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Transcript - 23726

Joint Doorstop Interview, Hilversum, the Netherlands

Photo of Abbott, Tony

Abbott, Tony

Period of Service: 18/09/2013 to 15/09/2015

More information about Abbott, Tony on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 11/08/2014

Release Type: Transcript

Transcript ID: 23726

Subject(s): Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s good to be here at Hilversum where the disaster victim identification process has been taking place in the days and weeks after the MH17 atrocity. It’s good to be here with Commissioner, Tony Negus, of the Australian Federal Police, because almost 200 AFP personnel have been involved in the various phases of Operation Bring Them Home. It’s also good to be here with Dr Simon Walsh, one of Australia’s foremost forensic experts and certainly our leading disaster victim identification expert. Dr Walsh has been leading the Australian component here in the Netherlands for the last few weeks.

I should start out though by saying a very sincere and heartfelt thank you to the government and the people of the Netherlands for the leadership they’ve shown, for the compassion and the decency they’ve shown to all the victims of MH17, of course to their own, but to everyone else who was on that flight.

We all saw on TV the wreck site; we all saw the way the wreck site was being dealt with. The contrast between what was happening there and the dignity, the solemnity, the respect of the reception of the bodies here in the Netherlands and the contrast in the treatment abroad and the scientific professionalism and diligence which we’ve seen here in the Netherlands has been sharp.

So, I really do want to place on the public record, here in the Netherlands, Australia’s deep appreciation for everything that the people of the Netherlands have done for us and for the decency and the humanity that the people of the Netherlands, in their own pain and grief, have shown to others who are also in pain and grief.

Of course it’s also an opportunity for me to pay particular tribute to the work of the Australian Federal Police throughout Operation Bring Them Home. Operation Bring Them Home still has quite a way to go. Yes, the initial phase of searching in Eastern Ukraine is over for the time being, but it is highly likely that we will want to go back in again at some stage. Obviously our ability to go back in will depend very much upon the security situation on the ground, but it would be good if Dutch, Australian and other officials could go back in when the time is right to ensure that there are no further remains left over the very, very large area of the crash site, notwithstanding the work that’s been done in the week or so that we had access to the site and notwithstanding the work that local people did in the time preceding that.

Obviously, everyone is very keen to ensure that the disaster victim identification process is as swift as possible, but it also needs to be very, very thorough. I want to thank the Dutch leadership of this operation for the briefing that they’ve just provided to me and my team. Yes, we want this process to be as swift as it can be, but it cannot be rushed, it has to be right, and while much has been done over the last few weeks, much does remain to be done and this could takes months rather than weeks. The last thing that we would ever want to do in a situation like this is get something as personal and as intimate and as fraught with emotion as the identification of a body wrong.

So, I do want to pass now to Commissioner Negus and then I might ask Dr Walsh to say something about the process that he’s been very, very deeply involved with for the last few weeks.

COMMISSIONER TONY NEGUS:

Thank you, Prime Minister.

As the Prime Minister said, there’s been almost 200 AFP officers involved in Operation Bring Them Home, both in the Ukraine and here in the Netherlands. They’ve been supported by well over 100 officers back in Australia doing the very important work of collecting material such as DNA, fingerprints and the like, then used by the people here in the Netherlands to actually identify the bodies.

We have about 35 Australian Federal Police officers here doing the sort of work that the Prime Minister’s described and shortly I’ll hand over to Dr Simon Walsh who’s been leading this team to give you a few more details about what that’s all about.

DR SIMON WALSH:

Thanks, Prime Minister. Thanks, Commissioner.

I’d just like to also reiterate the words of the Prime Minister and the Commissioner. This has been a large effort. It’s an effort that’s led by the AFP but involves specialists from across the policing, forensic and forensic medical community from all over Australia. Many of those specialists are working hard in Australia and many of them have been deployed here to work alongside their international counterparts here at the Hilversum facility.

These are the best experts you could find working as hard as they possibly could to bring this important issue resulting from the MH17 crash to its final stage.

These people are motivated very much by the incident that they’re here to address. They’re motivated by the specialist work that they do. They’re trained for it and they’re highly expert at it. They’re human, they know that it’s a very sensitive and personal issue that they’re helping to address and they also know that it’s an issue that’s of great importance, not just to the families, but also to the wider Australian community.

I just want to reassure everyone that the work that’s been done here, whilst it’s hard work, whilst it’s timely work and painstaking work, it’s being done by some of the best experts in the world and certainly some of the best experts that Australia has to offer.

They’re working alongside their counterparts led very, very expertly by the Dutch authorities and alongside their counterparts from the UK, from Germany, from Malaysia, from Indonesia, from Belgium, from many other countries in the world, and they’re working as hard as they can to resolve the difficult issue of identification.

As the Prime Minister said, this is not a simple task and it’s not a speedy task, but it’s a task we absolutely have to get right. That’s our ultimate priority and it will take as long as it takes to do that. We are dealing with a circumstance that is likely to take months rather than weeks, but that priority and that objective of getting the identifications right just cannot be compromised.

So, I want to thank everyone for their patience, ask that they continue to be patient in this regard, continue to support the families involved in this incident and support the teams that are here working hard to try and bring it to a close.

In that sense, I’d like to really pay my thanks to the Prime Minister for leading this visit here and also to my Commissioner for coming and showing their support to the teams on the ground. It means a lot of all of us and it will help us to help the families bring this matter to a close.

Thanks very much.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you, Simon. Do we have any questions?

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, 21 additional victims were identified on Saturday, but their nationalities weren’t revealed. Have you been told today whether any of those are Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I’ll ask Dr Walsh to deal with this, but if I could just make the point that it’s not for government to announce who has been identified. It is for officialdom to inform the families and then respecting the rights of families to allow families to decide what should happen next. So I’ll say that, and I’ll ask Dr Walsh to add to it.

DR SIMON WALSH:

That is the situation, that the families will be notified officially when their loved ones have been identified and then the choice is there’s as to whether they make that information public. Official figures around the notifications of identification will be released by the Dutch authorities. The first set of those figures was released last Friday. My understanding is that each Friday, the up to date figures will be released by them, but if there’s information there that doesn’t contain, for example, identifications of an Australian individual or victim, please don’t make the assumption that that means no Australians have been identified. The only people who will give the authority for that information release will be the families themselves.

QUESTION:

Is it particularly tough when an Australian is being identified, or when you suspect they’re Australian remains? Does that take a particular toll on the team?

DR SIMON WALSH:

Well it adds to the motivation of the team, it adds to their sense of the importance of what they do, so that’s I think enough of a reason for them to be involved. Other than that, they take a very professional approach to all of their work. One thing about this area of work is that we come here representing Australia’s interests, but we participate in an international response. So, we don’t go about our work trying to preference the interests of Australian people, nor do the Dutch go about their work to preference the interests of their people. We are working as a team and we’re working towards the overall goal of identifying all the individuals involved in this incident.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, have you made any decision about what process is going to happen with the repatriation of bodies and the ceremonies that may surround that?

PRIME MINISTER:

That will really be up to the families. As soon as a family is notified that their loved one has been identified, we are offering them, should they wish, a passage here to the Netherlands to accompany the body back to Australia. For our own legal purposes, as I understand it, the Australian bodies will be going to the mortuary in Melbourne where final paperwork will be done, and then the formal release to the families will take place from there.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you spoke very strongly within almost, it felt like hours, after the atrocity, talking about the murder of innocent passengers, the need for justice. On a personal level, how important is it for you to there not only to be this closure for the families, but for there to be some kind of punishment for those responsible – legal closure, if you like?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I had the opportunity to receive some briefing this morning from Dutch police who are leading the forensic investigation into the downing of MH17 itself. Again, this will take some time. There is very strong circumstantial evidence pointing to the downing of this plane by Russian-backed rebels using equipment supplied by Russia. So, we all know where a heavy share of responsibility lies, but we want to be able to go far beyond that level and, if possible, be able to say ‘these were the precise circumstances, this was the precise set of weaponry, these were the individuals involved with that piece of military equipment and these were the people who gave the orders’. That’s the level of precision that the forensic investigation is aiming for.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you said last night that one of your aims in the talks tonight with the Dutch Prime Minister was establishing how to punish the guilty. Do you have any ideas about how that might happen from an Australian perspective and what you might bring to the table?

PRIME MINISTER:

If it is possible to identify individuals who were directly involved in the downing of this aircraft – in the murder of 298 innocent people – and if it possible to apprehend those people, obviously there is the ability to bring them to trial in an appropriate jurisdiction. So, that’s one level of looking at this.

If, on the other hand, it’s possible to say with a degree of precision, ‘well, a particular group of people or a particular entity was critical in the downing of MH17’, well obviously then there are national repercussions, if you like, and the fact that the level of sanctions against Russia has been substantially lifted in the last few weeks is a sign that the international community believes that Russia does bear a heavy degree of responsibility for this particular atrocity.

QUESTION:

On that, Prime Minister, is there going to be a disinvitation to Russian leader Putin from attending the G20?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s one thing to do the wrong thing; it’s another thing to persist in wrongdoing. This is the challenge that Russia faces right now. Having armed and assisted separatists in Eastern Ukraine, having supplied these separatists with sophisticated weaponry, including the sophisticated weaponry that we are very confident was responsible for this particular atrocity, what next. Now, we know that Russian troops are massed on the border. So far, they’ve chosen not to move. It may well be that people in Russia are having second thoughts, it may well be that Russia is deciding that the cost of bullying is too high given the much stronger international reaction to the downing of MH17 than accompanied earlier acts by Russia which were arguably way, way beyond anything that would be justified in international law.

QUESTION:

[inaudible] previously there aren’t room for bullies at the G20 table?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, lots of things are said by lots of people at lots of times. The important thing is to get the best possible outcome for the world. In a good world, the 20 most representative large economies would sit down at the G20, they’d talk about what they could individually and collectively do to increase the prosperity of the whole world and they would talk collegially in a frank and candid way about what each of us can do to make it easier for all of the citizens of the world to build a better life for themselves and their children. We don’t always live in such a world.

My hope still would be for the G20 to be an economic forum rather than a security forum. Let’s wait and see how security issues develop in the next two or three months, and then we’ll be in a better position to make a final decision.

QUESTION:

In retrospect, Prime Minister, was it unrealistic to say you were going to be able to bring home all of the Australian citizens and residents?

PRIME MINISTER:

Operation Bring Them Home was designed to do just that, but obviously, we can only do what is possible, and it hasn’t been possible so far to conduct the kind of thorough forensic search of the entire wreckage area that we would like because of the security situation on the site.

Now, it’s possible that the security situation on the site in a month or two could be substantially different and if that’s the case, we will be able to conduct the thorough forensic search that we would like to conduct and which under normal circumstances, would be conducted on a site like this.

So, let’s wait and see what the current search, the current recovery of remains, turns up. Let’s wait and see what develops in Eastern Ukraine. Let’s wait and see what’s possible in the weeks and months ahead. I’ve never said that Operation Bring Them Home is over; I’ve just said that a very significant first phase of Operation Bring Them Home has been substantially completed.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, in terms of seeking justice and brining the perpetrators to justice, how closely are Australian police involved in that investigation and are you seeking cooperation from both the Russian and Ukrainian governments? Can you talk about that process?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Australians are very deeply involved in the investigation. We have a small team of police remaining in Ukraine; we’ve got a rather larger team of police here in the Netherlands to ensure that we play a very full and substantial part in the Dutch-led investigation.

There’s been, as I understand it – and Commissioner Negus might like to add to this answer – there’s been very full cooperation from the Ukrainian government. We didn’t have a close and extensive relationship with the Ukrainian government prior to this, but coming from a pretty low base, I think we’ve done very, very well as a nation to build a very warm and close relationship with the Ukrainian government over the last few weeks and my understanding is that we are having the fullest possible cooperation from the Ukrainian government.

As you know, I’ve had a number of conversations with President Putin over the last few weeks and the general approach that the Russian government has taken is that bad things that happen in the Ukraine are someone else’s fault. Well, that is not always a very plausible response, so let’s wait and see what might transpire in the weeks and months ahead when it comes to cooperation by the Russians with the forensic investigation.

COMMISSIONER TONY NEGUS:

Prime Minister, I can just confirm and assure everyone that the same sort of dedication and collegiality that you’re seeing here this afternoon at the DVI process exists in the investigation process as well. We had briefings this morning from the Dutch police. This is a Dutch-led investigation, but I can assure you that the AFP will be playing a key role in both forensic activity and general investigation into the future. Whilst this will not be a short investigation – it’s a very complex matter – there are a range of countries now who are contributing and the AFP will play its part in that through the process to bring these people to justice.

QUESTION:

Commissioner, has there been any discussion about where the culprits might be tried? Would it be the Netherlands?

COMMISSIONER TONY NEGUS:

There hasn’t been a lot of discussion about that and there’s still some legal issues being worked through, but the Netherlands is a strong possibility.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thanks so much.

[ends]

Transcript - 23726