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Australia's diplomatic pragmatism

By Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 5 December 2012


Last week the UN granted the Palestinians non-member State observer status. Australia abstained from the vote. Israel reportedly retaliated against the UN vote by approving the construction of 3000 new settler homes, dealing a heavy blow to the prospects of resumed peace talks. Australia's position might be about taking a pragmatic rather than a principled stand, but it is at odds with world opinion on the issue of Israel and Palestine and lacks moral courage.

In 2008 Australia voted No to the resolution on the Special Committee to Investigate Israelis Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.

The Australian Government says publicly that it is in favour of a two-state solution based on direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis and yet in 2009 and 2010 it voted against the UN General Assembly resolution on the Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine along with Israel, the United States and a handful of islands under American control like the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Then in 2011 it again abstained from voting on the Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine.

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A November 2009 US embassy cable is revealing both as to Australia's conformity with the US position and as to a glimmer of hope for independent thinking:

... Australia has traditionally voted with the United States against most of the 21 resolutions heavily biased against Israel including all three of the resolutions on Palestinian-exclusive UN institutions. However, Australia has since 2008 consistently voted for two among the 21: the resolution concerning the applicability of the Geneva Convention in the Occupied Territories and the resolution concerning Israeli Settlements in those same territories. During this UNGA session, Australia will vote for a third - the Right of the Palestinian People to Self Determination on the grounds that it is in line with the Australian policy of support for the two-state solution. Australia has advised partners (including Israel) of this change. On all other resolutions, Australia will continue to vote with the US and to urge other nations to vote or abstain on anti-Israeli resolutions.

Australia did just that. The excuse given by Australian representatives voting against the December 2009 UN resolution (A/RES/64/10) calling for the Government of Israel and the Palestinian side, within a period of three months, to undertake independent investigations into the serious violations of international humanitarian and international human rights law reported by the UN Fact Finding Mission of the Gaza Conflict, was "because of reservations about the text and the flawed nature of the Goldstone Report."

According to some experts the only thing flawed about the Goldstone report was that it was cast in the language of violations of the laws of war when there was no war in Gaza, there were no battles nor did Israeli soldiers meet with Hamas militants in the field, a factual scenario supported by the testimonies of Israelis soldiers in the 2009 report 'Breaking the Silence', which describes the lack of any direct threat against Israeli forces.

In February 2010 Australia abstained from voting on a further resolution which requested the UN Secretary-General to submit a further report on investigations into violations of international humanitarian human rights law during the Gaza Conflict. Its explanation:"While Australia's vote did not change its concerns about the Goldstone Report, or its preference for allowing the parties sufficient time to study the investigations, it was not helpful to drive them apart. Now was not the time to convene a Conference on the High Contracting Parties as doing so would involve a counter-productive political debate...adding that the prevailing political situation was neither acceptable nor in the interests of Israel, the Palestinian Authority or its neighbours."

This decision was taken even after revelations that suspected Mossad agents used fake Australian passports to enter Dubai and kill a Hamas commander. In fact, a February 2010 US embassy cable had confirmed that "Despite the harsh rhetoric coming from government officials... Australia is highly unlikely to reverse its previous "no" vote on the Goldstone report."

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It is also interesting to note an October 2009 US embassy cable titled 'Urgent Demarche Request On the Goldstone Report' which said "the United States Government has serious concerns about the report [Goldstone], including its unbalanced focus on Israelis actions; its sweeping conclusions of law; and the overly broad scope of its recommendations, some of which go into areas that must be resolved politically in the context of permanent status negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians."

When one compares the position taken by the Australian Government with the "broad objectives" outlined in that cable and the US's clarion call to like-minded nations, it's fairly obvious that Australia's position was not arrived at independently.

Other US diplomatic cables from October 2009 tend to confirm that: "Australia will instruct its UN delegations in New York and Geneva to coordinate with the US delegations prior to the Security Council Meeting on the 14th of October and the Human Rights Committee on the 15th and 16th. Australia will support the US position on the Goldstone Report and the peace process, and that will oppose any effort to have the Security Council take up the issue."

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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