Minister for Defence – Remarks following the exchange of diplomatic notes to bring the Australia-United States Defence Coperation treaty into force



TOPICS: Defence Trade Control Treaty; Afghanistan; 2013 Defence White Paper

DATE:  16 May 2013 

STEPHEN SMITH:      Thanks very much for coming along this morning. We’re very pleased to exchange diplomatic notes to bring the Defence Trade Treaty between United States and Australia into effect. This is a most significant treaty. We’ve been working at this, as alliance partners, for a number of years, but the beneficial effects that this will bring to Australia and United States and our Alliance and our respective defence industries are deeply significant. Australia will be only the second country, following the United Kingdom, which has such a Defence Trade Treaty with the United States, and given our alliance, given our enhanced practical cooperation, given the need for interoperability and cooperation, this is a significant development, a significant achievement, and a significant new treaty brought into effect.            

Ambassador Bleich has worked very hard in his time as Ambassador to bring us to this point in time, so Jeffrey, thanks very much for your personal work, and this is a very good day for Australia and a very good day for the United States. 

JEFFREY BLEICH:      Minister, thank you very much and, as usual, the Minister said it better than I could. But I will say it again anyway, which is that this is a very significant treaty, not only from Australia’s point of view but from the United States’ point of view. It’s a reflection of the extraordinarily deep trust between our two nations, as the Minister said.            

There are only two of these in the world, and so this is a very significant action by both of our countries, in reflection of the fact that we want to maintain the interoperability that we have, and also to ensure that, going forward, Australian companies have the ability to bid on any US contract, can bid with others. They will be able to share information in a much more intimate and collaborative way, and I think it will make both our nations stronger and more efficient, more flexible and more nimble in the coming decades.  

STEPHEN SMITH:      Ambassador, thank you very much. Now, we’re in the Cabinet ante-room, so doorstops are not the order of the day, but we’ll take a couple of questions.            

But first, can I just indicate that tonight I’ll leave Australia to travel to the United States. From memory, this will be my fifth visit to the United States as Defence Minister. I’ll travel both to New York, where I’ll have meetings in United Nations about Australia’s peacekeeping role, which, given our membership now to Security Council, are deeply significant, and then travel to Washington for meetings in Washington, in particular my first meeting with new United States Secretary for Defense Chuck Hagel. And I’ll be joined on that with the Secretary to the Department Dennis Richardson and the Chief of the Defence Force General Hurley. I’m also pleased that Ambassador Bleich will also be travelling from Canberra to join Defence Secretary Hagel for the purposes of our formal bilateral.            

So this will be good news that both of us can also take to Washington. But we’re happy to do a couple of questions. 

JOURNALIST:  Minister, can you tell us what practical benefits this treaty will provide to Australia’s defence? 

STEPHEN SMITH:      Well, instead of the defence industry having to apply on every single occasion that they want to do a development with the United States, instead of having to apply every single occasion to get a license, to get a capacity to export, to get the capacity to collaborate, once a general permission, a general authority has been given, then that’s it. So you don’t have to go back to the well on successive occasions, and the Congress regulation so far as defence trade from the United States is concerned, are very rigorous, and to deal through that on every single occasion that you want to develop a project is time consuming.            

So if we have a global authorisation for a particular approved party or a company, but approved party is the terminology in the treaty and the legislation, then it means you’re not bound by those restrictions and those requirements every single time you want to progress a project.  

JEFFREY BLEICH:      That’s precisely right. It’s very streamlined, much more efficient process, and will allow us to work together far more quickly with less red tape. 

JOURNALIST:  While it clearly cuts through a lot of red tape and is very welcome, I gather from the Minister [indistinct] for that reason, but also doesn’t it also – there have been concerns raised that it actually creates red tape in enforcing companies that want to become involved in defence work with the United States to meet much more rigorous security requirements and limit the number of nationalities that could work for a company. Is that correct, or is that [indistinct]? 

STEPHEN SMITH:      These issues were raised in the course of the transmission of our legislation through the Parliament. Our legislation is expected to come into effect in early June, on 6 June, and there are a range of small- and medium-sized companies who raised these issues. There were also a range of universities or science and research and development companies who raised these concerns, and we put in place a very rigorous consultation mechanism, headed up by the Chief Defence Scientist, but also by the Government’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, to make sure that all of those concerns were addressed.         

But the ultimate response to that is that, in the end, once you’ve got your general approval, you don’t have to do it every time you front up.            

And the comments you’ve made reflect the very stringent requirements that the Congress applies to United States Defence Trade and to dealing with United States Defence industry capability. So once you get through the first hurdle, you’re essentially set up to then proceed on a range of projects, on a range of capabilities. 

JOURNALIST:  Why has this taken six years? 

STEPHEN SMITH:      Well, because it’s a treaty. We signed up the treaty, from memory, in 2007. In some respects in this area the easiest thing in the world to do is the general agreement. We then had to get legislation through the Congress, and we had to get legislation through our own Parliament. And it has taken a considerable period, but it has been well worth the effort, and the benefits which will flow, as the Ambassador and I have both said, will be significant.         

And the fact that we join the United Kingdom as the only other country with such an arrangement reflects the seriousness with which the Congress deals with these matters, but also reflects the high threshold that the Congress requires.          

So, yes, it’s taken a fair bit of time. I can remember as Foreign Minister, making representations to all concerned about the need to progress this, as the Ambassador himself has done. In the end, we should mark on the result, not the process, and the result is a significant one for Australia, for Australian Defence industry and for Australian Defence. 

JEFFREY BLEICH:      I would just add that there was no precedent for this treaty, there was nothing else like it. And so we were putting both the United States Senate, and the Parliament here, in some uncharted territory and trying to make sure that they had legislation that they were comfortable with, and that takes a little bit more time.            

In addition because the UK was also interested in having this type of an agreement, we worked together to reconcile those agreements among the three nations. So the US agreement with the UK is consistent with the US agreement with Australia. That takes a little bit of time as well. But ultimately what you want is a very good document that you can all live with for the long-term, and that’s what we’ve accomplished. 

JOURNALIST:  On your update on Afghanistan, you raised concerns about the treatment of detainees by Afghan forces, specifically what are those concerns? And given that the ANA is increasingly taking the lead in Afghanistan, are you concerned that we may see problems continuing on as they continue to take more of the control? 

STEPHEN SMITH:      Well we take our responsibilities very, very seriously, as you would expect and I’ve made the point repeatedly that Australia and the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan conduct themselves in accordance with our international and domestic legal requirements. We comply with not just the laws of armed conflict in a serious way, but also with humanitarian laws.         

So we have a very rigorous regime in place so far as our detention management and framework is concerned. But you’re quite right, as transition occurs, we will be detaining less Afghans, that’s occurred already because we are not out there in the frontline, that role has now been taken by the Afghan National Army, Fourth Brigade Kandaks. We are of course still out there with our Special Forces, and so we are continuing to detain some suspected insurgents, but those numbers are decreasing as you’d expect as transition occurs.         

And I’ve made the point today that our sorting facility, our initial sorting facility, in Tarin Kot will close as the main base in Tarin Kot closes. So the responsibility shifts to the Afghan authorities.         

In addition to making sure that any complaint that we receive about our own conduct is exhaustively investigated, if we receive a complaint about Afghan authorities, or any of our other partners, we put that into the system. And I think the most significant announcement today in my report was our suspension of the transfer of detainees to the National Director of Security facility in Tarin Kot. That was because we received what we regarded as significant complaints of mistreatment, ill treatment, treatment below the standard which should be afforded.         

And in all of our discussions with Afghan authorities, including my own discussions with Foreign Minister Rassoul on his recent trip here, we made the point that part of our collaboration with Afghan authorities has to include respect for the rule of law and respect for humanitarian principles, and that is part of the training and the mentoring that we have done in Afghanistan, and we will continue to do that. 

JOURNALIST:  And what about those reports of quote humiliating search of prisoners by the ADF? Is it acceptable those searches have gone on? 

STEPHEN SMITH:      I’ve seen those reports and I’ve also gone through some of the materials that were handed over under Freedom of Information legislation and I’m not complaining about that, that’s part of our system. But part of the reason you’ve got an FOI application with those materials coming out is because on a regular basis I go into the Parliament and detail the complaints that are made and how investigate those.         

The materials you’re referring to are materials and cables and the like which come from our detainee monitoring group. Officials from Defence and DFAT who track the progress of Australian Defence Force detainees to make sure they are treated properly. And of the bundle of documents that were put into the system, the reports focus on what I regard as complaints about conditions of service, if you like, in the particular facilities.         

Complaints about food, which is a very regular complaint, also complaints about availability of blankets for warmth. These don’t fall into what I regard as the sort of accusations or allegations of ill-treatment that have, for example, caused us to suspend transfer at the NDS facility in Tarin Kot because they go to degrading treatment, they go to humiliation, they go to allegations of torture, and the like. In other words, they go into the area of abusing human rights and not complying with humanitarian law.         

Having said all of that, whenever a complaint is made by anyone, whether it’s about the standard of food or the availability of blankets, we feed that back into the relevant authority, whether it’s the United States, which is one of the instances because the United States until recently has had responsibility for the detention facility in Parwan, or the Afghan authorities.         

Increasingly, that will become the Afghan authorities but there’s a qualitative difference between a complaint about a condition of service and a complaint which falls into an abuse of human rights or ill-treatment, which falls below the humanitarian standard that we apply. 

JOURNALIST:  The specific report though was about searches that were invasive. 

STEPHEN SMITH:      My response to that is you would find comparable searches occurring in police lockups in every jurisdiction in Australia and when those suggestions were made, the response were these are standard searches. Comparable searches would be made in any police lockup in Australia.         

One more and then the Ambassador and I have got to go. Sorry. 

JOURNALIST:  The reason you’ve suspended transfers to NDS at Tarin Kot is because of specific allegations of torture? 

STEPHEN SMITH:      We received allegations in respect of the NDS facility in Tarin Kot in March of this year which we regarded as allegations of falling below humanitarian standards. Falling below the standards that we require in terms of domestic or international laws, respecting the treatment of detainees.         

I used torture as an example. I’m not specifying what those allegations are. And why I’m not specifying them is that we relayed those immediately to the Afghan authorities. Two days after we received them, we respended our transfers and we have been in regular dialogue with Afghan authorities, including the Afghan Foreign Minister about the need for these to be exhaustively investigated for us to be made aware of the results of the investigation and what steps have been taken to ensure that the allegations, if shown to be correct, don’t occur again. 

JOURNALIST:  Sorry, could I just ask the Ambassador, you haven’t had an opportunity I think to talk on our White Paper, the Defence White Paper, since the merge. Are you – is the United States Government happy with the balance on China and United States relationships? 

JEFFREY BLEICH:      We were very pleased with the white paper. We thought it was a very good document that reflected the type of forward thinking and partnership that we’ve come to expect in a great alliance with Australia.          

The discussions about the importance of the US-Australia alliance I think were both expected but also appreciated and I think that the discussion of US relations with China as being important are consistent with our view of the world, which is that we are building a stronger, more mature, more effective relationship with China and we think that’s good for both China and the US and it’s good for the rest of the region. 

JOURNALIST:  Can the US learn anything from Australia on China? 

JEFFREY BLEICH:      We always learn things from Australia. Not just on China, but on other subjects and that’s why we’re such good mates. 

STEPHEN SMITH:      Alright. We’ve gone close to descending from elegant remarks in the engine room to a doorstop. So thanks very much, everyone. 

JEFFREY BLEICH:      Thank you very much. 

STEPHEN SMITH:      Cheers.  

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