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Australian Defence Minister On Libya

DATE: 21 MARCH 2011

TOPICS: Situation in Libya, update on ADF contribution to disaster relief in Japan.

KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me now in the Canberra studio, the Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Minister thanks for your time. Is mission creep a real risk here as David [Lipson] alluded to there?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Security Council resolution makes it clear that what the international community is authorised to do through military action is to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. All of the reports we've received and all of the assessments are that that has been effected and the Security Council resolution expressly makes it clear that this does not authorise essentially a military action on the ground in Libya, so the key priority of the Security Council resolution was to effect a no-fly zone to protect citizens. That - that first part, the effecting of a no-fly zone has occurred and we now need to take it step by step. But certainly the Security Council resolution would not authorise the so-called mission creep.

KIERAN GILBERT: Is there any prospect at all of Australian involvement in this military intervention?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and I have made it clear privately and publicly for some time that whilst we strongly supported a no-fly zone to protect Libyan citizens give where this is occurring in the north of Africa and on the cusp of the Mediterranean that it wasn't appropriate for Australia in the first instance to be called upon or to look to use of its own or our own defence assets. There was no expectation amongst the international community when I spoke to my Defence ministerial colleagues in Brussels a couple of weeks ago at the NATO ISAF meeting from whether it was secretary gates or UK Defence Secretary Fox or the Canadian or Italian or French foreign ministers, all of whom are now contributing as NATO members. There was no expectation that Australia would make a contribution given the contribution we make in our own region and also the contribution we're making in Afghanistan.

KIERAN GILBERT: Is there any effort to boost the rebel forces on the ground there? Is there any effort being made by the British, by the French, either publicly or covertly to boost the rebel forces?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, not to our knowledge, that's the first instance and again the Security Council resolution doesn't envisage that. Unquestionably it is the case that the inquisition of a no-fly zone will be of assistance to Qaddafi's opposition, but the key point now having effected a no-fly zone, as the Foreign Minister has said this morning, as others from the international community have said the ball is now very squarely in Colonel Qaddafi's court. The way to resolve this matter quickly and effectively of course is for Colonel Qaddafi to walk off the stage but we're not expecting that he'll do that and we certainly take as I said over the weekend very much with a grain of salt Colonel Qaddafi or the Libyan Government indicating that it is effecting a cease fire of its own. I think those assurances have to be taken very sceptically.

KIERAN GILBERT: What about the precedent that this sets with other countries in the region like Yemen, Bahrain as well, facing internal tumult at the moment? What are the prospects there if things continue to decline?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think the starting point here has to be a very clear understanding that we're dealing with a Security Council resolution which authorises military enforcement action under chapter seven of the United Nations Charter. That wasn't the case for example in Iraq. The reason the Security Council so resolved was because of the grave threat and danger to very many of Libya's civilian population. We're seeing now and this is a good thing, Australia has been urging it, growth in the notion of responsibility to protect, that the international community can't standby massive wholesale slaughter of the civilian population of a particular country. And so there's that qualitative difference firstly in Libya itself as compared for example with Iraq but also at this stage a qualitative difference in the scale of the dangers and the potential for mass atrocities against - against the individuals. So whilst for example in Bahrain we urge restraint and want to see peaceful protest take place it's not yet on the scale which would, I believe see the Security Council resolving in such a manner.

KIERAN GILBERT: There is every chance just on Libya to - to wrap up on that, there is every chance isn't there that Colonel Qaddafi remains in power even after all of these missiles and the attack subsides?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the - as I've said the Security Council resolution has as its heart the protection of Libya's citizens, its civilians and doing that through the effecting of a no-fly zone. We also have an arms embargo, and both United Nations and autonomous sanctions both financial and travel against Colonel Qaddafi and his regime. So we need to follow this closely. We need to just see how things unfold on the ground but that which the Security Council's authorised has now been put in place. All of the advice and reports we've received also lead to the conclusion at this stage that there have been no civilian casualties but of course in the fog of war we need to wait a bit of time to - to satisfy ourselves that that is absolutely the case.

KIERAN GILBERT: And just finally before I let you go, can we get a quick assessment of what the military involvement is in terms of the recovery that the response to the terrible Japanese quake and tsunami?

STEPHEN SMITH: Sure. On Japan, over the weekend I authorised an extension of our C-17's activity for a further week. That was done at the request of the United State and Japan so our C-17 will continue to - continue to operate delivering personnel, delivering food, delivering water, and the like and at some stage in the course of this week we will bring back - almost certainly utilising the C-17 bring back the search and rescue team that we took there in the first place. They've now formally stopped their work and they're essentially gathering their equipment. So over the course of this week they'll return and we'll make a judgement about whether we do further work with the C-17 at the end of this week but our contribution there has been a terrific one and very well received by Japan and very well received by the United States forces in Japan.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister I appreciate your time this morning. Thanks very much.


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