Parliament Updates

Speech on Geneva Convention

25 November, 2019


I rise to speak in support of the motion and also join in congratulating the member for Mackellar for introducing the motion. On 12 August this year, the Geneva conventions turned 70. Around Australia, the Australian Red Cross held numerous commemorations to mark such an important occasion. The Geneva conventions and their additional protocols are one of the greatest humanitarian achievements of the last century. They enshrine legal limits in times of war and have saved countless civilians and combatants, who have ceased to take part in hostilities.

As International Committee of the Red Cross president Peter Maurer said:

The world has universally agreed that even in times of war humanity must prevail. It is absolute truth that we would be worse off without the Geneva Conventions. But they need better support, more powerful advocates and a spirit of innovation to charter new ways to protect people in today's rapidly changing world.

There is no time in history when the laws of war have been so important. They protect people from unacceptable risks and inhumane behaviour. Under the laws of war, the Australian government is required to train its armed forces and others in Australia about the rules and the limits of warfare, which it duly and effectively does. The Australian Red Cross also plays an active role in teaching Australians about the laws of war in peacetime.

The great achievement of having every country on the globe sign up to the Geneva convention is that we drew a line. We created a baseline for behaviour in conflict, which might otherwise descend beyond the requirements of military necessity to inhumane levels of barbarism. These laws prohibit the deliberate targeting of civilians; the destruction of schools, hospitals, religious and cultural sites; the use of child soldiers; the rape of women and girls; and the torture of prisoners. People and fighters who find themselves in situations of armed conflict are entitled to rely on this safety net. They're entitled to medical attention, food, water and shelter. They're entitled to maintain contact with their loved ones and to be cared for as human beings. War is no excuse for deliberate violations of human dignity.

The existence of these legal limits is sadly not enough to keep citizens safe. The Australian government should be seeking to mitigate the impacts of conflicts and to punish those who commit war crimes. We must show leadership. The Australian government needs to step up and take responsibility for those Australians involved in the conflict in Syria and treat those no longer taking part in hostilities humanely and in accordance with international humanitarian law, and ensure that they face the full force of Australian law where appropriate. This includes detainees or foreign fighters and members of their families, especially innocent children caught up in the conflict.

There are two international humanitarian law instruments the Australian government has not signed, despite years of claiming it's considering doing so. They are the optional Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the amendments to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Beyond these two gaps in our IHL architecture, the real issue is doing more to punish war criminals. Australia has jurisdiction to do so and to tackle the many issues the world is facing—in particular, global warming magnifies impacts of conflicts by creating complex emergencies—and reducing the risk of use of nuclear weapons.

Australia should take action and be a leader on the humanitarian issues we are facing—in particular, global warming, because it exacerbates humanitarian needs in times of conflict. Tackling this will assist to avert disastrous humanitarian consequences, particularly in Africa. Nine of the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa, and seven of those nine are affected by armed conflicts. In January this year, the Red Cross warned the UN Security Council that worldwide warming must be addressed. The rules of war specifically prohibit attacks against the natural environment that are intended to cause serious damage, such as the prohibition to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment. These are very important requirements that must be further prosecuted and really upheld.

The government should also advocate for the upcoming nuclear proliferation treaty review conference in 2020 to reduce the number of nuclear warheads from the current estimate of over 13,800, and can work to have the 2,000 weapons on high alert reduced.