Questioned DFAT’s perspective on Amnesty International’s report on Israeli apartheid and how Australia is working with Israel to address international concerns related to this.
Whole interaction with Mr Marc Innes-Brown PSM (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT), Senator Marise Payne (Minister for Foreign Affairs), Senator Eric Abetz and Senator David Van during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).
Senator FAWCETT: I just want to move on very quickly—and we can probably deal with this at the secretary level—to the Middle East, specifically the Amnesty International report into Israel. I found it quite offensive and poorly considered for them to use the word ‘apartheid’. I know the minister and the Prime Minister have made comments, but from a departmental perspective can the department offer a view on how valid they think the use of that term is and actions that we’re taking to work constructively with Israel around some of those areas where there have been concerns raised in the international community?
Ms Campbell : Mr Innes-Brown is well placed to answer this.
Mr Innes-Brown : On the specific report, it’s not a characterisation that we have determined or share. Those sorts of judgements are usually made in an appropriate international context or setting. In relation to the issues that it makes allegations about, as you said, we seek to engage constructively with Israel on various issues of concern and we continue to do so on a regular basis. Most recently, last week on 7 February our ambassador spoke to the foreign ministry about a number of matters. He did speak to parliamentarians a week or so prior to that, and most recently in Canberra on 21 January I spoke to the Israeli ambassador-designate.
Senator FAWCETT: I have two other questions and I’m conscious of time. One is—
CHAIR: If I might just briefly intervene on this issue, is it a fact that in Israel that there is an Arab party which is a key member of the current Israeli governing coalition?
Mr Innes-Brown : That is a fact, Senator.
CHAIR: And is it also correct that all of its citizens have equal rights regardless of ethnicity or religion?
Mr Innes-Brown : I’d like to check that characterisation, but I believe so.
CHAIR: Thank you. Are you aware of the Economist magazine’s ranking of democracies in the world?
Mr Innes-Brown : I haven’t studied it recently.
CHAIR: Alright. Well, Secretary, possibly to you, do we consider, does Australia consider—or Minister—that Belgium, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and the United States are democracies?
Ms Campbell : We do.
CHAIR: We do, right. The Economist ranks Israel as the world’s 23rd-most democratic country and more democratic than Belgium, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and the United States, so one wonders where Amnesty International gets off on this. Have we made any representations to Amnesty International to the effect that, if they want to be considered as a credible organisation pursuing genuine issues of human rights, they might like to ensure that they don’t engage in such inflammatory misinformation, which clearly defies the objective facts in relation to Israel?
Mr Innes-Brown : We do engage with them regularly. I have had discussions with Amnesty International prior to this report coming out in recent weeks and late last year. We are more than happy to convey those views. My initial response to Senator Fawcett was that we didn’t share that characterisation and we don’t support it, so I’m very happy to do so.
CHAIR: Can I encourage you to do so proactively, not just to do so on the occasion of another discussion but to say that—
Mr Innes-Brown : Sure.
CHAIR: after consideration of this inflammatory report full of misinformation, if it wants to protect its reputation and standing, it might reconsider its stance?
Senator Payne: As you know, we have also joined a number of international partners in rejecting the characterisation of Israel. Australia has been explicit, as has been acknowledged at the table, as have Germany, the UK, France, the United States and others, and I do not agree with, cannot support and would not consider an accurate representation, frankly, the comments that Senator Lines, the senator for Western Australia, made in the Senate last week.
CHAIR: They were basically regurgitating the very misinformed and ill-founded Amnesty report. In the spirit of bipartisanship on matters of foreign affairs, I’m sure Ms Lines does not represent the views of the Labor Party, despite the very senior position she holds, which is that of the nominee for the presidency of the Senate.
Senator Payne: Senator Wong has indicated her position.
Senator VAN: Chair, I’d like to ask a clarifying question on that. If you’re putting those questions to Amnesty International, it’d be interesting to understand their motivations behind such reports. It might be characterised as seeking publicity. Whether that be for donations or political reasons I cannot ascertain, but a lot of NGO activity around Israel seems to be publicity seeking, assuming to shore up public donations.
Senator Payne: I’ll take that as a comment, Senator.