TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS, ABC24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 26 OCTOBER 2011
TOPICS: CHOGM; Sri Lanka.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
LYNDAL CURTIS: You were Foreign Affairs Minister at the time the decision was made at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to have the meeting here in Australia, rather than Sri Lanka. Was that the right call, given what's happened in Sri Lanka?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, absolutely it was the right call. Sri Lanka was in the aftermath of a bitter civil war, there was concern throughout the Commonwealth that maybe the time wasn't quite right for Sri Lanka. But we needed to find an Indian Ocean venue, and Perth is of course the Indian Ocean capital for Australia.
The Commonwealth also needed a country and a city that could in a sense do it at short notice- normally there's a four year notice period - and I was very pleased that the Commonwealth agreed to Australia's suggestion. It's a great thing for Perth and Western Australia, but it's-
LYNDAL CURTIS: And fortuitous that it's your home town?
STEPHEN SMITH: The thought had never crossed my mind! No look, I'm a very proud West Australian, and I'm a resident of Perth for all of my adult life and my high school years. I love the city.
This will expose Perth, the modern Perth, the modern international city to the rest of the world. That's a great thing for Perth but it's also a great thing for Australia. It showcases the modern Australia - a tolerant, modern economically powerful society - and Perth is at the centre of that and it's a good thing. But it also does display the fact that we're not just a Pacific Ocean island continent, we're also an Indian Ocean island continent, and that's very important. Most people see the rise of China; not enough people see the rise of India- we do.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Part of the decision that was made at the last CHOGM was to have Sri Lanka host not this one, but the next one. The current Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, made the point this morning that there's a while to go before any decisions can -have to be made if it comes to that, that the meeting shouldn't be held in Sri Lanka, and made the point that Sri Lanka has to be seen to respond to United Nations reports and its own reports on what happened in that country.
Is that the test for Sri Lanka, how well it responds to the - to its past, to the reports about its past?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, just as it was in the Port of Spain, the question of where the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the one after that is held is entirely a matter for Commonwealth Heads of Government, for the leaders themselves. And obviously I'll leave that to the Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister, and to the meeting of the Heads of Government.
As a general proposition, the Foreign Minister has made the same points that I've made in the past, which is there is a responsibility on the part of Sri Lanka to respond to the United Nations report, but also to ensure that there is a robust and transparent response to its own learning and reconciliation report, which we're due to see in the course of the end of this year; November, December, around there.
That's very important because Australia, the Commonwealth, the international community, is interested in a transparent response, and a transparent and robust response will be good for Sri Lanka and its future, not just good for the rest of the world.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is meeting her Sri Lanka counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa today. Should she be raising the questions of human rights in that meeting?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'll leave it to the Prime Minister to indicate publicly, if that is her wish, the substance of the conversation with President Rajapaksa. And it's not for me to indicate or suggest in advance what the basis of that conversation should be.
What you can say is of course, as CHOGM's host, the Prime Minister is sensibly meeting with leaders including President Rajapaksa. Again, as a general proposition, Australia has made it clear both publicly and privately to Sri Lanka, to the Commonwealth, to the United Nations, to the international community generally, that the government of Sri Lanka, having won the war, now needs to win the peace, and that requires a substantive response to all of the serious issues that were raised in the concluding stages of the war.
Those issues go to human rights issues. We've seen the United Nations expert panel report. We'll shortly see Sri Lanka's own report, it's so-called learning and reconciliation report. There needs to be a transparent and a robust response to those reports by the Sri Lankan government, and by Sri Lanka.
LYNDAL CURTIS: One of the underpinning principles of the Commonwealth, particularly coming out of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings over years past, has been a commitment to democracy and the rule of law, and human rights.
Do you think some people would look at the Commonwealth and say there are some countries in the Commonwealth who are by no means angels on the human rights front, and the Commonwealth should be doing more to improve the countries in its own body?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, one of the hallmarks, as you say, of the Commonwealth is its adherence to democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. And we've seen any number of examples in the past where the Commonwealth has made it quite clear that member states who don't live up to those ideals or aspirations, either permanently or temporarily, don't take part in Commonwealth activities. And Rhodesia, Zimbabwe and Fiji are examples of that.
And one of the reasons you're having a conversation about the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war is for precisely the Commonwealth and Commonwealth countries adherence to these issues. There are also a number of Commonwealth countries who are developing countries, who are emerging from very difficult periods in their history, and the most recent member of the Commonwealth, Rwanda, is one example.
It's the role, in my view, of the Commonwealth to help countries who are emerging from difficulty, but also to make the points about respect for human civility and dignity, respect for the rule of law, respect for human rights at the same time.
And, as a general proposition, whilst no organisation is perfect, I think the Commonwealth can historically say that it has done a good job of trying to hold the regional and international community and the Commonwealth community to those aspirations and principles of democracy, rule of law, and human rights.