Senator Richard Di Natale – Estimates question about Australia’s vote against UN resolution on Gaza, opening of US embassy in Jerusalem and denial of entry to Australian religious leaders

photo of Senator Richard Di Natale
May 31, 2018

Questioned why Australia voted against a UN resolution seeking an investigation into the deaths of Palestinian protesters in Gaza, whether Australian representatives attended the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem and Australian religious leaders being denied entry to Israel.

The resolution particularly related to the deaths of more than 50 Palestinian protestors in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli military. Of course, we know that the only other country to vote against the resolution was the United States. We know that Germany, the UK and Japan abstained and that 29 countries, including Belgium, Mexico and Spain, all supported the resolution. Can I ask: what was the government’s justification for voting against the resolution?

Whole interaction Ms HK Yu (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa, DFAT),  Dr Justin Lee (First Assistant Secretary, Multilateral Policy Division, DFAT) and Ms Frances Adamson (Secretary, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator DI NATALE: My first question is in relation to Australia’s vote at the UN on a UN resolution which decided to urgently launch:

… an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian law in relation to the recent events in Gaza.

The resolution particularly related to the deaths of more than 50 Palestinian protestors in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli military. Of course, we know that the only other country to vote against the resolution was the United States. We know that Germany, the UK and Japan abstained and that 29 countries, including Belgium, Mexico and Spain, all supported the resolution. Can I ask: what was the government’s justification for voting against the resolution?


Ms Yu : Just with regard to that vote, there’s an explanation of the vote that’s actually already available. The government’s vote on that was based on principle. It wasn’t against the inquiry itself. The foreign minister has already stated publicly that we would welcome an independent and impartial inquiry into this. Our vote against the resolution was really around the wording of the resolution, which we felt really prejudged the outcome of the investigations.


Senator DI NATALE: Prejudged it in what way?


Ms Yu : If we look at the wording of the resolution itself, there were a number of areas where it talked about condemning ‘the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by the Israeli occupying forces’ in violation of ‘international and humanitarian law and international human rights law’. Obviously, the inquiry would have been put in place to investigate fully whether there had been a breach. There have been a number of other areas where clearly it was very one-sided. We wanted to make sure that any investigation that happens should really be impartial and balanced.


Senator DI NATALE: But isn’t the whole point of the inquiry to determine whether there was a breach? And wasn’t that was contained within the resolution?


Ms Yu : So we made it clear with our vote. You’re right; there were a number of countries that supported the resolution. But we made it clear in our explanation that it wasn’t the inquiry itself; it was really the basis on which the resolution was drafted. This happens often, in regard to the wording of the resolution, that countries will take issue with how it’s worded.


Senator DI NATALE: There were last-minute changes, as I understand, made by the Palestinian delegation. It added words ‘and abuses’ after the word ‘violations’. It made other changes, including a new clause ‘to ensure that future demonstrations remain peaceful and to abstain from actions that could endanger the lives of civilians’. So it does seem that there were attempts to try to address some of the concerns that were raised through this process. Did that not address the concerns?


Ms Yu : Not quite enough from Australia’s perspective. But you’re quite right; there were some last-minute changes, as things always happen on the floor, but we still felt that, overall, the wording of the resolution was not balanced and not impartial enough.


Senator DI NATALE: Not balanced because it didn’t recognise the actions of Hamas? Is that part of the—


Ms Yu : For example, that’s correct. It did not actually even state—which is really a statement of fact—the involvement of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.


Senator DI NATALE: But in this settings, doesn’t the government actually recognise that it’s state parties that hold specific responsibilities, and that obviously was the intention of this resolution?


Ms Yu : By ‘state parties’, could you clarify what you mean?


Senator DI NATALE: The resolution refers specifically to the actions of the Israeli military and Israeli government, and, obviously, again we need to state the facts here: over 100 Palestinians were killed as a result of the actions of the Israeli military. Normally, within these resolutions, there’s a recognition that the actions of a government are held to a particular standard and the state party has particular responsibilities.


Ms Yu : Justin might also want to add to that.


Dr Lee : I think, as HK had indicated, as we said in our explanation of our vote during the session, the issue that we had with the resolution as it stood was that Israel was mentioned throughout the resolution, while there was no mention of Hamas at all, so it was the lack of balance that was in the resolution that we had an issue with.


Senator DI NATALE: Why do you think other countries didn’t have the same concerns that you had? Why do you think it was just Australia and the US who held those concerns?


Ms Yu : The views of the other governments are really a matter for them, I suppose. But, once again, the fact is that it didn’t really touch on Hamas, and also the scope of the inquiry could have been interpreted as much broader than the Gaza incident that we were actually addressing. So there were still a number of factors about the final resolution that concerned us enough that we voted no.


Senator DI NATALE: Putting the resolution to one side, do you actually believe that the Israeli government or the military could be in breach of international law because of their actions?


Ms Yu : I think it’s not really for me to say.


Senator DI NATALE: It is, because surely that would influence whether you would support a resolution like this.


Ms Yu : Like I said, the inquiry is not something that we stood against. It was really the wording of the resolution. Any independent inquiry into this is something that even the foreign minister has said we would actually support. As the foreign minister has publicly stated, she also expressed great concern and regret for the loss of life that we saw during the recent events, and we ask the Israeli government to make sure that their response is proportionate, while recognising that, obviously, Israel has the right to self-defence.


Senator DI NATALE: It’s very hard to square the government’s support for an inquiry when it votes against a resolution for an inquiry and is one of only two countries to do that. You mentioned the foreign minister’s response. Obviously, in response to the tragic deaths of civilians, the Foreign minister issued a media release expressing deep regret and sadness over the loss of life and injury. If you look at the language used by the foreign minister and compare it, for example, with the British PM, who said she was troubled and called, within her response, publicly for an independent investigation, or indeed with New Zealand, where the Prime Minister there, Jacinda Ardern, called it a ‘devastating, one-sided loss of life’ and called in the Israeli ambassador, the Australian government’s response looks a little weak. It looks a little slow and tepid. Can I ask whether the foreign minister’s statement was based on DFAT’s advice?


Ms Yu : With all media releases, yes, there is consultation with DFAT.


Senator DI NATALE: Was the media release based on direct advice from DFAT?


Ms Yu : There was advice, but media releases are done by the foreign minister’s office.


Senator DI NATALE: Are you suggesting that the advice you gave differed from the language in the media release?


Ms Yu : We don’t actually reveal our advice. But in this case, no, not at all.


Senator DI NATALE: So you are prepared to reveal your advice in this case? You’re confirming that this was based on the advice from DFAT?


Ms Yu : Yes, it was.


Senator DI NATALE: Has the government at least met with the Israeli ambassador in Canberra to privately discuss the protest in Gaza, since 30 March?


Ms Yu : Yes, we have been in touch with the Israeli embassy here.


Senator DI NATALE: When?


Ms Yu : One of my staff had contact with an embassy officer on 17 May 2018. Our embassy in Tel Aviv have also made representation to the Israeli government.


Senator DI NATALE: Here in Australia—just to be clear—there was one departmental level meeting with the ambassador; is that right?


Ms Yu : No. It was actually with one of his staff, and we also exchanged emails with staff following that, to obtain further information about the investigative mechanism that they have in place, and that they established in 2014.


Senator DI NATALE: So there was no meeting between senior DFAT officials and the ambassador, or indeed between the foreign minister and the ambassador. We’ve had one meeting between junior staff from DFAT and within the ambassador’s office?


Ms Yu : Deputy Chief of Mission. I’ll have to take that on notice. That’s the information I have with me at the moment, but I’ll have to make sure.


Ms Adamson : We’ll get back to you on that, Senator.


Senator DI NATALE: You’ll let me know at exactly what level. We’re not talking first secretary, second secretary? We’re talking more junior positions than this?


Ms Yu : No, higher.


Senator DI NATALE: Higher positions?


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator DI NATALE: But you can’t confirm who it was?


Ms Yu : Not at this stage. I’ll take that on notice.


Ms Adamson : We’ll get back to you during the course of the morning.


Senator DI NATALE: I want to talk about the FOI that was published that showed Australian diplomats were warned early on that more deaths were likely during the Gaza demonstrations. For example, we know that DFAT officials warned that more deaths were likely during demonstrations on 6 April. Sadly, their predictions came to pass. At that point 10 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military and many more were injured. I understand from DFAT’s public statements that Australian officials raised the matter privately with the parties involved. Can you elaborate on that and tell me about what the nature of those concerns were and who they were raised with?


Ms Yu : Once again, that might be something that I can come back to you on, during the course of today.


Senator DI NATALE: Do you have that information to hand?


Ms Yu : It’s not at hand.


Senator DI NATALE: That’s fine. You can take that on notice. If you can get back to me today on that, that would be helpful. Has the foreign minister raised the issue directly with her Israeli counterpart?


Ms Yu : Yes, she has.


Senator DI NATALE: When?


Ms Yu : She has done, in her recent trip to Israel. I do have that information somewhere, if you could bear with me.


Senator DI NATALE: Are we talking about after 14 May? I can’t remember when her trip was.


Ms Yu : No, not since 14 May.


Senator DI NATALE: There’s been no concern raised with her direct counterpart since 14 May?


Ms Yu : That’s correct.


Senator DI NATALE: And no other representation, apart from the ones we’ve just talked about?


Ms Yu : As I said we will come back to you during the course of today. There has been one representation made. There may be others. I’ll come back to you on that.


Senator DI NATALE: Given the loss of 100 lives, the fact that the foreign minister issued a media release expressing deep regret and sadness over the loss and injury, and the fact that she says that she supports an independent inquiry, do you think it’s not—


CHAIR: Senator Di Natale, that sounds close to asking the official for her opinion—her personal opinion. Would you like to rephrase that?


Senator DI NATALE: Yes, I can rephrase that. Given that the foreign minister has expressed a particular sentiment publicly, and in your words is supportive of an independent investigation into the deaths of more than 100 civilians, how do you explain the fact that she has not made any contact with her counterpart in Israel?


Ms Adamson : The foreign minister’s position was stated very clearly in the media release. That media release would have been drawn to attention, I’m sure, by our embassy in Israel, and the position was very clear, including in our explanation of votes. It’s not at all surprising that there was no ministerial level contact. The position had been clearly set out.



Senator DI NATALE: Going to the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, were there any Australian diplomats who attended that opening?


Ms Yu : No Australian officials attended the US embassy opening because there were no invitations issued to Australian officials.


Senator DI NATALE: There were no invitations issued?


Ms Yu : That’s correct.


Senator DI NATALE: Did we make representation to the embassy requesting that we be granted an invitation?


Ms Yu : That was actually a bilateral event between the US and Israel, so I understand that no other country officials were invited.


Senator DI NATALE: This wasn’t Australia deliberately sending a message that they were unhappy with the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem?


Ms Yu : On Monday, which was when the US embassy was opened in Jerusalem, once again we were not invited.


Senator DI NATALE: Were other countries present?


Ms Yu : I don’t believe so, but I’m not 100 per cent clear.


Senator DI NATALE: Can you take that on notice?


Ms Adamson : There were no invitations issued by the United States to the formal opening of the embassy. Ms Yu is correct; this was regarded by the US and Israel as a bilateral event, and not one to which others were invited. There was, however, a reception on the previous evening.


Senator DI NATALE: I think I remember reading something in the paper.


Ms Adamson : There were two events, just to be clear. No invitations were issued to the embassy opening.


Senator DI NATALE: To the official opening.


Ms Yu : That is correct.


Senator DI NATALE: What was the event the previous evening?


Ms Yu : The reception the previous evening was the one that was hosted by the Israeli government.


Senator DI NATALE: Were we invited?


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator DI NATALE: Did we attend?


Ms Yu : Our ambassador was invited but he did not attend.


Senator DI NATALE: So he didn’t send anybody else?


Ms Adamson : Just to be clear about this, our ambassador was out of the country at the time. The invitation that was extended was a non-transferable invitation, as is often the case for these things. Because he was out of the country, we were not represented.


Senator DI NATALE: So the charge d’affaires couldn’t—


Ms Adamson : No, because the invitation was not transferable.


Senator DI NATALE: Why would an invitation be made non-transferable?


Ms Adamson : That is not uncommon for events such as this, or indeed any event—for invitations to be non-transferable.


Senator DI NATALE: We didn’t request, in lieu of our ambassador not being available, that we be represented in some other capacity? Did we make a request?


Ms Yu : No, we did not. Normally, when it’s non-transferable, it’s understood that you don’t make such a request.


Senator DI NATALE: Can I confirm that the government is not giving any consideration to moving our embassy to Jerusalem?


Ms Yu : Both the Prime Minister and the foreign minister have confirmed that, yes.


Senator DI NATALE: The immediate past ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, who has since left DFAT, has been very public about his endorsement of the US embassy being located in Jerusalem. I’m assuming that those opinions are personal opinions and don’t reflect the views of the department or indeed the government?


Ms Adamson : That’s correct.


Senator DI NATALE: Can I move to another issue? Recently a delegation of four Australian religious leaders—two Christian, two Muslim—were denied entry into Palestine by the Israeli authorities on 11 April. They were there to participate in the international interfaith conference on Jerusalem hosted by the Palestinian Authority. Are you aware of that issue, Ms Yu?


Ms Yu : I wasn’t aware of that, no.


Senator DI NATALE: I believe the matter was raised with the Australian representative for the Palestinian Authority on 10 April and also in a letter to Minister Bishop on 25 May. Are you saying you’re not aware—


Ms Yu : My apologies. I’ve been in this job less than three months, so that may be why I’ve missed this.


Senator DI NATALE: No problem. Can you take the following on notice?


Ms Yu : Sure.


Senator DI NATALE: When did the department become aware of their denial of entry? Given the circumstances, where permission appears to have been revoked at the last minute, and where it seems that Australian religious leaders appear to have been banned from entering Israel and Palestine for five years, will the government will raise this matter with its counterparts in Israel? Australia’s representative in Ramallah advised the group that Australia can’t intervene on behalf of travellers who don’t meet Israel’s entry or exit requirements. Can you confirm on notice if that’s standard practice, and whether the Australian government has any capacity to intervene in those decisions?


Ms Adamson : Senator, I can confirm with you that that sort of thing is standard practice, and that our embassies, consulates or representatives anywhere are not able to intervene.


Senator DI NATALE: And there’s no precedent for doing that?


Ms Adamson : No, not that I’m aware of. But what you have described is standard practice.

Link to full Hansard transcript.