Lowy Institute
20 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

There will be many people in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) right now who are not getting enough sleep. The conflict in the Middle East involving Israel and Hamas, the war in Syria with its added dimension of foreign (including Australian) fighters, elections in Indonesia and the rise in sectarian violence in Iraq will be occupying policy makers. But it is the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine by separatists on 17 July that will be front and centre of the department's work from both a policy and consular perspective.

Having worked on a number of consular crises from the 2004 Asian tsunami to the hostage-taking of an Australian in Iraq, I have a sense of how the Department will be using the crisis response mechanisms that have been refined over many years.

DFAT headquarters, Canberra. (Flickr/Bentley Smith.)

Within hours of the news of the crash of MH17, DFAT activated the Emergency Call Unit and publicised, including through social media, the emergency number for people to call if they had fears for the safety of family and friends. The Department handled about 1000 calls in the first 24 hours.

Regular consular staff and other Departmental volunteers (particularly from the Department's crisis cadre, a group of more than 200 people specially trained to deal with an incident overseas) were rallied to work in the 24-hour Crisis Centre or be part of the deployed Emergency Response Teams. The purpose-built Crisis Centre is equipped with modern communications and technology systems and serves as the central coordination point for the whole-of-government response to an international crisis. Staff working in the Crisis Centre collate information from overseas posts and other sources; prepare situation reports, briefings and talking points; and implement decisions made by the interdepartmental committee managing the crisis.

Consular staff worked quickly to confirm details of the passengers on board and then to make contact with family members offering support and consular assistance. A consular case officer was dedicated to each family. A number of overseas posts, particularly Warsaw and The Hague, have now assumed a similarly important consular role acting as liaison points, providing information to loved ones and assisting with practicalities.

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The Foreign Minister is clearly intimately involved in the consular response in addition to her advocacy and policy activism in the UN Security Council and with counterpart leaders. She told the media she would prefer not to talk about her conversations with the families as she would become too emotional. Her departmental staff will also be feeling the emotional toll. Receiving and identifying bodies, working with disaster victim identification experts, engaging with funeral directors and quarantine agencies and supporting grieving families are never easy tasks.

When I was in South Africa, staff at the High Commission, together with our colleagues in Nigeria, were involved in recovery and support operations following a plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo which killed all members of the board of an Australian mining company. Fortunately, many of the consular team had received psychological preparedness training specifically aimed at preparing them for traumatic events. That training, together with adrenalin and a real sense of compassion for the victims' families, helped all of us cope through a difficult time.

In the past few years, the growing number of consular crises has required the Department to focus on training and contingency planning — running regular workshops, conducting (with the Department of Defence) Contingency Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) visits to posts, undertaking exercise rehearsals and practicing responses to particular disaster scenarios both with other government agencies and private sector bodies. The more than 200 officials who have been, or are being, deployed will need to draw on all that training and planning as they help to 'bring Australians home' following the MH17 crisis.

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The latest Gaza war is heading into new and bloody territory with no end in sight. As with previous conflicts in Gaza (and in Lebanon for that matter), both sides are engaged in what amounts to a brutal negotiation.

For Israel it is about how much of Hamas' rocket and tunnel infrastructure it can destroy before international or domestic pressure for a ceasefire forces its hand.

For Hamas it is about leveraging Israeli losses in terms of soldiers killed, civilians terrorised and international reputation lost in the hope of extracting concessions in any ceasefire. Hamas is balancing two pressures: on the one hand, the pressure from the suffering population of Gaza to bring the fighting to an end; on the other hand the pressure to demonstrate to that same population that it has gained something (usually in the form of either prisoner releases or the easing of the blockade on Gaza) from the suffering it has brought down on them.

There is another important element in the effort to reach a ceasefire, however, and that is the role of the mediator.

In the past, Egypt has played this role. It did not just convey messages between the two sides. It also used its leverage with both sides, but in particular with Hamas, to end the fighting. What is conspicuous about the current conflict is how ineffectual Egypt has been. It put one serious ceasefire proposal on the table that was so lop-sided it had little prospect of being accepted by Hamas.

As a number of commentators have noted, this reflects in part Egypt's domestic situation. President Sisi and the Egyptian military have been locked in a deep conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood for almost a year now. This has in turn undermined Egypt's relationship with Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood.

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As observers noted to me during a visit to Egypt last January, many of the individuals in Egyptian military intelligence responsible for the Gaza file have been moved, part of the reshuffle in the military brought about by Sisi's elevation to the position of commander in chief of the army last year.

The new players will not have had as much experience dealing with Hamas, nor the personal relationships built up over time with key Hamas figures. It may also be that the heat and animus generated by the conflict with the Brotherhood in Egypt has infected the attitude of those Egyptian military officials responsible for brokering a ceasefire with the Brotherhood's Palestinian offshoot.

The contrast with the last major round of fighting in Gaza is stark. In 2012 the conflict last eight days; this conflict has run over twenty days with no end in sight. In 2012, then Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi (from the Muslim Brotherhood) played a key role in bringing the fighting to an end, and was lauded for it by both the US and Israel.

Despite the fact that Israel welcomed Sisi's ascendancy to power, it needs an Egypt that can play an effective mediation role in Gaza; one that has real leverage with Hamas. Israel does not want the fighting to go on endlessly, it does not want to reassume responsibility for Gaza and it does not want Hamas totally destroyed, lest political power fall into the hands of even more radical groups in the territory.

The ongoing fighting also has domestic implications for Sisi's regime. Egyptians expect their government to play a role in ending the fighting, not just out of real sympathy for the suffering of Gazans but also for the sake of Egypt's regional standing. But Sisi is not going to be able to build a new relationship with Hamas overnight. It's a problem for Sisi, it's a problem for Israel, but above all it's a major problem for the long-suffering people of Gaza.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Suhaib Salem.

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This piece from The Economist would have been useful context for the green-energy puff piece broadcast on the ABC's flagship current affairs show Four Corners on 7 July.

The Economist has highlighted new research from the Brookings Institution which looks at the full cost of generating various forms of electricity. The Economist's take-away:

If all the costs and benefits are totted up using Mr Frank’s calculation, solar power is by far the most expensive way of reducing carbon emissions. It costs $189,000 to replace 1MW per year of power from coal. Wind is the next most expensive. Hydropower provides a modest net benefit. But the most cost-effective zero-emission technology is nuclear power. The pattern is similar if 1MW of gas-fired capacity is displaced instead of coal. And all this assumes a carbon price of $50 a tonne. Using actual carbon prices (below $10 in Europe) makes solar and wind look even worse. The carbon price would have to rise to $185 a tonne before solar power shows a net benefit.

Photo by Flickr user Juan A.

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Given developments in the Ukraine and tensions elsewhere in the world, the time has come to put security and geo-political issues directly on the agenda for the meeting of G20 leaders, and for those leaders to bring their foreign ministers to the Brisbane Summit.

Soon after President Bush announced he was inviting G20 leaders to Washington for a meeting in November 2008, there was a phone hook-up by officials to discuss arrangements. The first issue raised was which ministers should accompany leaders to Washington. A number of countries said their foreign ministers should be there. As chair, the US said it was a meeting in response to a financial crisis and only finance ministers should attend.

In the years since, there has been a debate between finance and foreign policy officials as to whether the G20 leaders' agenda should move beyond economic issues. The argument from foreign policy officials was that focusing solely on economic issues was too narrow for leaders in a post-crisis world. Finance officials countered by saying that the legacy of the crisis was still prevalent, the agenda had already expanded too much, and it was better to consolidate the G20 before taking on new issues. As a former finance official, I argued for keeping the G20 focused solely on economic issues.

But when the facts change, you should reconsider your position. And in the light of developments, I now believe the G20 leaders' summit must move beyond economic issues and explicitly discuss security and political matters.

The focus on whether Australia should exclude President Putin from the Brisbane Summit has changed the character of the G20. While it is not up to Australia alone to determine whether Putin should attend a G20 summit, the mere discussion of whether he should come to Brisbane has brought security issues within the ambit of the G20. This is not a new development. The crisis in Syria dominated the St Petersburg Summit in 2013. But with geopolitical tensions rising across many fronts — Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, North Korea, the South China Sea — the time has come to put security matters directly on the G20 Leaders' agenda.

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In commenting on whether Putin should attend the Brisbane Summit, my colleague Michael Fullilove said he doubted Putin would want to confront a hostile public response at the Brisbane Summit. However, Putin may not show his hand as to whether he is coming to Brisbane until the last minute. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the summit the Australian Government may be under significant public pressure not to let Putin come. Yet if Australia sought to exclude Putin, this may bring into question the attendance of some other countries. It would certainly be a contentious and distracting issue prior to the Brisbane Summit.

Another colleague, Sam Roggeveen, asked last week: 'if his (Putin) intransigence continues, will Abbott be able to greet Putin with a handshake in Brisbane before the world's media? That will make for an awkward photo-op'.

But there is an alternative approach to handling this matter. If geo-political and security issues were explicitly placed on the leaders' agenda for the Brisbane Summit, the Australian Government's position could be that Putin must come and account for Russia's actions in the Ukraine and elsewhere. In such circumstances, a stern-faced Abbott meeting Putin in Brisbane would make a very different photo-op.

Bruce Jones from Brookings previously suggested that leaders should bring their foreign ministers, national security advisors or relevant diplomats to Brisbane and be available in the event of a crisis which would demand leaders' attention. There are now sufficient geopolitical tensions demanding leaders' attention that security matters should explicitly be on the agenda for the Brisbane Summit. As Jones notes, 'there is no question that a phase of mounting geopolitical tensions has begun'.

Is the G20 the right forum to deal with security and political matters? The UN Security Council has its role, but it also has its limitations. The strength of the G20 is that it is a leader's level meeting and it is more representative than the G7. Moreover, escalating regional tensions are directly related to the performance of the global economy. As Nobel Laureate in economics Michael Spence has noted, 'at this moment in history, the main threats to prosperity — those that urgently need world leaders' attention and effective international cooperation — are the huge uncontained negative spillover effects of regional tensions, conflict, and competing claims to spheres of influence.'

Australia should be proactive. It should signal now that geo-political tensions will be discussed at the Brisbane Summit. But expectations should be managed. There should be no suggestions in advance that major breakthroughs or landmark agreements will be reached in Brisbane. Rather, it should be presented as an opportunity for some frank exchanges between leaders on issues of global importance. Moulding the G20 summit to cover such matters could be the legacy achievement for Australia's turn as G20 president.

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  • UNDP's 2014 Human Development Report is out. Headline news is that more than 2.2 billion people are either near or living in multidimensional poverty.
  • Interestingly, rankings remain unchanged at both ends of the Human Development Index (see image). Norway, Australia, Switzerland, Netherlands and US remain in the lead for another year, while Sierra Leone, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger continue to rank at the bottom of the list. Here's The Guardian's analysis.
  • What you need to know about the new BRICS development bank: catch up with this easy guide from the Wall Street Journal and this analysis from Philippa Brant on China's growing web of development financing.
  • Is 'green growth' a fad?  Matthew Dornan from DevPolicy explains.
  • Guinea worm is almost eradicated. It's a huge victory for public health, and for Jimmy Carter's charity. (H/t Browser.)
  • Martin Drewry argues in The Guardian that Africa loses more to Western countries than it gains in aid. A new approach is needed.
  • Disturbing UNICEF data on rates of female genital mutilation and child marriages.
  • @GlobalPolicy 's first e-book: The Donors' Dilemma: Emergence, Convergence and the Future of Foreign Aid'.

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19 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Bringing together the best Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

 

The senseless shooting down of flight MH17 continues to dominate the news, and both Michael Fullillove and myself have written columns on the implications for Australia. Here on The Interpreter, our contributors been commenting on developments. You can read the whole thread here, but below I've highlighted some pieces.

Peter Knoope, Director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, contributed an outstanding piece of controlled fury:

With 193 Dutch citizens killed in the MH17 tragedy, the Netherlands is in shock. The country is mourning. Everybody seems to know someone who is directly affected by this terrible loss. The mourning is slowly but surely transforming into outrage that will push the Dutch Government into visible response and action. 

We don't know exactly what happened. But is seems plausible that it was an 'unintended' incident in an armed conflict between separatists on the one side and  national Ukrainian forces on the other. Unintended or not, factions and individuals are still accountable for what they have done. The questions 'Who did this?' and 'Who supplied the military support, technology, know-how and weaponry to execute such an attack?' are relevant to the victims and the population at large. Justice needs to have its way. The public is expecting and demanding as much. 

The international legal ramifications of the MH17 shootdown are exceedingly complicated. Danielle Rajendram breaks it down:

number of options for legal recourse have been raised.

The first is to prosecute the perpetrators of this crime under the domestic law and courts of one of the injured parties. This was the approach taken for the Lockerbie bombing trial, in which two Libyan nationals were tried under Scottish law in the Netherlands for their involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland. Ukraine would certainly have jurisdiction over any crime committed in its airspace, and it is likely that injured nations such as the Netherlands, Malaysia, or even Australia may also have jurisdiction to prosecute this crime.

Another is that the perpetrators of the incident be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is charged with dealing with individuals for the offences of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. As prosecution of crimes against humanity requires acts to be committed as part of a 'widespread and systematic attack,' the most likely avenue for pursuing justice for victims of the MH17 attack in the ICC would be under the Court's jurisdiction over war crimes.

James Brown and Brendan Thomas-Noone both commented on the potential of an international security presence to protect air crash investigators at the MH17 site. James stated that a police-led approach is the right solution:

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This will take some time to achieve. Julie Bishop will be negotiating a sort of status-of-forces agreement with the Ukraine detailing what powers of arrest police officers will have, what happens to them in the event they are involved in a car crash or other legal matter, and the circumstances in which they might be authorised to use their personal weapons. The AFP will be thinking about how it might detain people trying to interfere with the crash site, which authorities those detained might be transferred to, and the logistics of maintaining 50 or so officers in a fairly remote rural area in Eastern Europe.

This will be a military-enabled mission. Military aircraft are already involved in moving bodies from Ukraine to Amsterdam and might be involved in moving the international police force and possibly aircraft parts recovered from the crash site. Military intelligence will be crucial to an ongoing security assessment of the area in which the investigation will take place, and there will need to be detailed liaison between the AFP and Defence on the local intelligence picture. Finally, the Australian Defence Force is thinking through worst case contingencies. If an AFP officer is kidnapped by a local separatist group, the recovery effort could involve the ADF's Special Operations Command. If the situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorates and a tentative ceasefire collapses, military forces might be required to evacuate the international investigation force.

Brendan wrote on a potential peacekeeping force:

The UN Security Council mandate secured by Australia and the Netherlands earlier this week leaves open the option of using a peacekeeping force to secure the crash site and the safety of international investigators. The language used in the mandate is clear. The Security Council called for a 'full, thorough and independent international investigation into the incident', demanded that the armed rebel groups in the area 'refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the crash site' and most importantly expressed 'grave concern at reports of insufficient and limited access to the crash site.'

A UN peacekeeping operation could be built off this mandate. Such an operation would need to be authorised by the Security Council and passed by its five permanent members, including Russia. This would be difficult, but Russia passed the resolution authorising the investigation earlier this week on the condition that the resolution did not assign blame. Moscow could see this as an opportunity to show goodwill and further de-escalate the situation, particularly if the peacekeeping forces came from countries outside of NATO.

Mike Callaghan looked at the chances of Russian President Vladimir Putin attending the G20 Summit in Brisbane in November:

Australian public opinion, and that in some other countries, may remain strongly opposed to allowing Putin to attend the Brisbane Summit. It is possible that, given such controversy and the prospect of a hostile reception in Australia, Putin may choose not to come. But if Australia did not let Putin attend, other countries may oppose and conceivably bring into question their attendance. Should this eventuate, the future of the G20 could come into question, particularly if those not attending were major emerging markets. The strength and significance of the G20 is that it brings together the leading advanced economies and emerging markets. In addition, political and security issues would be brought front and centre in G20 deliberations, overshadowing the economic agenda.

The coming months could be very tricky ones for Australia, given its role as G20 chair for 2014.

A number of delegates to the AIDS 2014 conference were killed on the Malaysian Airlines flight, and Annmaree O'Keefe reported from the conference on the long shadow cast by MH17:

The mood at last night's opening was sombre and the six were well missed. But HIV has stalked many of the 12,000 people attending this week-long conference, so the threat of death has never been far from their minds. As Australia's eminent jurist Michael Kirby (pictured) said in his opening address last night, people affected by HIV/AIDS are no strangers to suffering, irrationality and hatred. They are also no strangers to death.

So the conference refuses to be bowed by an outrageous act. Instead, it is using the tragedy to spotlight an ongoing outrage: the human rights abuse, happening in many parts of the world, which curses the lives of people either infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.

It's true there has been significant success in pushing back HIV's advance over the past three decades. UNAIDS estimates that the global effort to fight HIV has averted 7 million deaths since 2002 and averted 10 million new infections. Globally, the rate of new HIV/AIDS infections continues to decline. New infections among adults in developing countries in 2012 were 30% lower than in 2001

Nick Bryant posted from New York on the machinations behind the Australian-sponsored UN Security Council resolution 2166:

After the meeting, which ended at one o'clock on Monday morning, (Russian UN representative Vitaly) Churkin indicated that Russia's reservations had been addressed, but still would not say for sure whether his hand would be raised in favour of the resolution. Moscow knew that a veto would be met by an international outcry, and be received, as Tony Abbott put it, 'very very badly'. So minutes before the Security Council gathered for its mid-afternoon meeting on Monday, Churkin indicated Russia's support, which meant the resolution passed unanimously.

Unquestionably, this is a significant achievement for Australian diplomacy.

Having announced on Friday that it was determined to get a resolution, it managed to secure passage in the space of 72 hours. That may seem slow for those unfamiliar with the tortured geopolitics of the Security Council, but, in UN terms, it is close to warp speed. Some of the Australian diplomats involved in the negotiations were working on an hour's sleep. This was a round-the-clock endeavour.

Still on the Security Council, here's Richard Gowan on using 'the art of the possible' to get action on Ukraine (and Syria):

To get Moscow's support for the Ukrainian resolution, Australia and its allies watered down their text. Security Council Report, a think-tank that tracks day-to-day UN negotiations in detail, summarises some of the intricate niceties involved:

"In the initial exchange over the original draft, it seems China and Russia stressed the importance of not prejudging the outcome of the investigations. The initial text of the draft resolution contained a paragraph which condemned the 'shooting down' of flight MH17. This was changed to 'the downing' of the MH17 flight. This was likely done as some members insisted that no conclusions should be made until a thorough investigation is completed, making the reference to 'shooting down' unacceptable."

But the details are still solid, including a specific demand for investigators to access the crash site and a call for whoever is responsible to be held accountable.

Australia seems to have learned the art of letting Russia save face at the Security Council while backing it into concessions on matters of substance. This is no small feat as Britain, France and the US have ended up colliding with Russia at the UN in unproductive spats over both Syria and Ukraine.

But the devil is still in the details.

Matthew Sussex wrote that Russia has fundamentally mismanaged its response to the MH17 tragedy:

From a domestic perspective, Putin's vigorous defence of Russia was understandable. He sees trial by an independent media as a Western affliction and has prevented it from gaining a foothold at home. Domestic political reasons prompted his officials to stress that there was no evidence of direct Russian involvement.  And Moscow's confused response strongly suggests the Kremlin was as surprised as anyone else by the downing of MH17. 

But in an international tragedy, winning external public relations battles is initially much more important than domestic manoeuvring. On that score, Putin's crisis management strategy has failed badly. It has failed to deflect attention away from suspected Russian involvement in the shoot-down, much less the ongoing conflict. And it has failed to mollify foreign governments demanding a secure crash site to identify and repatriate their nationals. Hence Russia has appeared obstructionist rather than proactively seeking to help.

A public relations disaster prompted by MH17 is potentially a huge blow to Russia's regional ambitions. 

Will MH17 mean stronger European sanctions on Russia over its conduct in Ukraine? Maybe, argued James Bowen:

 Just a day before the downing of the MH17, Obama reluctantly went it alone, beefing up penalties on Russia's energy and defence interests over its continued material and ideological support for the Ukrainian rebels, while Europe opted only for so-called 'Tier 2' actions that froze assets and banned travel for Vladimir Putin's closest offsiders.

Obama will have been pleased to see UK Prime Minister David Cameron's support for escalating to the tougher Tier 3 sanctions in light of the disaster, and calling for the continent to 'make our power, influence and resources count'. He will no doubt closely follow announcements out of Brussels, and indeed Berlin and Paris, to see how far that wave of indignation spreads.

Photo by Flickr user Javier Santos.

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The view from Kuala Lumpur

18 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

As Malaysia prepares to celebrate Hari Raya Adilfitri this weekend (the end of Ramadan), the country remains in mourning. Yet a week on from the MH17 downing, it appears that embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's (pictured) response to the tragedy is proving popular.

This week, Prime Minister Najib urged Malaysians to say al-fatihah (a prayer for God's guidance) as he condemned the downing of MH17, saying it was a test from Allah during Ramadan. The bodies of the 43 Malaysian victims are yet to be returned to Malaysia for the quick burial demanded under Muslim custom. 

Najib, whose step-grandmother was on MH17, has been front and centre on the international stage. At home he was praised for his 'quiet diplomacy' with pro-Russian separatist leader Alexander Borodai to secure the plane's black box and for garnering separatist support in returning the victim's bodies. Internationally, this praise was more subdued, with some arguing that this sort of high-level negotiation legitimised the separatist group possibly responsible for the shooting down of MH17, and set a dangerous precedent.

In a special sitting of the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia's lower house) on Wednesday, PM Najib reflected on the previous week. His tone was stronger than before as he spoke of 'murderers' and (oddly) 'genocide'.

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On a defensive note, he reiterated that the flight path was deemed safe and defended his 'risky decision' to negotiate directly with the head of the pro-Russian separatist group. In his speech, Najib said he had negotiated with Borodai so he could fulfill a promise to the victims' families to return their relatives' bodies before Raya (he has since conceded that this will not be possible). He noted, quite rightly (and fittingly for the holy month of Ramadan), that 'sometimes we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome.'

Among the solemn praise and a palpable feeling of solidarity in Malaysia, there is also anger. On Tuesday, a group of 300 protesters marched to the Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Kuala Lumpur under banners that read #Justice4MH17. The group called for stronger action by the Government against the perpetrators of what they called the 'genocide at 33,000 feet'. It was this notion of genocide that was picked up by politicians and later endorsed by Najib, who thanked his opposition colleagues for the comparison.

Najib has repeatedly called for unity and solidarity in the wake of the disaster. Indeed, his prime ministership could do with a dash of both. After narrowly winning a second term last year he is often derided as out of touch with Malaysians. Worse, he has managed to get offside with the still powerful but ageing former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. His predicament is worsened by widespread criticism of his government's handling of MH370, the difficulty of managing growing religious tensions, as well as the recent kidnappings and overall deterioration of the situation in Sabah. 

In times of crisis, divisions are often forgotten and previously unpopular leaders can reshape themselves. News media, and people I've spoken to here in Kuala Lumpur, have parroted international praise of Najib for his 'quite diplomacy'. But this praise may be short lived. Old divisions will quickly reemerge when a week of front pages about the MH17 disaster subside, but pressure will remain on the Government to win justice for the victims.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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17 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Malaysian air crash investigators inspect the MH17 crash site. (REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev.) 

In the days following the shooting down of MH17, the UN and governments around the world have quickly turned to discussing how to bring the perpetrators to justice. While the most likely scenario is that pro-Russian Ukranian rebels shot down the aircraft by mistake, the lack of clarity around the circumstances of the attack continues to complicate any attempts at resolution. Pending a full investigation and more evidence about responsibility, it is difficult to talk of accountability under international law.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the MH17 incident represents a crime under international law. It's likely that the conflict between the state and rebel forces in Ukraine can be characterised as an armed conflict under international law, and that therefore international laws of war relating to internal conflict apply.

The principle of distinction between civilians and combatants is one of the main tenets of international humanitarian law. In armed conflicts of this nature, making civilians the object of attack is directly prohibited under treaty law, and the prohibition against targeting civilian objects has been found to be a customary international legal norm by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 

In accordance with state practice and international jurisprudence, the ICRC has confirmed the existence of a customary international norm requiring all feasible precautions to be taken to avoid injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. Similarly, parties to a conflict must do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives.

It is clear that the perpetrators of the MH17 disaster have violated both treaty law and customary international law in attacking civilians and a civilian object, and failed to take all feasible precautions to ensure the military nature of the target. Holding them accountable for these actions will be another story.

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In public debate around the incident, a number of options for legal recourse have been raised.

The first is to prosecute the perpetrators of this crime under the domestic law and courts of one of the injured parties. This was the approach taken for the Lockerbie bombing trial, in which two Libyan nationals were tried under Scottish law in the Netherlands for their involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland. Ukraine would certainly have jurisdiction over any crime committed in its airspace, and it is likely that injured nations such as the Netherlands, Malaysia, or even Australia may also have jurisdiction to prosecute this crime.

Another is that the perpetrators of the incident be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is charged with dealing with individuals for the offences of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. As prosecution of crimes against humanity requires acts to be committed as part of a 'widespread and systematic attack,' the most likely avenue for pursuing justice for victims of the MH17 attack in the ICC would be under the Court's jurisdiction over war crimes.

However, assuming that Ukrainian rebels linked to the Donetsk People's Republic were responsible for shooting down MH17, the prospects for having these individuals appear in front of the ICC are limited. To complicate matters further, a number of key figures in the Donetsk People's Republic are known to hold Russian citizenship, and it is alleged that some, including the Donetsk 'prime minister', have connections with Russian intelligence agencies. While both Ukraine and Russia are signatories to the Rome Statute of the ICC, neither has ratified the treaty yet, meaning that although they are required to refrain from  acts which would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty, compelling them to submit their nationals to the jurisdiction of the court would be more complicated.

This then raises the issue of state responsibility. If it is found (and this is a very big 'if') that the attack on MH17 was perpetrated by a Russian national acting in (or even beyond) their capacity as an official of the state, this could give rise to Russian state responsibility under international law. Russia could similarly be implicated if the rebels were found to be acting under Moscow's instructions, direction or control. 

Even if it is found that Russia had no involvement in this specific incident, as may well be the case, there is still the question of Russia's broader involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. Here, the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) ruling on Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua may provide some guidance. In 1986, the ICJ presided over a case brought by Nicaragua against the US over America's support for the contras rebel group against the ruling Marxist-Leninist Sandinistas. By financing, organising, training, supplying and equipping the contras, the US was found to be in violation of the customary international legal norm of non-interference in the internal affairs of states and the prohibition against the use of force. However, the court found that due to a lack of 'effective control' over the rebel contras, the US could not be held accountable for specific breaches of international humanitarian law committed by the group.

Unless Russia is found to have exercised effective control over the Ukrainian rebels, questions would linger over how far Russia could be held accountable. However, depending on the details of Russia's involvement, there may be an international legal case to be made in a forum such as the ICJ about Russia's broader support for Ukranian rebels.

Yet even if Russia was to be implicated, states are not required to submit to the jurisdiction of the ICJ, and neither Russia nor Ukraine have accepted the permanent jurisdiction of the Court . The likelihood that Russia would accept ICJ jurisdiction in the event of a dispute is almost zero. Similarly, by virtue of its permanent membership, it is safe to expect that any UN Security Council resolution directly implicating Russia in any of these scenarios would be swiftly vetoed. And all this is further complicated by the fact that the extradition of Russian nationals, even those who have committed a crime in the territory of a foreign state, is prohibited by Russia's constitution and criminal code. 

None of this undermines the need for a complete investigation of the circumstances leading up to the incident. Australian diplomacy has already proven invaluable in securing a robust UN Security Council resolution recognising the need for a full, thorough and independent investigation. At this point, continued diplomatic, economic and political pressure in enforcing Resolution 2166 may be the best states can do to ensure justice for the victims of MH17.

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A newly released IPSOS Global Trends Survey  shows, according to a Guardian columnist, that Anglophone countries are particularly inclined towards climate denialism:

When you click on the interactive version on the IPSOS website, you see that the bottom red line (for the US) shows 32% disagreeing with the statement that climate change is human-induced, and slightly lower percentages for Britain, Australia and so on.

But let's take a glass-half-full approach. Given everything we hear about the attitude to climate change on the US right, it is somewhat surprising to see that 54% of Americans (the bottom green line) actually agree that climate change is human induced. And take a look at the results for 'We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly'. Even in the US, 57% of those surveyed agree with that statement:

So for those who want political action on climate change, maybe public opinion is not the lever they should be pulling on. In fact, I would wager that in each of these 20 countries, major policy shifts have occurred with far lower levels of public approval. So why haven't these countries taken action on climate change already? Well, that's another discussion, but it seems it's not public opinion holding the world back.

(H/t Sullivan.)

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Pacific Island leaders will meet at the annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting next week in Palau. Prime Minister Abbott has cancelled his travel plans in order to focus on the response to the MH17 disaster and is sending Deputy Prime Minister Truss in his stead.

Pacific leaders will be disappointed but will no doubt understand. What will disappoint them more is a much greater snub for the region: the decision by ABC management to slash Radio Australia's capacity and services. This decision will diminish Australia's leadership and influence and do long term damage to both political and people-to-people relationships.

As a result of the loss of the Australia Network contract and other budget cuts, ABC management is making swingeing cuts to the Asia Pacific News Centre and ABC International. Correspondent positions in Asia, the Pacific and in Parliament House Canberra will be abolished. The Tok Pisin (PNG) language service will be cut to just three staff — this for a country which has just been elevated in the Australian Government's foreign policy priorities, where the economy is growing at record pace, and where radio remains king.

Editorial and technical staff for the popular Pacific Beat program will be reduced. A six-hour per day television service will be syndicated in the region but its primary news program, The World, is due to be broadcast late at night and early in the morning in the Pacific. Given the television audience in the Pacific is already limited to the urban elite, this is of questionable value.

While ABC management stresses that news services will remain, it's hard to see who will produce the stories that feed the news. By retrenching its most experienced Pacific hands as well as abolishing correspondent positions, the ABC will lose much of its capacity to report. The loss of journalistic legend Sean Dorney, who has the deepest understanding of the Pacific of any Australian journalist, will be felt deeply in the region. Presenters will likely need to rely on social media sources and the internet sites of Pacific newspapers to gather news. There are quality and reliability questions around both these sources and to a significant degree they already rely on the ABC for content.

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The impact of the decision will be a terrible blow to Pacific Island populations which rely on Radio Australia to report about not only international news but events in their own country. In an age where domestic news broadcasters across the Pacific are shrinking and in some cases being subjected to increasing political control, Radio Australia provides a vital service. Because Radio Australia provided coverage of criticism of Commodore Bainimarama's interim government in Fiji, he shut down transmission of Radio Australia services in 2009, demonstrating the considerable influence he considered Radio Australia to have. In addition to regular news services, Radio Australia also provides a critical service warning affected populations to prepare for impending cyclones, king tides or tsunamis and advises when help is on the way.

The cuts are a huge diplomatic own goal for Australia. Radio Australia has the single greatest reach of any Australian entity in our neighbourhood. Australia's diplomats are represented in almost every capital in the region but they can only travel out beyond the capital as their limited budgets permit. The approximately $1 billion Australian aid program to PNG and the Pacific has significant reach across the region but is not everywhere and the work of the aid program is often only known to Pacific civil servants. Australian banks ANZ and Westpac have a presence in most countries of the region but their reach is limited to people who bank.

Almost every household in the region, however, either owns a radio or has access to a radio in their village. In many remote parts of the region, where domestic broadcasters cannot be picked up or where shortwave radio is the sole means of access to the world, Radio Australia dominates. Whenever I have traveled to remote villages in the region, I have been struck by how much detailed knowledge the local residents had of Australia. There were hardly any books in the villages and no newspapers, let alone internet. All their knowledge was learned by listening to Radio Australia on shortwave radio. The growing coverage and availability of mobile phones and growth of internet access is changing the media scene but at a much slower rate in the Pacific than elsewhere. Many illiterate Papua New Guinean villagers, for example use their mobile phones to listen to radio rather than sign on to Twitter.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said she wants Australia to be recognised as the partner of choice for Pacific Island countries and is frustrated by the recognition China and other countries receive for much smaller aid contributions. A smaller Radio Australia will struggle to enhance the recognition of Australia's contribution to the region; it will barely be able to fulfil its charter. Radio Australia already has a small budget and provides extraordinarily good value for money. But cuts in the range of 60% will threaten not only the quality but the viability of the service. It is worth noting that China is investing in its international television and radio broadcasting, including in shortwave in the Pacific.

As Australia seeks to step up its diplomatic influence globally, it is not the right time for the ABC to be stepping back from its critical soft power role in the Asia Pacific. 

Photo by Flickr user Daniel Lu.

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16 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Last night Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia has prepositioned 50 Australian Federal Police officers, presumably from the International Deployment Group, in London. The Foreign Minister is on her way to Kiev to personally negotiate access to the crash site for the AFP and Australia's aviation officials, to be part of an international investigation under the leadership of the Dutch Government.

A police-led, military-enabled force is the right solution for the Australian Government to propose, but several conditions must be set before police and officials can be deployed to the crash site.

The crash site is in an active combat zone, and as the OSCE reminded us only days ago, there are more than 100 separate armed groups surrounding the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic. No intervention will be able to proceed without explicit guarantees from both the Ukrainian and Russian governments that they will exercise their influence to limit the activities of military forces in the vicinity of the crash site. Even then, there would still remain the possibility of rogue actors in the area. For that reason, whatever international force is sent should be armed for their personal safety.

Yet the crash site is located only a short distance from the Russian border, and for that reason it would be far too provocative to deploy international military forces in any strength to secure the international investigation effort. If Putin were to allow the deployment of NATO military assets within 30km of the Russian border, this would open him to severe domestic political criticism. Already there are some suggestions that Putin is under domestic presure for appearing to have bowed to foreign leaders. Too much provocation and Russia will respond with a show of force of some type, perhaps including additional deployments of military units to the border with Ukraine.

So the best solution will be an armed international police force with a limited mandate to secure the crash site and protect investigators.

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This will take some time to achieve. Julie Bishop will be negotiating a sort of status-of-forces agreement with the Ukraine detailing what powers of arrest police officers will have, what happens to them in the event they are involved in a car crash or other legal matter, and the circumstances in which they might be authorised to use their personal weapons. The AFP will be thinking about how it might detain people trying to interfere with the crash site, which authorities those detained might be transferred to, and the logistics of maintaining 50 or so officers in a fairly remote rural area in Eastern Europe.

This will be a military-enabled mission. Military aircraft are already involved in moving bodies from Ukraine to Amsterdam and might be involved in moving the international police force and possibly aircraft parts recovered from the crash site. Military intelligence will be crucial to an ongoing security assessment of the area in which the investigation will take place, and there will need to be detailed liaison between the AFP and Defence on the local intelligence picture. Finally, the Australian Defence Force is thinking through worst case contingencies. If an AFP officer is kidnapped by a local separatist group, the recovery effort could involve the ADF's Special Operations Command. If the situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorates and a tentative ceasefire collapses, military forces might be required to evacuate the international investigation force.

The good news is that this effort is being led by Australia and the Netherlands, who have recent and extensive experience working alongside each other in Afghanistan. Australian military, intelligence, police, and diplomatic officials worked together with their Dutch counterparts for five years while our soldiers served alongside each other in Uruzgan. Those established mechanisms for cooperation will go a long way to offsetting the fact that we are poised to deploy a substantial force to a country in which we haven't had any diplomatic presence for some time.

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15 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

With fighting intensifying in the pro-Russian rebel enclave in eastern Ukraine, security of the MH17 investigators and the crash site is imperative. 

A temporary cease-fire proposed after the destruction of MH17 last week never materialised. Ukrainian military forces have launched an offensive in the city of Donetsk, where heavy shelling is being reported. Two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down on Wednesday south of the MH17 crash site. There are further reports of investigators on the scene being 'chased away' by separatist rebels.

It is becoming clear that some form of international security force will need to be employed for the investigation to carry on in the long-term.

This force will need to be more substantial than the 40 unarmed military police the Netherlands intends to send and the 50 Australian Federal Police that Prime Minister Tony Abbott says are on standby.

Yesterday morning Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a hint of one of the options under consideration by the OSCE and the Australian, Dutch and Ukrainian governments: peacekeepers. Peacekeepers under a UN mandate may be the best option to provide security for the crash site and are likely to be the most politically expedient. 

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The UN Security Council mandate secured by Australia and the Netherlands earlier this week leaves open the option of using a peacekeeping force to secure the crash site and the safety of international investigators. The language used in the mandate is clear. The Security Council called for a 'full, thorough and independent international investigation into the incident', demanded that the armed rebel groups in the area 'refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the crash site' and most importantly expressed 'grave concern at reports of insufficient and limited access to the crash site.'

A UN peacekeeping operation could be built off this mandate. Such an operation would need to be authorised by the Security Council and passed by its five permanent members, including Russia. This would be difficult, but Russia passed the resolution authorising the investigation earlier this week on the condition that the resolution did not assign blame. Moscow could see this as an opportunity to show goodwill and further de-escalate the situation, particularly if the peacekeeping forces came from countries outside of NATO.

To a degree, the crisis in Ukraine is driven by what Russia considers the creeping influence of the European Union and NATO along its 'near abroad'. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly cited the expansion of NATO membership to former Soviet Republics as a threat and would probably never accept a NATO security mission to eastern Ukraine.

A UN peacekeeping operation could include forces from more politically appealing non-NATO countries. While forces from Australia and the Netherlands would be included (they may even establish a bilateral security force to go in immediately), in the coming months personnel from non-NATO countries could be integrated into the operation. Malaysia and Indonesia, which suffered significant causalities in the incident, may wish to participate. Other major peacekeeping countries like India and Brazil could be asked to contribute.

It is critical to establish security around the site to ensure the investigation into the cause of the MH17 disaster can proceed unhindered. Moreover, the speed with which the investigation can commence in earnest will be crucial in determining the fate of MH17 and ensuring that justice can be delivered for the victims and their families. The investigation is also likely to take some time; the investigation at the crash site of Pam Am flight 103 took months. Ensuring the safety of investigators is also a high priority.

A multinational UN peacekeeping operation is the best way the meet all these objectives.

Photo by Flickr user Jeroen Akkermans.

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  • Should Prime Minister Modi's new role be best understood as 'CEO of India'?
  • There are reports of mutiny in the ranks of the Indian National Congress. Is there any hope of a revival for the beleaguered party?
  • Richard Ellings looks at how to strengthen the US-India relationship.
  • New data on India's forest cover points to an upwards trend, but observers suggest the numbers may be too good to be true.
  • Will Modi's coming to power bring about a new phase in China-India relations?
  • John Garnaut reported last week that the Australian Government may be considering attempting to return 157 asylum seekers being held on the high seas to India. After consultations in New Delhi this week, it seems unlikely that India will accept any non-nationals.
  • Some amazing aerial photographs of India taken by drone.
  • The UN has managed to get over a million views of its Bollywood-style campaign for gay rights . Check out the video below:

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Recently Sam Roggeveen flagged an op-ed by veteran China watcher Paul Monk on the Chinese Communist Party's meddling in Australia's Chinese-language media. 

The op-ed is a great read. But Monk presents only one part of a wider story. The Chinese Government, through its propaganda bureau, has been buying up Chinese language media everywhere, not just in Australia, in an effort to influence the roughly 35 million 'overseas Chinese' who are citizens of other countries. 

In the US, China's program dates back to the mid-1980s, when a wave of mainland Chinese migration changed the profile of the Chinese-American community. In the 1990s, the Chinese Government came to control either directly or indirectly three of the four major Chinese-language newspapers in the country, and this control has continued. The exception, World Journal, has been accused by the Epoch Times, a pro-Falun Gong paper, of towing the Party line, though World Journal's website is blocked on the mainland. 

Writing for the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief in November 2001, Mei Duzhe outlined four main tactics the Chinese Government deployed to influence Chinese-language media in America: 

First is the attempt to directly control newspapers, television stations, and radio stations through complete ownership or owning major shares. Second is the government's use of economic ties to influence independent media who have business relations with China. This leverage has had major effects on the contents of broadcasting and publishing, effectively removing all material deemed 'unfavorable' by the Chinese government. Third is the purchasing of broadcast time and advertising space (or more) from existing independent media. Closely related to this is the government's providing free, ready-to-go programming and contents. Fourth is the deployment of government personnel to work in independent media, achieving influence from within their ranks. 

2001 is a long time ago, but these tactics have changed little. What has changed is the scope of Beijing's 'media outreach.' A geographic sampling of overseas Chinese media outlets to have been either acquired in full or financially supported by mainland media over the past decade includes the UK's Propeller TV, Thailand's Singsian Daily, Arab Asia Business TV, Italy's Europe Times and France's own Europe Times, content from which is circulated in Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Greece and Portugal.

In other words, Beijing's intrusion into Australian Chinese-language community media is part of a broader strategy. 

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It may be unfair to look at acquisitions  or financial support arrangements and assume Chinese government influence. But the evidence is there. In March, People's Daily ran a long piece on the Chinese media's efforts abroad. Alongside presenting the rationale for purchasing overseas Chinese-language media, the author had this to say: 

The core task of going abroad is ... to improve our ability to set the agenda. In setting the agenda at a high level and choosing our angle, we should insert Chinese values into objective reporting to quietly ease the way for the transmission of Chinese values. 

Beijing also actively courts overseas Chinese media that it doesn't control. In an effort to make itself the centre of Chinese-language reporting worldwide, the Government inaugurated the Forum on the Global Chinese Language Media in 2001. 

Last year the forum invited 450 representatives of Chinese language media from 58 countries. Predictably enough, the main talking point for the event was President Xi Jinping's 'China Dream.' Attendees were also given government-friendly tours of mainland trouble spots, including the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Gansu provinces, which have been the epicentre of Tibetan self-immolations in recent years. 

Australia had one of the strongest national contingents at the forum, with 43  media professionals representing a broad swathe of the nation's Chinese language radio, television and print media, including the ABC and the SBS. 

Subsequent mainland coverage of the forum quoted Australian representatives' impressions of their state-sponsored tour through Tibetan areas. 'Our Tibetan compatriots were very friendly, Their lives are peaceful. I'll go home and spread news of the real situation (in Tibet),' said Su Zhongchao of Australian Chinese Daily Online News. 

Photo by Flickr user whatleydude.

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Keep up with what's been happening in the Pacific island region with this week's links:

  • The incumbent Cook Islands Party, led by Henry Puna, has been returned with a very slim majority. However, the leader of the Democratic Party, Wilkie Rasmussen, is planning to challenge the results.
  • I caught up with Fred Samuel, the Vanuatu Government's chief information officer, to discuss ICT, development, policy, infrastructure & more.
  • After an inordinate and largely inexplicable delay, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force has a new commissioner: Frank Prendergast, who has 25 years experience with the Australian Federal Police.
  • A group of voyaging canoes will visit Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu before heading to Sydney to draw attention to the impact of climate change on ocean health.
  • The Parties to the Nauru Agreement countries have increased revenues earned from tuna fishing, but according to Giff Johnson, there is more to be done to conserve the resource.
  • Further to  announcements that Radio Australia capacity is to be gutted, the issue may be raised  by Pacific island leaders at the forthcoming Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Palau.
  • As the Commonwealth Games get underway in Glasgow, this item features Nauru, which is the most successful country taking part in terms of 'people per medal' since 1990. Nauru is hoping for great things from this guy, Itte Detenamo, who is a current Commonwealth record holder: 

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