, Charlotte Lindsey of the International Committee of the Red Cross noted:
On a daily basis, living in a war zone, you see examples of the conventions being applied. Every time a soldier is captured and moved to a prison, or a wounded soldier is collected by an ambulance, that is an application of the Geneva Conventions.
People forget that they are rooted in the law because they seem such evident needs and evident rights that people have.
The Geneva conventions set down important protections for civilian populations, wounded combatants and prisoners of war. The recognised significance of these protections is underlined by the fact that the Geneva conventions still represent the only piece of international law to have been ratified by all member states of the United Nations. It is, as the Attorney-General has noted, a mark of their primacy that this is so. It is also a reminder, however, of the progress that remains to be made in reaching global consensus and adherence to many other crucially important instruments of international law.
Last year, for example, we saw the signing of the treaty banning the use of cluster munitions. Wherever they are used, cluster bombs lie unexploded on the ground and in trees, killing and maiming civilians and rendering vast tracts of land unusable for years after conflicts end. I saw this graphically for myself in Kosovo and Lebanon. The cluster munitions convention has now been signed by more than 100 states, including Australia, and it is to be hoped that the ban on these appalling weapons will eventually be supported by all.
The notion of ‘humanitarian warfare’ can rightly be regarded as perhaps the best or worst example of a contradiction in terms. Certainly, we should never allow the achievement of the Geneva conventions and other like instruments to in any way mask the fact that war itself should be avoided and opposed where possible or otherwise brought to the quickest end possible.
On the question of progress with respect to the scope of the conventions themselves, I note that in a recent interview, Knut Dormann, the head of the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has observed that the protections provided by the Geneva conventions do not extend far enough in the case of civil conflict. The adoption in 1977 of additional protocol II strengthened the protection for victims of non-international conflict, but it remains the case that there is more to be done in this area.
In June I moved a motion on the subject of the conflict in Sri Lanka. On that occasion, I expressed concerns that had been raised by the United Nations and by humanitarian NGOs on the ground in Sri Lanka about the conditions and circumstances of some 300,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in displacement camps. As most of the contributors to the debate on that motion clearly recognised, it is critical that civil conflicts and the aftermath of those conflicts are governed by appropriate humanitarian law. On this point, Knut Dormann has observed:
… there is currently no detailed framework establishing procedural safeguards for people interned for security reasons in relation to non-international armed conflicts.
Again, that is something the international community should be prepared to work towards.
As Chair of the Australian Parliamentary Association for UNICEF and the Australia-UN Parliamentary Group I also want to make particular note of the fact that when it comes to civilians affected by war it is often women and children who suffer the most. The Progress of the World’s Women 2008-09 report of UNIFEM, entitled Who answers to women?, which was released yesterday, noted that the use of sexual violence against women is now an established tactic in armed conflict. Such violence is a way of affecting an entire community into the next generation, because women may be too damaged from it to bear children, or they may become pregnant or be infected with HIV-AIDS following a rape. The UNIFEM report quotes a former United Nations forces commander saying:
… it is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in the Eastern DRC.
That is, the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
This morning in my office I had a visit from the group Friends of ‘Comfort Women’, including a survivor of the military-sexual slavery system during World War II, Ms Gil Won Ok from Korea. Ms Gil Won Ok was taken by the Japanese military from Pyongyang as a 13-year-old child to China and kept in sexual slavery for five years, during which time she was forcibly sterilised and suffered so many torments that she says, ‘it would take months to tell them all’. She never saw her family again and has not been able to have a family of her own. She said, ‘I came into this world as a human being but I have not been able to live as a human being for 81 years. People think that because it happened so long ago we would forget, but I live with it every day, and every night I’m still fighting them in my dreams.’ The Friends of ‘Comfort Women’, supported by Amnesty International, are seeking an official apology from the Japanese government.
In June last year, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously for a resolution that recognised sexual violence as a war crime and a crime against humanity, and called for a security response. Now that this crime has been recognised by the international community, it is my hope that Ms Gil Won Ok and her fellow comfort-women survivors, who are now quite elderly, will receive the recognition and apology they so desire and deserve.
It must be acknowledged that challenges and imperfections do exist in the area of international humanitarian law. Conduct in breach of the conventions is certainly occurring even now—witness reports of atrocities, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, mistreatment of detainees and practices such as extraordinary rendition. Of course, the expansion of the field of application of international humanitarian law beyond situations of international armed conflict between states to more often situations of non-international conflicts involving non-state armed groups has raised a significant number of challenges. Oxfam has pointed to violence in Afghanistan, Columbia, DRC and Sudan as examples of the increasingly indiscriminate nature of modern conflicts. ICRC President Kellenberger has also noted the increasing complexity of armed conflicts and the difficulty of distinguishing between combatants and civilians as well as phenomena such as terrorism. However, this should not be regarded as evidence that the conventions themselves are ineffective, nor that the multilateral institutions that seek to uphold such law are ineffective.
The Geneva conventions remain, as I said at the outset, one of the greatest expressions of humanitarian principles and one of the most powerful frameworks of humanitarian practice. I worked for the UN in places like Kosovo, Gaza and Lebanon. The Geneva conventions were the shield that we used as protection for ourselves and the vulnerable populations we assisted. Unfortunately, and shockingly, United Nations staff have increasingly been the targets of attacks. I am keenly aware that 19 August next week will be the sixth anniversary of the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed more than 20 people—including several of my UN colleagues I knew in the Kosovo peacekeeping mission as well as my good friend Jean-Selim Kanaan. I dedicated my first speech in this place to Jean-Selim and his war against indifference. I am pleased that the Australian government, in its recently announced changes to counterterrorism offences, will be recognising that international organisations such as the UN can be the target of terrorist violence.
Significant progress has also been made in enforcing compliance with the Geneva conventions through the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the establishment of the International Criminal Court, among other international processes, which recognise that violations of the Geneva conventions are criminal offences for which individuals can be held accountable. Earlier this year, as a member of Parliamentarians for Global Action, I attended a workshop in Jakarta, the aim of which was to encourage Indonesia to ratify the International Criminal Court Statute, as it has committed to doing on a number of occasions. Now that the elections in Indonesia are over, we are hopeful that ICC ratification will occur in the near future and that many other countries will follow Indonesia’s example. Currently the Rome statute of the ICC has 139 signatories and 110 ratifications.
There are many Australian peacekeepers participating in humanitarian endeavours in trouble spots around the world. It is only right that on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Geneva conventions we remember and honour the good work that is done and we continue to believe that there is both the capacity and the will in humankind to make progress—even if it is achingly slow—towards the sometimes seemingly impossible ideals of global tolerance, cooperation, justice and peace.
Can I say at the outset that I am very pleased to be able to speak in the debate on the motion on the Geneva conventions. I travelled at Christmas across to Egypt and had some dealings with the international Red Cross in Egypt, Nepal, Peru and India. I saw first hand the work being done by the international Red Cross. I will get into that a little bit more in a moment. In these times of uncertainty, with wars in the Middle East, with terrorism lurking on every doorstep, I find comfort in reflecting on the signing of the Geneva conventions some 60 years ago. I find hope that the initiatives shown all those years ago to create and to promote a doctrine of universal human decency are still alive today. I think that is the thing that we need to reflect upon most in this debate—that is, it is all about humanity and human decency regardless of the times or the circumstances that we find ourselves in. It is interesting to note that those same fundamental principles were the foundation of the conventions and that they remain in place as an important and relevant part of our society today.
In 1962 Henri Dunant published his book A Memory of Solferino about the horrors or the First World War and the four treaties that now make up the Geneva Conventions of 1949. If he were here I am sure Henri would be pleased to see that the rules and regulations that were dreamt of in those days have been enacted today and that his vision is taking placing and will live on well into the future. I believe that the same planned, logical thinking that eventuated in the Geneva Conventions can and should apply to politics as well. Decisions that we make today should be made with the future generations in mind. Moral standpoints that transcend party politics should not be ignored but welcomed as a compass for our policy making.
It is a testament to the first of the conventions that the Red Cross remains as strong and as prevalent as ever. I have travelled the world and I have run across half of it and I have seen firsthand the incredible work being done by the International Red Cross and the laws that are implemented on a daily basis in fields of conflict.
The Geneva Conventions consist of four treaties and three Additional Protocols that set the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment of victims of war. The singular term ‘Geneva Convention’ refers to the agreements of 1949, which were negotiated in the aftermath of World War II after having seen the horrific circumstances that took place during the course of World War II.
The Geneva Conventions comprise rules that apply in times of armed conflict and seek to protect people who are not or are no longer taking part in those hostilities. It takes care of and protects wounded and sick fighters, prisoners of war, civilians and people who are not involved in the conflict at that point in time. It protects women and children on the fields of battle from having their rights violated just because they found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when a war has erupted around them.
The most serious crimes are termed ‘grave breaches’ and provide a legal definition of a war crime. Also considered under ‘grave breaches’ of the four Geneva Conventions are the following: the taking of hostages; extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly; and unlawful deportation, transfer or confinement. Nations who are party to these treaties must enact and enforce legislation penalising any of these crimes.
As I mentioned early on, during the last Christmas break I had the opportunity to visit Egypt. While I was there I met with the Secretary General of the International Red Cross, Professor Mamdouh Gabr, who was heading up operations there in Egypt, and the Director General, Dr Magda el-Sherbiny. During the course of my conversations with them they took a phone call in relation to the bombing of a school on the Gaza Strip. I saw the horror on their faces as the circumstances unfolded and I saw how they dealt with those circumstances. I have to tell you, quite honestly, that the professionalism that is dished out in circumstances such as this by each and every person involved with the International Red Cross is to be admired. It is certainly something that this world cannot live without. I remember asking the professor, ‘How on earth can you possibly deal with both sides of a conflict with compassion and without feeling some form of resentment for the actions that they have taken?’ He replied, ‘We would not be who we are and we could not do the job that we are expected to do if we did take sides.’ These people risk their lives and send their volunteers into situations where conflict is happening all around them to protect and care for the injured, to save lives and to protect the people around them regardless of which side of the conflict they are on. They live and breathe the word ‘humanitarian’.
The No. 1 thing that stands out in my mind in relation to the Geneva convention is how in times of conflict—and all nations have found themselves in conflict over years gone by and probably will in the future—we need to reflect on the most important principle of all: the value of a single human life. We need to reflect on the quality of a single human life as well. We need to make sure that we always, even though we may have disagreements that bring us to arms, consider these people and their rights during any disputes that we or other nations may have. We must always uphold these rights.
That is what this recognition in this debate is all about. It is important that we place it front and centre in the minds of every single Australian, both young and old, so we never find ourselves in the situation where we have put politics, legislation, wealth or greed in front of humanity.
I am pleased to speak on the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Geneva convention. I am somewhat intimidated by the fact that chairing these proceedings is the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Mr Kelvin Thomson. I hope I can make a contribution that meets with your approval. I listened to the honourable member for Fremantle, who of course had an outstanding service record before she came here. Certainly on both sides of parliament we rejoice in that.
As a member of parliament I have had the privilege of going to Rwanda, Somalia, several times to East Timor and Bougainville. Bougainville per capita was one of the bloodiest conflicts. It is really sad that as we are now well and truly in the new century and the new millennium there does not seem to be an abatement of man’s inhumanity to man. The Geneva convention, which is 60 years old, is very important in the conduct of formal warfare. These days we live in the era of terrorism where the target of the attack is the civilian population and the idea is that maximum damage be done and headlines gained. There is no formal declaration of war and none of the formalities. I think it is all very sad. If we can sign the Geneva convention, hopefully in the future we will have an era where terrorism does not exist.
The Geneva convention is a collection of four treaties and three additional protocols that are ratified in whole or with reservations by 194 countries. Although in the House yesterday we commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Geneva convention, most of the protections it affords in fact predate the 1949 agreement. The convention defines the basic rights of those captured during military conflict, establishes protections for the wounded and addresses protections for civilians in and around a war zone. It took almost four months to agree to the terms of the convention but many still consider it a miracle that agreement was ever reached, considering the signatory states effectively agreed to relinquish sovereignty for international law when engaged in conflict. As I pointed out, sovereign states are usually not the proponents of terrorist acts.
The architects of the Geneva convention were the International Committee of the Red Cross. In April this year in Geneva, together with my colleagues and led by the Speaker, I was pleased to visit, amongst some other organisations, the International Committee of the Red Cross. We met with the vice-president there, and I was truly impressed by the work that they do. In 2007 the International Committee of the Red Cross provided food for more than 2.5 million people and emergency supplies such as tents and blankets for almost four million people. Its water and sanitation construction project supported 14.3 million people, and around 2.9 million—more than half of them children—benefited from the International Committee of the Red Cross supported healthcare facilities. Of course, the International Committee of the Red Cross, as has been pointed out by the honourable member for Macarthur, do go into these conflict zones. They do not take sides. In that way I think warring parties or factions can gain confidence from the committee’s involvement there. They seek to protect civilians and provide emergency aid.
I should mention for the record that the International Committee of the Red Cross is a key partner in the Australian aid program for international humanitarian assistance. Over the past several years Australia has steadily increased its core funding in addition to responding to ICRC appeals. Thus far in 2009 Australia has provided $16 million. Of this, $14.8 million is a core funding contribution. In 2008 Australia contributed approximately $23.5 million, of which $12 million was for core funding.
More recently, the third protocol of the Geneva convention has introduced a new protective emblem, the Red Crystal. The Geneva convention is not just a series of documents or a blueprint for international law. It should serve as a living memorial to all those innocent civilians who suffered and perished in times of war, particularly World War II. We should all be grateful for the convention. I just hope that in the future it will not have to be honoured, as we will have reduced conflict around the world.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 12.28 pm to 12.40 pm
Debate (on motion by Mr Melham) adjourned.