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Budget estimates - Lee questions Dept of Foreign Affairs about Burma and disappearance of Laos activist

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 14 Feb 2013

Spokesperson for overseas aid Senator Lee Rhiannon questions the Minister and representatives from the Dept of Foreign Affairs about the arms embargo to Burma and the disappearance of Laos NGO campaigner Sombath Somphone.

Senate Estimates - Thursday 14 February 2013

FOREIGN AFFAIRS DEFENCE AND TRADE COMMITTEE

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. I understand that the USA has implemented a reporting requirement for American companies investing in Burma. Under this requirement, companies will have to disclose their due diligence processes with regard to human rights and land acquisition. Has the government here looked at a similar process? And has there been any discussion on adopting a similar program?
Mr Varghese: That is an issue that the government has addressed.
Senator RHIANNON: When you say it is an issue that the government has addressed, do you need to take it on notice?
Mr Varghese: I am happy to take it on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. So, if you could take on notice whether we are considering doing it or whether there has been any consideration or any talks on this possibility, that would be appreciated.
Mr Varghese: Sure.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I understand that Australia still has an arms embargo against Burma. Given some of the recent fighting, it is certainly understandable that it is needed. What benchmarks would Burma have to meet for Australia to consider lifting the arms embargo?
Senator Bob Carr: I think one of them—not the only one—would be demonstrating beyond argument that no element of the Myanmar military has contact with North Korea.
Senator RHIANNON: You said that was one. It sounded like there were others. Could you share the others with us?
Senator Bob Carr: I think we would be interested in the steadfastness of ceasefire arrangements and of reconciliation processes in those provinces of Myanmar where there has for decades been conflict between the central government and regional forces.
Senator RHIANNON: So you are particularly speaking about some of the issues around the border or in the north there, with the minority Muslim communities?
Senator Bob Carr: With both those categories.
Senator RHIANNON: Given the terms of the arms embargo, would Australian companies be breaching the arms embargo if they were to engage the Burmese military in any aspect of their projects?
Senator Bob Carr: I would want to get legal advice on that.
Mr Varghese: I think it would depend on the nature of the contact. The arms embargo ultimately is about preventing the provision of arms. Whether companies are talking to people is a separate issue. I do not think we can give you answer in the abstract, I guess is what I am saying.
Senator RHIANNON: I do not think it is the abstract. It has often been written how extensive non-military operations of the Burmese military are, and the logging industry is one example, and also the Burmese military has been written into oil and gas contracts as security providers. It would seem that we are then entering a grey area with regard to provision of weapons. I would say that the question is still relevant and seek your response.
Mr Varghese: I think the issue is: is the arms embargo triggered or not triggered, and dealing with the military which may be engaged in economic activities may not, depending on the circumstances, be a breach of the arms embargo.
Senator RHIANNON: If Australian companies involved in projects in Burma did have Burmese military involved in security operations on those projects, would that be a breach of the arms embargo?
Mr Varghese: I am not aware of any Australian company operating in Burma that is using the Burmese military for security arrangements.
Senator RHIANNON: If they did, would it be a breach?
Mr Varghese: I think I would have to take legal advice on that.
Senator RHIANNON: So if an example came to your attention you would take legal advice on whether it was a breach?
Mr Varghese: If there was any suggestion that the arms embargo might be breached, then certainly we would want to take legal advice to establish what the facts are and where it sits in relation to the interpretation of the arms embargo.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Is Australia providing any support, financial or otherwise, to the Australia-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce?
Mr Varghese: Could I take that on notice? I am not aware that we are but I can take it on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: That is okay. If so, what support is being provided? I want to move on to the situation in Laos with regard to the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a Lao NGO campaigner. I understand there has been some correspondence with the minister's office on this matter. He disappeared on 15 December and there was some footage of that occurring. The issue has been taken up with UNHCR, the European Union and various politicians and other people who have met him. What has the department's advice to the minister been on this matter?
Senator Bob Carr: I have not seen advice. I would need to take that on notice.
Mr R Smith: If it would be helpful, I can provide some general comments about this issue, which is a matter of concern to us. Mr Sombath is well known to us. He has in fact been a partner of ours in some work the embassy has done in support of human rights in Laos. We were dismayed, as others were, to hear of his disappearance in December. We have taken this up with Lao authorities. Our ambassador in Vientiane has done so, we have done so here in Canberra with the Lao ambassador, and we have expressed our concern about the issue. We have registered with the Lao government our expectation that they will properly investigate his disappearance and the circumstances of his disappearance and that they will do what they can to locate him. At this stage, they are telling us that they are dealing with the case as a possible kidnapping case, but beyond that we do not have any further information.
Senator RHIANNON: So a possible kidnapping by government authorities, or unknown, or is there any further information about that?
Mr R Smith: They simply said that they were dealing with it as a possible kidnapping case. They have said to us that they are not aware of his whereabouts.
Senator RHIANNON: Minister, you received a letter about this on 4 February from a number of Australians. I was wondering if you have had an opportunity to respond to that.
Senator Bob Carr: I do not recall the case, so I will need your advice.
Senator RHIANNON: If I could draw to your attention that I was cc'ed in on a letter signed by a large number of people, and it is dated 4 February. One, did you receive the letter? Two, will you be responding?
Senator Bob Carr: Let me check the file.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

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