Australia – Statement on situation in Libya / Afghanistan

TOPICS: NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels, the situation in Libya and ongoing operations in Afghanistan.

FRAN KELLY: As we mentioned, NATO Defence Ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss the situation in Libya and the ongoing operation in Afghanistan. Our Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, says there is no dispute with Kevin Rudd, and that Australia’s position on Libya is clear that the UN Security Council should consider a no-fly zone over Libya. I spoke with the Defence Minister a short time ago.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning Fran, thanks very much.

FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, are the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister at odds over the push for a no-fly zone over Libya?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I certainly don’t believe so. I’ve seen suggestions overnight and this morning, but I’ve looked carefully at what both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have said in the last week or so, and indeed what I’ve said, and the Australian position is, in my view, very clear.

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and I have all said that we believe the Security Council should consider a no-fly zone over Libya. We believe that having a Security Council resolution, the weight of international law is very important, and that should be the starting point. We’ve also supported preparatory measures by NATO, in particular, to put itself in the position of being able to effect a no-fly zone if there is the authority of international laws.

FRAN KELLY: What the Prime Minister said overnight, when she was asked specifically about that, was, she said, I think it’s appropriate for the UN Security Council to consider a full range of options. I don’t believe that range of options should be narrowed. In other words, she didn’t re-state Australia’s support for a no-fly zone specifically.

STEPHEN SMITH: No, the phrase that you’ve quoted includes a no-fly zone. That’s particularly the case, given last week when the parliament sat, she stood up on one of those occasions and said that Australia was calling on the Security Council to consider a no-fly zone, that we had to keep the pressure on.

So, that phrase obviously includes a no-fly zone. It obviously includes all of the things which the Foreign Minister and I have been saying on our respective overseas trip. But because we’re dealing with, potentially and effectively, a military intervention into another country, the starting point for Australia has to be proper Security Council authorisations.

The general form of words which the Prime Minister has used includes a no-fly zone. And I may be missing something, but I’m focusing on the substance of the position here, not any angle that might be of interest to journalists overnight.

FRAN KELLY: All right. Well, you’ve been in meetings with the US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates in Brussels. What reservations does the US have about a no-fly zone over Libya?

STEPHEN SMITH: What NATO decided today was that NATO wants to put itself in a position where if it had to, or wanted to, it would be able to provide humanitarian assistance using NATO assets. That it could, if it wanted to, be able to enforce the arms embargo using NATO assets. That it was important for NATO to do the relevant military planning and contingency and scoping study for a no-fly zone over Libya. But before it would embark upon that process, it needed to have the appropriate international law authorisation through the Security Council.

But also, importantly, would want to have regional support. In other words, if NATO was going to act on behalf of a country in its region, it would want appropriate regional support, and that’s a reference to the Arab League, to the African Union, and we’ve also seen in recent times expressions of support for a no-fly zone from the Gulf Cooperation Council and from the Organization of Islamic Conference.

So that was, essentially, the substance of the NATO resolution today.

FRAN KELLY: But Minister, I mean, clearly, what we’re hearing this morning, and I’m sure you’ve heard the reports too, is that people in Libya are under bombardment. They think this is all talk and no action. It could be over for them by the weekend. So how quickly could we see UN authorisation, and do you concede it’s urgent?

STEPHEN SMITH: In our view, it’s urgent, and we’ve been saying that for some time. There’s no point shying away from the fact that the Security Council itself is always subject to a veto, and whether it’s Russia or whether it’s China, we know from the historical starting points that intervention into what they will describe as the internal affairs of a nation state is not something that they deal with or proceed with lightly.

FRAN KELLY: Is support from the Arab League key to that then, key to influencing those countries?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there’s always a prospect of veto, and so, the more regional support there is from Arab nations, from African nations, from Muslim nations, then the more prospect and chance there is of a Security Council resolution authorising an intervention.

FRAN KELLY: Just turning to the meetings about Afghanistan over – tomorrow, coalition forces have had some success in recent months, but it is coming up towards spring and what’s normally called the spring offensive is an even more deadly time in this conflict.

Australia has had an increasing number of casualties in Afghanistan in the past year. There’s – is the tempo of that kind of dangerous operation about to increase?

STEPHEN SMITH: We are, in a sense, steeling ourselves for the return to the fighting season which occurs when the winter recedes and spring comes. So, April, May, June is the traditional start of the fighting season.

So, we are steeling ourselves for a difficult year, a difficult fighting season. Having said that, we have made, we think, progress in Uruzgan and in Afghanistan generally in terms of better security control.

FRAN KELLY: So, does that progress mean we will see the handover to Afghan security forces?

STEPHEN SMITH: We remain confident that, in Uruzgan Province, we can hand over lead responsibility for security matters some time between 2012 and 2014 over the next one, two, four years.

The meeting tomorrow will all be about transition, where the first tranche, if you like, of provinces or districts will fall for consideration, and I expect that’ll be announced by President Karzai later this month.

We’re not arguing, or suggesting or believing that Uruzgan Province is in the first tranche. We think there’s 12 or 18 months to go before we get to that stage, but we are making progress.

FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Fran, thanks very much.

FRAN KELLY: Defence Minister Stephen Smith joining us there from Brussels.

Press release
Ministerial Support and Public Affairs,
Department of Defence,
Canberra, Australia

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