Senator Scott Ludlam – question placed on notice in relation to Israel’s prosecution of Palestinian children in military courts

photo of Senator Scott Ludlam
May 10, 2017

…our request to the Australian government is to have observers at these trials. It was actually an undertaking of the former foreign minister. There is something that Australia can do. It is not going to be good enough to hear that because these things happen on the other side of the world there is nothing we can do. Australia, at least at a government level, as a staunch supporter of the government of Israel, can do a lot—and we can certainly do more than we are doing. I thank the Senate.

Full speech

Senator LUDLAM (Western AustraliaCo-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (15:09): I move:

That the Senate take note of the minister’s failure to provide either answers or an explanation.

I understand the Attorney is here in a representing capacity. I hope that lines of communication are open between your office and that of the foreign minister, but we will leave that to you to explain. I will speak at some length on the matters raised in question 408 and briefly on question 410. I will speak to the substance of the questions.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Just a moment, Senator Ludlam. Senator Brandis?

Senator Brandis: I rise on a point of order. What Senator Ludlam is taking note of is my answer, but what he has foreshadowed that he proposes to speak about is the substance of the issue raised by the question. Now, my answer was that my office has not been advised of the fact that he proposed to raise this issue today. In those circumstances, it seems impossible that anything beyond noting the fact that my office has not been advised that he proposed to raise this issue could be relevant. I am not seeking to limit Senator Ludlam, of course, from addressing this issue at the appropriate time, but no motion to take notice of an answer that my office has not been advised of the matter that he proposed to raise could possibly be relevant.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Brandis. In taking note, Senator Ludlam is free to either take note of the explanation or take note of no explanation, and in his response he can be wide-ranging and can canvass the issues that it seems he was going to.

Senator Brandis: I put a further point of order. Neither of those are alternatives of what I said. What I said is my office has not been advised of the matter that Senator Ludlam proposed to raise. Now, Madam Deputy President, I have not explained why the questions have not been answered and I have not said that the questions have been answered. I simply do not know, because my office has not been advised of Senator Ludlam’s intention to raise this matter. That is all I have said, and that is all that can be taken note of.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Brandis. Advising beforehand is a convention, and Senator Ludlam has said he advised, and you have indicated that your office did not receive that advice. It is a convention. If you look at standing order 74 and, in particular, at 74(5)(c), it says:

in the event that the minister does not provide an explanation, the senator may, without notice, move a motion with regard to the minister’s failure to provide either an answer or an explanation.

Senator O’Sullivan? Senator Brandis, Senator O’Sullivan has the call; please resume your seat.

Senator O’Sullivan: I am happy to yield to Senator Brandis.

Senator Brandis: With great respect, Madam Deputy President, you are completely missing the point here. I have not provided an explanation and—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Brandis!

Senator Brandis: I am moving a point of order.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I think you are now debating.

Senator Brandis: No, I am not; I am taking a point of order.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: You are debating.

Senator Brandis: I am not; I am taking a point of order, and I ask you to listen to the point of order before you rule on it.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: If it is the same as the previous one—

Senator Brandis: No, it is not.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Make your point then.

Senator Brandis: Madam Deputy President, I am not providing an explanation and I am not failing to provide an explanation. I am merely advising the Senate that my office has not been advised of this matter being raised today; that is all. That is the only thing that I have said, and that is the only thing that, therefore, note may be taken of.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Brandis. It is the same as the previous point you raised, and I have answered that. Senator O’Sullivan.

Senator O’Sullivan: I am seeking some guidance from you, Madam Deputy President. I am the second speaker on this list today, and I am entitled, of course, to express myself in relation to this topic, but there is no topic upon which I could prepare.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator O’Sullivan, we are on a different matter. I will explain to you where we are up to. We are not at the point of taking note. Senator Ludlam has, quite correctly, stood up and sought the call, and he is referring to standing order 74(5).

Senator LUDLAM: I note that Senator Brandis appears to be abusing a courtesy and a custom of this place.

Senator Brandis: That is very unfair.

Senator LUDLAM: It is not unfair, Senator Brandis, and you know that it is not.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Through the chair.

Senator LUDLAM: Through the chair, I am just going to focus my remarks on the fact that I notified the foreign minister’s office. Her failure to contact you, as the representing minister, or your failure to pick up the phone is not my problem, nor is it the Senate’s problem. So I will address my comments briefly to the unanswered questions on notice. They were placed on the Notice Paper on 17 March. The custom in this place is that within 30 days the Senate is provided with a reply, and that has not occurred. Senator Brandis has failed to provide the Senate with any satisfactory explanation as to why these questions remain unanswered. The substance is the decision by the Australian government, I would argue, an unprecedented decision, under longstanding policy by both Liberal and Labor governments to participate in good faith in negotiations at the United Nations level to work towards the elimination of the existence of nuclear weapons. And it is a remarkable lapse—

Senator Ian Macdonald: Madam Deputy President, on a point of order on the grounds of relevance: the motion is to take note of the answer given by Senator Brandis. It had nothing to do with the United Nations. It had nothing to do with violence. Senator Brandis’s answer, as I heard it, was simply to say that his office had not been contacted. Senator Ludlam can debate why Senator Brandis’s office was not contacted, that he does not have efficient system, or the minister he is representing did the wrong thing. That would be part of a legitimate debate, but talking about the United Nations has nothing to do with the answer given by Senator Brandis.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Macdonald. That is very similar to the point that Senator Brandis raised and I have already made a decision in relation to that. Please continue, Senator Ludlam.

Senator LUDLAM: This is starting to stray very close to disrespecting the ruling that you gave quite some time ago.

An opposition senator interjecting

Senator LUDLAM: Yes, it is.

Senator Ian Macdonald: You have got to follow the standing orders.


Senator LUDLAM: Between them, you might learn something, Senator Macdonald, if you just keep your trap shut.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Ludlam, please direct your comments to the chair.

Senator LUDLAM: I am in enough trouble as it is, I will do so. Nine nations between them, today, hold more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals. And some of them—most of them—are vastly more powerful than the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Australia was one of the founding nations of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. It was signed in 1968 and it came into effect in March 1970. Today, there are 190 signatures to that international agreement, and I am proud that Australia is one of them. There are actually only nine states in the world left that remain outside this international agreement. These are countries such as South Sudan, North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel. These countries have turned their backs on the international rules-based order and insist on maintaining and deploying these weapons, despite global international agreement as far back as the late 1960s that these devices should be abolished. But Australia has remained a part of this agreement. And I would argue that over time, we have played on occasion an extremely confused role but, on some occasions, a really important and constructive role, particularly under the Labor governments and under Labor prime ministers and foreign ministers. But there are some achievements that you could notably point to on the other side as well.

Article 1 of the nuclear nonproliferation agreement goes to importance of nonproliferation—no transfer. It is one of the reasons that Australia has signed up to—what I would argue would be an ineffective, nonetheless they are there at least on paper—agreements that we will not sell uranium to states that will then divert that material into nuclear weapons. It is a documented fact that Australia sells to many nuclear weapon states. We sell uranium from South Australia and from the Northern Territory, from a dwindling number of uranium mines to nuclear weapon states—we do that. But there are processes on paper that are meant to safeguard against diversion of that material into nuclear weapons programs. We would argue that simply tipping Australian uranium into a bucket, and then tipping out a certain amount for civil nuclear power and a certain amount for nuclear weapons is thoroughly ineffective. But those agreements stand for a reason: that uranium remains today the only fuel for an energy source that is also a source for weapons of mass destruction.

Article 1 of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty says no to the proliferation of technology that would allow countries to do what North Korea or India did, which was take these devices, these plants, these processing facilities, meant the civil nuclear power and immediately—not through any change of technology but really just a flick of a policy switch—turn those facilities over to fissile material production for nuclear weapons programs. The nonproliferation regime has, when compared with some of the more dire predictions from the fifties, sixties and seventies that proposed that maybe by now, by 2017, we would have 20 or 30 countries deploying nuclear weapons, ensured there is a much smaller number.

Article 6 of the nuclear nonproliferation agreement is, if anything, even more important. This is the article that binds nuclear weapons states and their allies, such as Australia, to participate in good-faith negotiations leading to total and complete nuclear weapons disarmament. Sometimes you could imagine, maybe, in a foreign minister’s or a Prime Minister’s office that this agreement only relates to nonproliferation—other people cannot have nukes, but we are comfortable with those who do. But, in fact, the agreement that we signed up to nearly 50 years ago says that all nuclear weapons states under this agreement are obliged to negotiate for complete and total disarmament of these weapons. That is the agreement that we signed up to.

So how are we going 47 years later with these good-faith negotiations? The first point to note is that compared to the height of the Cold War there are fewer of these weapons in the arsenals of the world’s nuclear weapons states. There are fewer. Negotiations have taken place between governments of the United States and Russia—or the Soviet Union at the time—to stand down many of these weapons. That did occur. That is possible. It can happen. But are these negotiations proceeding in good faith towards disarmament? No, they are not. We know they are not because every nuclear weapons state in the world, bar none, is currently actively refreshing, renewing, redeploying, redesigning their nuclear weapons arsenals—47 years after that agreement came into effect.

It does not catch rogue states like North Korea or Israel who stay outside these binding international agreements. But it should catch the policy and doctrine of states like the United States, the government of Russia and the government of China. But we know that the United States government is redeveloping nuclear weapons. We know that the government of Great Britain is proposing to rebuild its Trident submarine capability and that Russian rearmament is a matter of record. This is not good faith. This is the opposite of good faith. While negotiations are bogged down in the United Nations, the nuclear weapons states are not only refusing to disarm but actively maintaining and upgrading their nuclear weapons stockpiles.

On 6 August 1945, the United States government dropped a 16-kilotonne weapon on the people of Hiroshima in the closing days of the Second World War. Sixteen kilotonne means the equivalent of 16,000 tonnes of TNT in one device dropped from one aircraft. A device of that destructive power completely destroyed an area one mile across, killed 70,000 to 80,000 people in the blast wave and resulting firestorm, killed 30 per cent of the population of Hiroshima and created 70,000 injuries immediately. Goodness only knows how many casualties there have been over the longer term from radiation sickness. That compounds through the generations.

Over Nagasaki three days later, a 21-kilotonne plutonium weapon detonated and immediately and instantly killed 40,000 people—one device dropped from one aircraft. A 21-kilotonne weapon is the largest nuclear weapon that has even been used against people, a civilian population, in a time of war—to say nothing of those devices that were tested on Australian service personnel and unwittingly on the Aboriginal people who were bombed off their lands around Maralinga and the Montebellos in the northwest of WA.

I say without reservation that Minister Dan Tehan should be congratulated by everybody in this place for doing what he could to right that historic injustice for, as Senator Brandis provided some details on in supplementary answers to Senator Lambie a short time ago, those personnel who, in service to their country, were bombed and exposed to nuclear radiation by an ally, the British government, in the 1950s and 1960s. Minister Tehan has done what the previous Labor government refused to do and what other governments have refused to do all the way back into 1950s and 1960s, which was acknowledge that those horrific wrongs were done to Australian personnel and to Aboriginal families living in the immediate area.

A 21-kilotonne weapon remains the largest used on a population in wartime. But, in 1961, the Russian soviet government tested a 57-megaton hydrogen bomb—equivalent to 57 million tonnes of TNT; an unimaginably destructive weapon. It is the largest nuclear weapon that has ever been tested because, at about that time, global civil society had discovered the incredibly damaging effects of the global spread of nuclear fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and had begun to draw the nuclear powers back into line so that nuclear weapon testing would cease.

In 2014, a coalition of medical experts convened a conference in Vienna—a humanitarian initiative—effectively, to put before the governments of the world and global civil society the argument that, in the event of the use of nuclear weapons, the global medical community will not be able to help. There is no kind of healthcare system or emergency support structure that you can put in place to remediate the damage done to civilian populations by the effects of nuclear weapons. That message was heard loud and clear. That set in motion an open-ended working group within the United Nations setting out a process, finally, to make these weapons illegal in international law—illegal in the same way that chemical weapons, biological weapons and cluster munitions are illegal. Not everybody signs up; you do not wait for North Korea or Syria to sign up to pass an agreement like this into international law. Countries of good will get together, they craft international law and then they sign up, like Australia did with the NPT.

We have some questions for the Australian government as to why—given 47 years of what I would argue would be deliberate paralysis and the opposite of good-faith negotiations to ban these weapons and, with the first crack in the armour that we see, moves by global civil society and a majority of governments around the world to ban these weapons and to finally have them accepted and understood to be illegal tools of genocide under international law—Australia would participate in a boycott of those negotiations. How is that good faith? How is that anything other than sabotage? That, effectively, is what our questions to the foreign minister go to. That was what we wanted to see an answer to when we put these questions to the minister on 17 March.

What are the reasons for the decision by Australia not to participate in the UN conference? Were we told not to participate by the US government, because there was some heavy-duty arm twisting going on from the nuclear-weapon states and their client states in advance of the open-ended working group’s determination to actually put this to the UN First Committee. Is it the fact that it settled Australian defence doctrine, in successive white papers under governments of both flavours, that Australia relies on the US nuclear weapons umbrella? Given everything that we know about the effect of these weapons—the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolds when populations are bombed by these devices—and all that we know in the many, many years since those days, three days apart, in August 1945, is it still a matter of fact in Australia’s defence doctrine that we would support, under some conditions, the use of US nuclear weapons in defence of Australia? Is that why we are boycotting these talks? Is that why the US government demanded that we not participate? Did they even need to demand, or did we just fold? It is unprecedented, in my experience, that the Australian government would sit this out.

There is an argument to be made that we are better off out of the room, if all we were intending to do was sabotage the talks as we so clearly attempted. Our diplomats, what an utter disgrace—attempting to sabotage the work of the open-ended working group. Maybe it is better that we are out of the room. What would be better than that would be to be in the room, arguing in good faith for the banning of these weapons. For a nuclear umbrella state like Australia to be doing so would be of enormous consequence.

One country after another will sign onto this agreement. The closing negotiations are occurring in June and July 2017. I intend to be in New York when that is happening. I think it is going to be an absolutely historic moment. Australia can be left behind by that—we can go under the wheels as a saboteur or, as we have been called in these negotiations, a ‘weasel state’—or we can be part of the movement to bring into effect that agreement that was signed in 1970. That is where I think most Australians want us to be.

I want to acknowledge and celebrate the work of ICAN, which started in Melbourne, here in Australia, and is now a global movement, helping to unite a deep and old and very wise civil society collection of movements from around the world. It is a movement that got its start after that white flash on 6 August 1945. ICAN, started in Melbourne, is a successful Australian export, I would argue—and those governments and civil society partners around the world who have made this happen. Where the hell is Australia? Where are we? We should be in the room and we should be doing our bit to bring this agreement to a close and ban these weapons, once and for all.

I will also make brief reference, as I said I would at the outset, to the non-response to question on notice No. 410, which relates to Israel’s prosecution of Palestinian children in military courts. My Senate colleague Janet Rice will have more to say on this, because she has seen the situation up close. I want to draw the Senate’s attention to a report by UNICEF in March 2013. It is titled Children in Israeli military detention. It found that the ill-treatment of children who come in contact with the Israeli military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalised through the process, from the moment of arrest until the child’s prosecution and eventual conviction and sentencing. The report by UNICEF made 38 recommendations, which the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would study and work to implement in cooperation with UNICEF.

What has changed since 2013? In May of last year the Israel Prison Service stopped regular monthly prison statistics. They just stopped collecting them, or maybe they stopped publishing them, in accordance with the freedom of information application from the Israeli organisation B’Tselem. Despite repeated requests, it is the first time in more than 15 years that the IPS has not disclosed the number of adults and children held in its facilities on a regular basis. We know from the latest public figures that 319 children were held in military detention at the end of August 2016. We were not able to find anything more recent than that. But even that is an 82 per cent increase compared with the monthly average for 2015. And 10 of these children were being held without charge or trial in administrative detention.

Senator Rice, as I said, who has seen this system in operation up close and has much more current information than has been published or that we were able to find, will make some remarks. But our request to the Australian government is to have observers at these trials. It was actually an undertaking of the former foreign minister. There is something that Australia can do. It is not going to be good enough to hear that because these things happen on the other side of the world there is nothing we can do. Australia, at least at a government level, as a staunch supporter of the government of Israel, can do a lot—and we can certainly do more than we are doing. I thank the Senate.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you. Senator Rice?

Link to parliamentary Hansard