Criminal Code Amendment (War Crimes) Bill 2016

Mr PERRETT (MoretonOpposition Whip) (18:43): I rise to speak on the Criminal Code Amendment (War Crimes) Bill 2016. I would particularly like to commend the contribution by the member for Eden-Monaro, and also the member for Isaacs.

The member for Eden-Monaro is not only on the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which has looked at this piece of legislation, but, from his previous life in the ADF as a colonel, is an internationally recognised expert on international humanitarian law. He has been in conflict zones and has had to make and advise on rules of engagement. When the member for Eden-Monaro speaks on this topic he is heard around the world by people who respect his analysis. I thank them for their contributions. I also point out that there is obviously a bipartisan approach to this piece of legislation, as is so often the case when it comes to defence matters.

It is the role of parliament to make sure that all of our federal laws are fit for purpose, that they address the mischief intended to be addressed, and that there are no unintended consequences when it comes to legislation passed by the Commonwealth parliament. This bill addresses an anomaly in the war crimes offences so that it will target only the mischief intended and cures a potential unintended consequence. Sadly, the current law has not kept up with the nature of global conflicts. Sadly, our Defence personnel are engaged in a different set of circumstances to those from 100 years ago, when people dug trenches and knew where the enemy was. There is an area of law that deals with this. Like state law or industrial law, which I used to practise in, there is, basically, law that deals with warfare or with international humanitarian law. Obviously, a law that simultaneously permits and regulates the use of force might sound bizarre to some people listening tonight, but military necessity and the principle of proportionality are designed to balance the existence of armed hostilities with consideration of humanity.

The Red Cross does a lot of work in this area. It was formed out of conflict. Right when the Red Cross was first formed, there was the realisation that people were dying after war for no good reason. Since then the Red Cross has done a lot of great work. I am one of the Parliamentary Friends of the Red Cross and I particularly point out the International Humanitarian Law magazine put out by the Australian Red Cross. In particular, I recommend 'Pen and Sword: Journalism and International Humanitarian Law' to the journalists in Parliament House. It raises some interesting questions.

International humanitarian law distinguishes between conflict between the armed forces of states—you might almost say traditional warfare—and conflicts in which one or more of the combatants are non-governmental. It also distinguishes between organised armed groups and civilians. This bill will ensure that Australia's domestic criminal laws with respect to war crimes are in line with the requirements of international humanitarian law. Our Defence personnel have been restricted in their operations overseas against non-government groups such as Daesh. Australia's allies, operating under international humanitarian law, have been able to operate freely against these Daesh targets. This bill before the chamber will address this anomaly by excluding from our domestic war crimes legislation criminal liability when organised armed groups are targeted by our Defence Force. It will ensure that organised armed groups do not benefit from the protections that are actually afforded to civilians. This will bring our domestic war crimes legislation in line with international humanitarian law derived from the Geneva Conventions and the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions.

Could I particularly mention a former Labor minister, Robert Tickner, who is, I understand, in Geneva at the moment doing great work for the Red Cross. Obviously, the Red Cross is always neutral and has always received bipartisan support in this parliament.

The legislation before the House has reasonable objectives to ensure that our Defence personnel are protected. We are very lucky in this country. For most of us, if we see an Army vehicle driving down our streets, we are proud. If we see a RAAF plane, we are proud. If we see a naval vessel in our day-to-day lives, we are proud to see that. Our ADF makes us proud, not nervous. That is not the case in all other 200 countries around the world.

Deputy Speaker Buchholz, I particularly mention my hometown of St George—because I know of your connection with it—where ADFA recently undertook some graduate training that was like a hostage situation. I was talking to some friends from St George that were staying with me last week, and they said it was the best thing for the town. It was incredible; all these Army vehicles, and people had to play terrorists and victims. It was a great boost for the town's economy. Hopefully, ADF will recruit some personnel out of St George in the next little while, because the people were very impressed with the young men and women of ADFA—who are some of our nation's brightest—and the way they carried themselves in my hometown. Well done to those ADFA people, who I think will be graduating soon.

When we see our ADF personnel, our reaction is that we are proud of them. We always are, and I say hello to those people from our Defence Force that are in parliament this week as part of the parliamentary placement program. Hopefully, they are still keen to be associated with the parliament after seeing it up close. I think, sometimes when you see democracy up close, it might be like watching how to make a sausage. It might be tasty, but you do not want to look too closely at it, and I say that as the son of a butcher.

Nevertheless, we must remember the important and dangerous work that our ADF personnel do both here and in far-flung corners of the world. We should never be complacent about their service and never be complacent about our Defence Force. We need to look after them while they are serving, and I would also like to mention the legal officers that do much of that work. I have had some connections with them on the encouragement of the member for Eden-Monaro, who pointed out the great work that they do. It is a way to keep a lawyer's shingle ticking over. But part of modern warfare is to be able to understand the laws of engagement. It is not like 100 years ago on the Somme, when you were in a trench and you knew where the enemy was. Now, you might be making life and death decisions about something while sitting in Kansas looking at an image provided by a drone. You might be making decisions about civilians or making decisions about people that are not state entities, rather, they are groups that are using human shields. They are very difficult legal decisions, and legal advice needs to be given to the commanding officers. The modern commanding officer would have a very close relationship with their legal officer.

We need to look after them when they are serving and make sure they get the right equipment, the right advice and the right training. But also, we need to look after our service personnel when they return to our shores. I mention our Returned Services League and those other veterans' groups, like Soldier On, Legacy, the Vietnam Veterans Association and many others that do a wonderful job of supporting both current and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force and their families. In my electorate of Moreton, there are five RSL clubs: Sherwood/Indooroopilly, Salisbury, Stephens, Sunnybank and Yeronga/Dutton Park. They are all doing great work. I have spent quite a bit of time with these clubs over the years, as a member of parliament. I worked closely with them for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. The RSL, as we all know, has a very proud tradition. It is one of our oldest national organisations, founded in 1916, so it is in its second 100 years of service to the people of Australia. As well as supporting and serving our ex-service men and women, the RSL promotes a secure, stable and progressive Australia. We are indebted to it for the services that it provides.

The orientation of Parliament House is towards the War Memorial, no doubt so that all members of parliament and senators are aware of the sacrifice of those that have come before. Two weeks ago we commemorated Remembrance Day in Moreton and around Australia. On 11 November 1918 the guns of the Western Front fell silent after more than four years of horrific continuous warfare. It is an important day when Australians of all races and creeds remember those who gave their lives for freedom—that horrible sacrifice of 60,000 Australian soldiers—and then the damage done after that war to numerous people, too many to count: people who did return, perhaps having lost limbs; the many families who lost family members; and the families of people who returned as well. There was horrific suffering.

I also attended a very special ceremony here at Parliament House with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, where we commemorated not those who died in battle but those who died after returning. It was a very moving ceremony. I am sure the minister would agree. It was quite moving to place a poppy in a cross to commemorate those who took their own lives, sadly, upon returning. I know the minister is doing some good work in that area to look after those who return.

Modern warfare takes its toll on our defence personnel not only physically but also emotionally and psychologically. As I said, a decision might be made thousands of miles from where someone might die, but it still will take a toll on our ADF personnel and contractors and all sorts of people associated with modern warfare. Some returning service men and women, sadly, never recover, and some find it impossible to go on. We remembered, at the ceremony here in Parliament House, those men and women who could not find the will to go on, who were tormented by the horrors that they had seen fighting for our freedom, for our Australian way of life. It is important to do all we can to protect the men and women of Australia's defence forces, both while they are fighting abroad and when they return. This bill will help protect our brave men and women who are fighting abroad on our behalf, in conflicts that sometimes have no boundaries and against an enemy who is difficult to identify and, sadly, will do anything and will not respect international humanitarian law. I thank our ADF personnel for their service and commend this legislation to the House.

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