Alexander Downer on the UN, Iraq, Iran and Islamic extremism
By Colin Rubenstein & Ted Lapkin
Alexander Downer has served as Australia’s minister for foreign affairs for nearly a decade. Recently, The Review interviewed him about Australia’s role in Iraq and the wider Middle East, Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia, weapons proliferation, and UN reform.
Australia the UN, and the Middle East Peace Process
REVIEW: Australia’s United Nations delegation has voted against the General Assembly resolution condemning Israel over its security barrier and has been in the minority in its support for the Jewish state in other votes. Do you think that the UN’s biased attitude toward Israel can be ameliorated?
Downer: Achieving widespread change to members’ attitudes to Middle East resolutions in the United Nations will not be easy. Regrettably, there appears to be a strong element of the formulaic in some approaches in which positive developments on the ground do not seem to be reflected in the resolutions put forward. Australia’s approach to those resolutions is one based on principle, and we hope that, by taking the lead in our efforts to counter anti-Israeli bias at the United Nations, we will set an example that others will follow. Australia resolutely opposes the proliferation of one-sided, anti-Israeli resolutions in the United Nations and other forums. At the 59th session of the United Nations General Assembly and at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, we were concerned that a number of resolutions were unbalanced in their criticism of Israel. The singling out of one side for blame in the current situation is deeply unhelpful. Both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute share responsibility for resuming meaningful peace negotiations.
REVIEW: What can be done about the proliferation of UN agencies devoted to promoting a partisan Palestinian cause?
Downer: At the 59th session of the UN General Assembly, Australia showed its concern at the high level of United Nations secretariat resources devoted to anti-Israeli activity, such as the Division for Palestinian Rights of the Secretariat and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The annual resolutions endorsing these work units do nothing to streamline or rationalise the secretariat’s structure, or to make its work more balanced. That is why we voted against those resolutions, and why we will continue to oppose resolutions that do nothing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Australia and Iran
REVIEW: Let’s turn to Iran. The Islamic Republic seems intent on developing its nuclear program. How great a threat would a nuclear Iran pose? Is it possible to prevent Iran from going nuclear?
Downer: Our aim here is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would not only be extremely destabilising in a volatile region but would also undermine the nuclear non-proliferation regime which Australia and other countries have worked to put into place and make effective over the past thirty years or so. We have been encouraging Iran to pursue an exclusively peaceful nuclear program and have taken, and will continue to take, a consistent and principled approach in the International Atomic Energy Agency on this issue.
Australia supports strongly the peaceful resolution of this issue, and we welcome Iran’s agreement with the European Union-3 [The United Kingdom, France, and Germany] in November 2004 to suspend nuclear enrichment and reprocessing. We are following closely negotiations between the E-3 and Iran to make this suspension permanent. We have told the Iranians they need to make the most of this opportunity to satisfy the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes. We have sought to underline to the Iranians that this is not just an issue of concern to the United States but to the wider international community.
REVIEW: Should Australia participate in efforts to bring about the democratisation of Iran or the downfall of the Islamic Republic?
Downer: I don’t think change imposed from the outside would be welcomed. Australia has encouraged and will continue to encourage reform efforts in Iran, although, at the end of the day, it is the Iranians themselves who must drive any change.
REVIEW: Do you think that the current state of counter-proliferation is adequate, or do you think more could be done? If so, what measures would you propose be taken?
Downer: Australia is committed to strengthening multilateral non-proliferation treaties in response to some states’ failure to comply with their obligations. We are also actively pursuing measures consistent with the non-proliferation provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, playing a prominent role as chair of the Australia Group. [The Australia Group is an informal arrangement to help countries identify dual use material and avoid inadvertently assisting chemical and biological weapon proliferation. Formed in 1985, the group includes thirty-nine countries and the European Commission.] Israel’s decision to adhere to the group’s export control is an indication of growing international recognition of the group’s export control measures as a benchmark for preventing chemical and biological weapons proliferation.
REVIEW: What can be done about proliferation to non-state actors?
Downer: Despite the success of export controls, determined proliferators continue to exploit gaps, as has been demonstrated by the extent and sophistication of the A. Q. [Abdul Qadir] Khan nuclear procurement network. The Proliferation Security Initiative has proven itself to be an effective practical tool for cooperative action to disrupt illicit weapons of mass destruction-related trade. Australia has played a key role in the initiative, hosting two meetings [Australia hosted and chaired the second plenary meeting in Brisbane in July 2003 and also hosted a PSI Operational Experts Group (OEG) meeting in Sydney on Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 2004.] and the first Proliferation Security Initiative interdiction exercise. Australia has also expanded its outreach activities, assisting countries in the Asia-Pacific region to enhance their national export controls in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 1540 [a 2004 resolution calling for comprehensive control and enforcement against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction].
Combating Islamist Extremism in the Asia-Pacific
REVIEW: How serious is the threat of Wahhabi and Salafi Islamist extremism in South East Asia?
Downer: Terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists continues to pose a grave threat to international security. It represents not only an attack on the West but also on moderate Islam and moderate Muslim countries. Groups such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya seek not only to corral all Muslims under tyrannical theocratic regimes but to use violence to subjugate societies everywhere. As a Western country with global interests that values peace, religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law, Australia is a target. Jemaah Islamiya and al-Qaeda with their flexible and mutually supportive links with other extremist Muslim groups will continue to seek to exploit communal conflict where it occurs in the region and may even be prepared to provoke such violence. As such, the threat of extremist Muslim terrorism affects the whole South East Asian region.
Salafism is not of itself a doctrine of extremism. It is, therefore, not constructive to use such labels as a stereotype, especially as groups such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya tend to borrow selectively and opportunistically from extremist interpretations of a number of Islamist and jihadist figures as it suits their purposes.
REVIEW: Will the warming ties between Jakarta and Canberra put a damper on the ability of Indonesian Islamic radical groups like Jemaah Islamiya to attract adherents?
Downer: There is no connection between support for Jemaah Islamiya and our bilateral relationship with Indonesia. Jemaah Islamiya members are a very small but violent minority. The overwhelming majority of the Indonesian population rejects its objectives and the use of terrorist attacks to further its aims. Furthermore, the 2004 national elections in Indonesia demonstrated that extremist versions of Islam hold little political appeal.
REVIEW: Australia sent troops to Iraq. Can you discuss your rationale?
Downer: The coalition took military action in 2003 to eliminate the serious threat Saddam Hussein posed to international peace and security. Saddam persistently failed to comply with some seventeen mandatory UN Security Council resolutions requiring the verifiable cessation of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile programs. Prime Minister Howard’s announcement of Australia’s decision to contribute to military operations in Iraq made this clear. He added that the close strategic alliance between Australia and the United States was also a factor. Since the decision was taken in March 2003, Australia has remained strongly committed to supporting Iraq’s transition to a politically and economically stable democracy.
REVIEW: How long will Australian troops remain in Iraq?
Downer: The Australian government is determined to sustain Australia’s military contribution until their tasks in support of Iraq’s stabilisation and rehabilitation are complete. The Australian Defence Force is playing an important role in a range of areas, including training for the new Iraqi Defence forces. Australia is continuing to make a practical contribution to Iraq’s civilian reconstruction, with humanitarian assistance of over $125 million (Australian) to date.
REVIEW: But does Australian participation in Iraq do more than cement close bilateral ties to the United States?
Downer: The decision earlier this year to send the al-Muthanna Task Group to Iraq is a further sign of Australia’s commitment to the people of Iraq. The task group is assisting Japanese humanitarian operations and providing training to Iraqi security forces – enabling Iraqis to take control of their own security. It has been welcomed by the Iraqi government. A factor in the deployment was the importance of working with a key regional partner on matters of global importance and the added depth it has brought to our political and security ties with Japan.A version of this article appeared in Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2005). This interview was conducted in late May.