Senator Jordon Steele-John – Estimates questions regarding sanctions on Israel; and the ICC’s application for arrest warrants for the Israeli PM, Defence Minister and senior political leaders of Hamas

Photo of Senator Jordon Steele-John
June 3, 2024

Minister, in the last week we’ve heard calls from Medecins Sans Frontieres and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine to impose sanctions on the State of Israel after the horrific air strike on Rafah. Has the Australian government imposed sanctions on the State of Israel?

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Minister, in the last week we’ve heard calls from Medecins Sans Frontieres and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine to impose sanctions on the State of Israel after the horrific air strike on Rafah. Has the Australian government imposed sanctions on the State of Israel?

Mr Maclachlan: No.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: The Labor government is quite fond, apparently, of applying autonomous sanctions, with over three-quarters of all currently listed autonomous sanctions originating in this term of government. There are 568 autonomous sanctions which have been applied to Syria, 676 that have been applied to Iran and now I think it is actually bang on 1,300 that have been applied to the Russian Federation. There are currently no autonomous sanctions on the State of Israel, though, despite a number of well-documented atrocities that have been committed by the IDF against Palestinian civilians. Minister, what is the reason for the hesitance around sanctioning the political leaders responsible for the State of Israel’s atrocities against Palestinian civilians?

Mr Maclachlan: As you know, I think at every estimates session that I’ve attended since I’ve been in this role, we’ve made clear that we’re happy to talk to the sanctions that have been made, explain the sanctions and explain why, but we don’t talk about what we might do in the future. That’s not an indication that we are doing things. It’s not an indication that we are not doing things. It’s an indication that, for sanctions to be effective, we don’t really wish to telegraph what we might be doing.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: I understand that, Mr Maclachlan. I’ve heard that response from you before. I addressed that question to the minister, and it was in very carefully framed terms. Minister, you have personally been very fond of applying autonomous sanctions. You’ve utilised the legislation. Your government’s utilised the legislation, many times with the Australian Greens’ support—in relation to Syria, Iran and Russia, just three examples among many I could select from. There are no autonomous sanctions currently upon members of the Israeli government or any other individuals responsible for the atrocities that have been committed against Palestinian civilians by IDF personnel or as a result of IDF operations. What is the source of your hesitance to place these sanctions upon those political leaders who are responsible for these atrocities against Palestinian civilians?

Senator Wong: Senator, I know you come here seeking to make a political point out of this conflict, as you have since it began, and I think the approach is regrettable. First, in relation to sanctions, I’ve said, in relation to other occasions where you have told me I need to do more sanctions on someone, that sanctions are not the only way or in every case the most effective way to push for accountability and transparency. But, just like Senator Birmingham, I again try to go behind the question to the actual reality that we’re trying to grapple with, which is the events of 7 October by a terrorist organisation that is dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people, and the protracted conflict that we have seen—tragic conflict—over decades, intermittently, and no progress towards peace. Recognising we are not a major player in this, but we are a respected voice, we have sought to use our voice and our diplomacy to try and press for peace and for international humanitarian law. Let me take you through some of that, Senator.

People might recall when the events of 7 October first started being reported. I expressed our solidarity and our horror—our solidarity with the people of Israel and our horror at the terrorist atrocities which had occurred. Frankly, at the time of the first statement I think the full extent of those had not been disclosed or reported. I also called for restraint, and I was criticised by the opposition for that. The reason I called for restraint is that we have an interest in international humanitarian law being observed. And, in the bipartisan statement which was drafted by me and others, where we engaged with the opposition—I’m not sure you voted for this—we also called for the observance of international humanitarian law.

We have advocated. I have had over 60 engagements with foreign counterparts, including my visit to the Middle East, and partners in Europe, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, the US and our region. I’ve pressed Israel directly, including directly with Foreign Minister Katz, President Herzog and key Israeli decision-makers. The Prime Minister has done the same thing with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we have worked with close partners, including G7 members. Officials in Canberra have engaged, and our ambassador in Tel Aviv has engaged.

We’ve worked in international forums, including at the UN General Assembly. We voted in support of a humanitarian ceasefire, an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in December, and in support of a two-state solution in May. We’ve taken similar decisions in other international areas such as the World Health Organization and UNESCO. We’ve committed some $60 million to address urgent needs in Gaza and the protracted refugee crisis in the region. We’ve made public comments in relation to the International Court of Justice and its binding orders, including in relation to the delivery of basic services and humanitarian assistance in Rafah.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Chair, I do apologise—

Senator Wong: No, you asked a question about what we were doing, and I’m answering it.

CHAIR: Senator, the minister is responding, and you’ll get the call to respond.

Senator Wong: I know it might not suit you to know how much we’ve done. In Senate estimates in February I gave a public message to the Netanyahu government in relation to the proposed offensive in Rafah. I said, ‘Do not go down this path.’ The international community has been at one on this, and we have seen over the past week why we and others in the international community issued this warning, because the death and destruction is horrific and the human suffering is unacceptable. I would reiterate again what I have said before to the Prime Minister of Israel, that this cannot continue. We want to see an immediate humanitarian ceasefire so that civilians can be protected. We have continued to call for the release of hostages and the flow of aid at scale. I’ve written directly to my Israeli counterpart following the shocking and unacceptable strikes in Rafah last week. We have made numerous representations to senior Israeli officials both in Australia and in Israel. We have made representations to the US requesting that they use their influence, which they are seeking to do. We have delivered a joint statement with the prime ministers of Canada and New Zealand on 15 February at Prime Minister level. We delivered a message in a letter to foreign minister Katz on 15 May together with foreign ministers from the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Japan, the Republic of Korea and other partners. We expressed our concern about what was happening in Rafah in a resolution at the World Health Assembly, one that Australia had not traditionally supported. We have continued to act and engage in order to try and progress a resolution to this conflict, an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. You may point to what you will do. Whatever we do, you say ‘You haven’t done this and you haven’t done this.’ I hope we all want to see this conflict end. Some of us want to do it in a way that holds the Australian community together.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Last week the ICC’s chief prosecutor applied for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s defence minister and three senior political leaders of Hamas. The Australian government’s response was that ‘Australia respects the ICC and the important role it has in upholding international law.’ Minister, if arrest warrants are issued, will Australia uphold our obligation to honour those arrest warrants in the occasion any of those named set foot on Australian soil?

Ms McKenna : I would just note that while the prosecutor has made an application to the court, no arrest warrants have been issued at this time. It will be a matter for the court whether or not to authorise those warrants. The question raised is a hypothetical.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So you can’t assure the committee or the community that we will uphold our obligations if warrants are issued?

Ms McKenna : It’s a hypothetical. I would also note that Australia’s obligations under part 9 of the Rome Statute are implemented domestically in the International Criminal Court Act, which is administered by the Attorney-General’s Department. So questions in relation to Australia’s cooperation obligations and the role of the Attorney-General in respect of those are best directed to that department.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Minister, does the Australian government believe that the state of Israel has acted in compliance with international law since the start of the invasion of Gaza?

Ms Adams : As I think we have said on every estimates occasion, we won’t be in a position to provide legal advice or assessments to the committee. I note that’s also the evidence given in Attorney-General’s estimates.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So 35,000-plus people dead, horrific crimes, clear for the entire world to see, and the Australian government is not able to answer the question whether the state of Israel has acted in compliance with international law since its invasion of Gaza.

Senator Wong: Senator, again you come here seeking a grab for social media. That’s what you’re doing. That doesn’t advance the cause of peace, does it? You and I both know that that question cannot be answered, because it is a matter for the international tribunals. You and I both know that you shouldn’t be asking hypotheticals in here. You and I, I would think, both know that all of us share the horror of what we are seeing in Rafah, just as many of us expressed horror at what occurred on 7 October.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Last week, Minister Wong, you reiterated on social media your message that ‘Israel must not go down this path in response to the air strike on Rafah.’ That had already happened. That was not the first time you had issued this message on behalf of the government. You reiterated a similar version of that message at the beginning of this estimates session. These statements have never resulted in any consequence when the state of Israel has inevitably crossed the red lines that your government has established. My question is this: what would it take for the Labor government to finally impose any consequence on the state of Israel for their many breaches of international law?

Senator Wong: Unlike you, we respect the international tribunals. We recognise that the international rules based order, including the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, are the appropriate tribunals to make the findings that you now assert. We respect those tribunals and the rule of international law, which is why, from the beginning—don’t shake your head, we do.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: That is such a breathtaking double standard. Breathtaking.

Senator Wong: You want to talk about double standards? I tell you what.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Your government are so happy to place [inaudible]

Senator Wong: You know what the double standard is? Let me finish on this point. The double standard is you and your party participating in protests which have become violent and aggressive, Greens MPs speaking outside rallies which then invade and intimidate people at Labor Party state conferences.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: This is so inappropriate and a total—

Senator Wong: What is inappropriate is staff being injured inside at events where a Greens MP speaks outside; an event which is then invaded by protesters. Electorate staff were injured. The MP concerned has written to your leader expressing concern about the role and involvement of Greens MPs, and Mr Bandt has not even replied. It is double standards to engage in violent and aggressive protest and incite them and think you are doing something about peace. On social media we have posts which target people personally. We have posts which are threatening and violent, and you are collaborating with them. That is not leadership.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: That is so beneath you.

Senator Wong:   If you think you are for the cause of peace, maybe you should start practising it in this country.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: And maybe you should apply autonomous sanctions, as you have the power to do and have done on many occasions.

CHAIR: On that note, we’re going to break now for morning tea.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard