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Tensions in the Pacific - Robson Release & Speech

27 September, 2001 Media Statement

Tensions in the Pacific

The Pacific is not - as it ever was, a tranquil place says Disarmament Minister and Minister in charge of Aid Matt Robson.

He was delivering the keynote speech this morning at the Red Cross seminar in Auckland "Tensions in the pacific; Challenges to Security".

"The theme of the next few days could not be more timely given recent world events. It is important that we reiterate our basic belief in humanity. But even during the worst moments in history, basic standards apply and must be observed by all parties in a conflict".

He stressed the importance of widely ratifying and implementing international humanitarian law and urged all parties present to support The Geneva Convention Of 1949, The Hague Convention and other Treaties.

"These set important standards; that civilians are not legitimate in war, that hostages may not be taken, that children must not be used in armed conflict and that certain weapons like nuclear weapons are illegal".

In our own region we've seen conflict in places like Fiji and the Solomon Islands. We have seen war, but we have also seen recovery in the restoration in peace however shaky.

"Aid targeted to reduce poverty and promote good governance would help towards regional security as would further controls on the trade of small arms".

"The sad reality is that the legal trade remains the originating source of illegal weapons in the South Pacific region. This is the backdrop to most terrorist attacks in the world, says Matt Robson".



27 September Speech Notes

Tensions in the Pacific: Challenges to Security



Tena kotou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa

I would like to welcome you all here today, and thank the New Zealand Red Cross for organising this international seminar.

The theme of the next few days - Tension in the Pacific and Challenges to Security - could not be more timely, given recent world events.

It is important that we reiterate our basic believe in humanity.

That even during the worst moments in history, basic standards apply and must be observed by all parties in a conflict.

That statement is true in our own Pacific region today , and it is true across the whole world.

The principals of humanitarian law must prevail.

The world experienced one of its worst moments on September 11. Since then, we have all asked ourselves, what is the appropriate response to this horrific attack?

I am the only Minister for Disarmament in the world.

I have wondered this week, 'How can the government use this Ministry to fight terrorism?'

In my opinion the struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons, of biological and chemical weapons, and any weapon of mass destruction is more important today than it was before September 11.

Imagine these weapons in the hands of terrorists?

We need to increase the pressure to ratify and establish an International Criminal Court of Law.

We need to increase our surveillance of the legal small arms trade in order to control to the best of our ability, the illegal trade in small arms - particularly in our own region.

My message to you today is simple: there is much that we can do in the Pacific to make not only our own region, but the world, a safer place.

I am also the Minister of aid.

I would like to talk to you today about how I believe these two areas - disarmament and aid - can play a key role in promoting regional security in the Pacific. And how if we work together as Pacific nations we can prevent conflict.


Recent years have shown that we can no longer cling to the illusion that the Pacific is a region of peace.

The Pacific is not, if it ever was, a tranquil place.

Like every other part of the world, it has its sources of conflict - class and ethnic differences, poverty, and land.

We have seen war in our region, but we have also seen recovery and the restoration of peace, however shaky.

Thankfully, for example, after ten years of conflict Bougainville now seems to be resolved on peace. Papua New Guinea now faces enormous tasks in nation-building.

In Fiji the democratically elected government was overthrown last year for the second time in a little over a decade and we have yet to see fully how the process of restoring democratic government and the rule of law will be worked through.

During 1998-2000 ethnic tensions in Solomon Islands erupted into violence in Guadalcanal and Malaita. Once again, the desire for peace has reasserted itself, but the process is fragile.

Countries like East Timor have experienced severe disruption to civil society. Over 200,000 lost their lives in that small country over the past three decades.

New Zealand has played a key role - and continues to - in bringing democracy and self-determination to East Timor,

Of course there is ongoing instability in Indonesia, especially Aceh, the Moluccas and West Papua.

Apart from the danger of armed conflict, other more abstract but still very real dangers stalk the region and threaten the long-term security of Pacific people.

These include the challenges posed by organised transnational crime and terrorist activities, financial frauds and scams, money-laundering, the smuggling of drugs and, nowadays, of would-be illegal immigrants, the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDs, and others.

Terrorism does not happen in a vacuum. It happens with the support of others and in an environment of money-laundering and fraud.

More than ever today there is a need for Pacific countries to cooperate and support each other in combating these problems.


It is clear from this brief tour of our neighbourhood, that we are living in a region where the principles of international humanitarian law are all too relevant.

Of course the challenge is to prevent conflict in the first place, and we are working on a regional basis to do just that.

At the meeting of the Pacific Forum in Kiribati last year Forum leaders adopted the Biketawa Declaration, which provides a framework for regional cooperation in preventive diplomacy and conflict avoidance. This is being done in cooperation with the United Nations.

In Asia, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is the pan-regional process for discussion of security issues affecting the region. At this year’s ARF Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi, Ministers adopted a number of documents which move the ARF some way towards playing a more active role in the management of regional security issues.

This year I represented New Zealand at the first ever United Nations conference to deal with small arms issues.

New Zealand voted with most of Europe for a clause calling on all governments not to supply non-State-actors (which includes terrorists) with weapons.

Now is the time for all countries of the world to come together, no matter what their political differences, to set up practical steps to cut off support to ALL groups who practise terrorism.

I made it clear at that conference that New Zealand is working with our Pacific partners to control illegal small arms in our region. We agreed to a 'Programme of Action'.

This means disarming warring factions after conflicts, destroying weapon stockpiles and managing securely the legal trade and ownership of small arms.

The sad reality is that the legal trade of arms remains the originating source of illegal weapons in the South Pacific region.

This is a backdrop to most terrorist attacks in the world.

I can make a promise to you today that this government will continue to push for appropriate controls of small arms, at international forums across the world.

There is no good reason for any government in the world to protect the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Governments can help and must help combat the illicit trade with a better management of legal weapons.

One of the most shocking facts about this recent attack on the States is that no weapon of mass destruction was necessary to kill nearly six and half thousand people.


Some of you will be aware that this month we announced key changes and new directions for the delivery of New Zealand's international aid funds.

There will now be a new semi-autonomous agency, mostly separate from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with its own budget and its top executive, who will report directly to Ministers.

New Zealand's aid money will focus more strongly on poverty elimination and on basic education rather than tertiary education.

These changes can, I believe, contribute to good governance and security in the Pacific region.

The recent instability and difficulties facing governments in the Pacific (Fiji, Solomons Islands and so on) have highlighted the need to focus aid more closely on the way aid policies might address the causes of the problems.


But despite our best efforts, armed conflict will continue to occur.

When it does, we must not forget that there are rules governing the use of force, and principles designed to safeguard the dignity of the weak.

Those standards are set down in the Geneva Conventions and their Protocols and in customary international law.

The main point I want to make to you this morning is that, the fundamental principle is that persons who do not, or who can no longer, take part in the hostilities must be protected and treated with humanity. That principle applies to everybody, at all times in any part of the world.

The Geneva Conventions contain plenty of detailed rules about the standards that apply in war time. These are what I consider to be the core provisions of the Geneva Conventions - so fundamental that the vast majority of states have agreed that they apply even in their own internal conflicts. It is worth remembering them post the events of September 11:

- civilians are not legitimate targets for military action;

- Nor are wounded or sick combatants, which must be cared for, regardless of their affiliation;

- Wilful destruction or theft of civilian property or cultural heritage is outlawed;

- Torture is outlawed under all circumstances, at all times, without exception;

- Medical and religious personnel are also off limits. It is a breach of the Geneva Conventions to misuse the emblem of the Red Cross;

- Hostages may not be taken, and individuals must not be punished for actions for which they were not responsible, or without a fair trial. Reprisals against civilians are unlawful.

Both individual combatants and their commanders are individually accountable at international law for their actions and are responsible for breaches of these principles.

Around the world they are increasingly finding that there is no impunity for their actions.

In recent times in the most serious cases, international criminal tribunals have been set up. With the rate of ratifications of the Rome Statute, it won’t be long before the permanent International Criminal Court will be up and running.

It is important that the world move to universal membership of this historic treaty.[NOT PARTY: Cook Islands, Indonesia, Kiribati, Malaysia, PNG, Tonga, Vanuatu]

Most states are party to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, including those present in this room. Even for those who are not, the principles contained within them are considered to be customary international law, and therefore applicable to all states.

That is not enough, however, and we think all states should become party also to the more detailed additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions that were concluded in 1979. [NOT PARTY to APs I and II-Cook Islands, Fiji, Indonesia, Kiribati, Malaysia, PNG, Tonga]

The principles I have just outlined do not just apply to governments. They also apply to all armed groups, whether in rebellion or not, whether part of government, or not.

They are the minimum principles that apply in both “international conflict’ and “non-international conflict’, although such neat distinctions are not always easy to interpret in today’s world.

The dividing line between armed conflict, where the law of armed conflict applies, and internal disturbances, where it does not, is also a difficult one to draw. But the principles I have outlined are basically human rights protections, replicated in the language of humanitarian law.

And even in disturbances that are not intense enough for humanitarian law to apply, core human rights protections do still apply.

If we forget the letter of the law for a moment, the core humanitarian law principles I have been speaking of are similar to the human rights provisions that are so fundamental that they have entered into customary international law.

They are considered by many to be absolute norms of international law from which no state may derogate. The police, paramilitary and armed forces must honour them.

They include the absolute prohibition on torture, the prohibition on summary execution, the right to a fair trial, the prohibition on slavery and the prohibition on genocide.

In my view, the minimum standards I have been talking of are basic standards of human decency. They apply, regardless of whether your state has signed the Geneva Conventions or not.

They apply regardless of whether the conflict is internal or international. They apply regardless of whether the fighting is serious enough to be classified as an armed conflict or as a disturbance, or a riot, or even civil disobedience.

They also include, therefore, responses to acts of terrorism, which would not normally fall within a definition of armed conflict. And they apply regardless of whether you represent the government or someone else.

That is why it is so important that these principles are disseminated and understood by all of us. That is why your participation in this seminar is important, and why I am so pleased that so many of you are here this morning.

Related to the Geneva Conventions are the Hague Conventions and associated treaties, which outlaw certain weapons that are indiscriminate or cause excessive suffering.

The first such weapon to be outlawed in this process was the use of dum dum bullets. Chemical and biological weapons have also been outlawed.

The International Court of Justice in their advisory opinion found the use or threat of nuclear weapons to be generally illegal.

Most recently, the use of anti-personnel landmines has joined the list of banned weapons, and I stress the importance of universal ratification of the Ottawa Convention.[NOT PARTY: PNG, Tonga]

The most recent development in international human rights law is very relevant to today’s themes. One of the most disturbing symptoms of modern conflict is the use of child soldiers. The relevant treaty here is the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and again I would urge you to consider adopting it.

That protocol outlaws the use of child soldiers; it is through the care, protection and education of children that the seeds of future conflict can most effectively be made barren.

For New Zealand’s part, we intend to ratify the Protocol in the very near future. [NOT PARTY: Cook Islands, Fiji, Indonesia, Kiribati, Malaysia, New Caledonia, PNG, Solomons, Tonga, Vanuatu]

Particularly relevant today is ratification of the network of conventions on terrorism, to ensure that there are no safe havens for terrorists or terrorist activities in our Pacific region.

I have mentioned quite a number of treaties here today. While the development of international law in this area has grown rapidly over the last decade, I must stress that the network of international instruments will only be effective if they are widely ratified and implemented. I urge you all, therefore, to become party to the important treaties I have mentioned.


Peace in the Pacific may be an ideal. But it is an ideal we must reach for.

We in the Alliance Labour government will continue to build regional security:

- by engaging with our Pacific cousins at international conferences:

- by promoting international humanitarian law across the world

- by getting tough on the illegal trade of small arms

- and by reducing poverty and promoting good governance with the effective use of New Zealand's aid in the Pacific.

This conference is yet another building block towards peace and regional security.

I hope that you have a productive and enjoyable next 3 days. Thank you.


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