SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG
LEADER OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE SENATE
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Subjects: Hamas-Israel conflict; United Nations General Assembly resolution; international approach to situation.
PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: A short time ago, an emergency special session of the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations.
Australia, alongside 152 other countries, was among the countries which voted in favour. In doing so, we joined Canada, New Zealand, Japan, France and India, and many other countries. Australia appreciates the bringing forward of this resolution by the Arab Group and we acknowledge the gravity of the Secretary General invoking Article 99.
Australia shares the grave concerns that I have articulated previously about the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. Human suffering is widespread, and it is unacceptable. Civilians who fled Northern Gaza are now being pushed further south. As the conflicts spread south, there are increasingly few places – safe places to go.
More than 60 per cent of residential dwellings in Gaza are reported by the United Nations to have been destroyed or damaged, and nearly eight in 10 civilians have been displaced.
Australia has called for the safe, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access into Gaza and safe passage for civilians. We welcomed the humanitarian pause agreed by the parties in November and brokered by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
This resolution, which we have supported, is a call for immediate humanitarian ceasefire. This is the world coming together to urge that these pauses be resumed so civilians can get the humanitarian aid they desperately need. Australia is part of that call, and we supported this resolution.
We obviously would have preferred that the resolution makes reference to the 7 October attack perpetrated by Hamas on innocent civilians, and we support an amendment moved to that effect.
Australia continues to condemn the ongoing acts of terror by Hamas, its use of human shields, its use of civilian infrastructure to launch attacks on Israel.
We again reiterate our demand, which is reflected in the resolution, that Hamas release all remaining hostages immediately and unconditionally.
Australia has consistently affirmed Israel's right to defend itself, and in doing so we have said Israel must respect international humanitarian law. Civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, must be protected.
The resolution that we have supported is consistent with the position we have previously outlined on these issues. We see the pauses as a critical step on the path to a sustainable and permanent ceasefire. As I have said previously, such a ceasefire cannot be one-sided.
I'd also refer to two other articulations of our position in the last 24 hours. One is the joint statement released by the leaders of Canada, Australia and New Zealand overnight, and the explanation of vote which we are circulating.
Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Who initiated the joint statement between Canada, New Zealand and Australia?
FOREIGN MINISTER: That has been a discussion for some time, and obviously we're pleased that we got to a position where we could release that. We've been engaging with Canada for some time, also New Zealand - obviously there's been a change of government, we think it's important that, you know, very close allies and like-minded countries speak together in support of the position that we've articulated.
JOURNALIST: You have in the past urged caution and spoken regularly about the need to protect all citizens. What's prompted the Government to go one step further today and publicly call for this ceasefire?
FOREIGN MINISTER: We are we see the resolution we supported alongside over 150 other countries, and many like mindeds, as I said, including Canada, New Zealand, Japan, France and India, we see this resolution as the next step towards a sustainable ceasefire.
We have consistently said, and I say so again today, a sustainable ceasefire cannot be one-sided, and that it was right that the General Assembly again emphasised the need for all hostages to be released unconditionally.
I would again reiterate the same position we've articulated before. Hamas is a terrorist organisation. Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and to harming the Jewish people. Hamas has no place in the future governance of Gaza.
JOURNALIST: What has changed in the last two weeks that was not happening six weeks ago to lead to this strong statement about Israel's actions?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, this is a collective statement about the need for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire that the world is supporting. So, this is not a unilateral decision by Australia. We made a decision on the basis of the merits of this resolution to join along with many other countries to support the resolution at the General Assembly.
JOURNALIST: Is there still division within the Government on this issue? You've got Josh Burns is in Israel at the moment warning against the ceasefire.
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, Josh is right to point out that a sustainable ceasefire can't be one-sided and can't be unconditional, and that is my position too.
JOURNALIST: Australia's abstained from a similar UN resolution calling for a truce roughly a month ago, partly because it didn't recognise Hamas as the perpetrators of the October 7 attack. This resolution doesn't do that either. So, what's changed?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, we take each resolution on its merits. There were changes between the last resolution and this one. We supported an amendment moved by the United States which went to the October 7 attack, we are clearly on record about the abhorrent nature of that attack and our condemnation.
But I think we also are conscious – the whole world is conscious of the ongoing loss of civilian life and the humanitarian situation – dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.
It was a good thing to see the humanitarian pause agreed in November, it was – we regret deeply that that pause did not continue, but we see this immediate humanitarian ceasefire as the world urging that the pauses be resumed. As I said previously, we want to see the next steps towards a sustainable ceasefire, that cannot be one-sided, we see this resolution as consistent with that.
JOURNALIST: And what do you make of US President Joe Biden's comments today that Israel is starting to lose support for the war in Gaza because of its indiscriminate bombings?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I won't comment on what President Biden said, now that's a matter for him. But I have been clear and consistent for weeks now, we affirm Israel's right to defend itself. We are a friend of Israel. We have also said in affirming its right to defend itself, Israel must observe international humanitarian law, which includes the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and it is the case that Israel is dealing with a terrorist organisation, but as I said in the Senate some weeks ago, we are democracies, and we expect of ourselves a high standard, and we expect that we will all work to comply with international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilian life.
JOURNALIST: You've asked for that amendment. Will support continue for the ceasefire, whether that amendment's been put in place or not?
FOREIGN MINISTER: This is the US amendment?
FOREIGN MINISTER: The US amendment was put, it was not successful, and we made reference to our position in our explanation of vote at the United Nations which I'd refer you to, as well as Prime Minister Trudeau, Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Luxon's statement today. Thank you very much.
Foreign Minister's Office: +61 2 6277 7500
Authorised by Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia.