Topics: Court verdict on downing of Flight MH17; Release of Professor Sean Turnell; Australia-China relationship;   

09:20AM AEDT
18 November 2022


Laura Jayes:  Let’s go live to Adelaide now because the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham joins us on a pretty momentous morning. You’d have to say, Senator, this verdict overnight is something that we all knew was right, but to hear that eight years on. It must be satisfying, at least we hope for the families.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, LJ. Well, this is a very important verdict. It’s a demonstration of what countries who are committed to proper processes, to thorough investigations, to transparent judicial arrangements can achieve and what has occurred through international cooperation. Australia working closely with the Netherlands, with Malaysia, with Belgium, with other international partners to ensure that justice is done. And now, of course, there are steps to ensure justice is thoroughly done, and that would require the individuals who have been convicted to actually serve the sentences that have been handed down on them. That would also require Russia to take responsibility and to be held to account. And so this, of course, is not everything that families could wish for, and their pain will never, ever go away. But it is a very important day and an important day in which we can now clearly say that the blame has been levelled clearly at a number of individuals and clearly connected to the actions of Russia.


Laura Jayes: Indeed. So, do you echo Penny Wong’s calls this morning for Russia to hand over these three men?


Simon Birmingham: Well, of course, we would wish that to be the case, but there are many things we would wish of Russia at present. And under Vladimir Putin, Russia continues to not only thumb its nose to the international community, but to act in gross violation of international rules, laws and norms, continues to inflict enormous pain and suffering on the people of Ukraine and huge disruption to the global economy. So I have little hope that Vladimir Putin and the current Russian regime will cooperate in these matters. But we should never, ever give up in terms of seeing these individuals brought not only to justice but to jail and also ensuring that the world continues to put maximum pressure. Let’s remember that the initial UN Security Council resolution response to this, which Julie Bishop championed at the time, was a unanimous resolution calling for those who undertook this atrocity in terms of the downing of MH17 to be brought to justice. What Russia is doing now is the complete opposite and they are harbouring criminals and they are engaging in criminal activity in the way in which they violate international laws in Ukraine. And that’s why the world should continue to put maximum pressure on Putin and Russia to cease the invasion, to cease the crimes, and to cooperate in bringing criminals to justice.


Laura Jayes: You are linking what is going on in Ukraine right now to MH17. So is it your view that had the wheels of justice turned faster and these three men have been brought to justice years earlier, that perhaps we could have avoided this war in Ukraine?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there have been many steps leading up to the war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the crimes committed in that regard, the downing of MH17. There have been quite a few warnings. The world has not stood idly by during that time. It has sought to to act in different ways in application of sanctions, in international engagements that have sought to call Russia out and hold them to account. But clearly, it’s been insufficient, given the fact that Russia has continued not only to act in violation, but to escalate the way in which it has violated international laws and shown complete disregard for not just those laws, but for human life in the way in which Putin’s Russia behaves. And that’s why we should continue to put that pressure and continue to urge the countries who have not been as strong in the application of sanctions and other pressure on Russia to step up and put even greater pressure upon them.


Laura Jayes: Also, we know that Australian academic Mr. Turnell is on his way home. He’s landing in Melbourne this morning, which is great news, but this has been a long, almost two years. What happened here? It seems like this has happened only at the behest of those in charge in Myanmar at the moment, and any diplomatic channels through DFAT have not been successful. This was just all part of a of an amnesty of some 600 prisoners. Is that your view as you see it?


Simon Birmingham: No, LJ. I think that would be unfair. The consistency of effort that Australia has applied over the 650 days of Sean Turnbull’s unfair and unjustified incarceration has been one that I think has helped in terms of ensuring that he is part of this release on Myanmar’s National Day. Yes, he’s one of a number of others and of course we shouldn’t forget that there are thousands of others still unfairly detained in Myanmar and that there is enormous abuse of human rights and oppression of individuals across Myanmar as well as the suppression of democracy in Myanmar occurring. And so we need to maintain a very strong and consistent stance in relation to those matters. But in terms of Professor Turnell, firstly, we welcome his release. We very much welcome his return home. We know that means a lot to his family and loved ones. I think we should acknowledge that Australia’s diplomatic corps, foreign ministers, both Penny Wong and before her, Marise Payne, have applied a consistency of effort. And have enjoyed strong support from other ASEAN nations and many others to continually make sure his case was high on the agenda in terms of any dialogue with the ruling junta in Myanmar and that that has now seen his release as part of this group of releases they’ve undertaken and that’s very welcome.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, absolutely. Finally, before I let you go, it’s been a pretty busy summit season. Anthony Albanese appears to have done pretty well. He’s had that first face to face meeting with Xi Jinping in six years. Do you give him credit and do you have any explanation as to why he was able to achieve what your government couldn’t in six years?


Simon Birmingham: We very much welcome the meeting and it’s good thing that it has occurred. Dialogue is always far preferable to stand off, and it was always entirely counterproductive of China to close off the avenues of ministerial dialogue with Australia. It’s important that the new government has maintained the policy settings and strategic settings of the Coalition government in relation to foreign investment, security of critical infrastructure, protection of our democracy in terms of foreign interference laws and the like. These were all difficult decisions, along with many other difficult decisions taken by the Coalition that saw China’s reaction. Australia has, however, shown a consistency and an intent to make sure that we do safeguard our interests. That’s ultimately seeing China come back to the table in terms of being willing to have discussions. That’s welcome. Of course, the ultimate test of these discussions between Prime Minister Albanese and the new Australian Government and the Chinese Government will be outcomes and whether we see a removal of the attempted economic coercion in terms of the trade sanctions against Australia, whether we see fairer treatment in relation to Australians detained in China, particularly of course Dr. Young and Cheng Lei, and of course also whether we can see China improve in terms of the way it engages in our region, in the world and the influence they are seeking to use in ways that are sometimes of concern.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, that’s right. We do need to see some actual fruit from this first face to face meeting, but it is a start. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time as always.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. My pleasure.