Senator LUDLAM: Over the weekend, the United States government took responsibility for air strikes in western Mosul that may have killed more than 200 civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly. This marks the deadliest atrocity thus far since the US intervened again in the conflict in 2014. Mosul's mayor has said that these repeated mistakes will make the mission to liberate Mosul from Daesh harder and will push civilians still living under Daesh to be uncooperative with the security forces.
The minister, in her answer to Senator Fawcett earlier, ruled out involvement by Australian fighter aircraft. Can she also rule out involvement by Australian Wedgetail aircraft or other surveillance or targeting capabilities?
Senator PAYNE: I thank Senator Ludlam for his question. As I also indicated in my response to Senator Fawcett earlier, it does take some time to fully determine the detail of a complex incident such as this. There are multiple nations and multiple aircraft involved. In terms of working with the US Central Command, we will continue to do that as the matter is investigated, and we will report those outcomes as they are known. At this stage, I have no further information.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Ludlam, a supplementary question.
Senator LUDLAM: Minister, unless you are happy to clarify, I would have to take that as a no. You cannot rule it out. The attack happened on 17 March. There is no ambiguity about when it occurred. It should have taken one phone call. The US maintains that it has not changed its rules of engagement, but President Trump's decision to abrogate his responsibility as Commander in Chief and delegate authority for launching strikes to commanders in the field has led to significantly more casualties in Iraq and Syria. Does Australia support this change by the US and are Australian forces bound to these same changes?
Senator PAYNE: The arrangements for the United States are a matter for them. What I indicated in relation to our own rules of engagement is that Australian Defence Force personnel operate under strict rules of engagement which are designed to protect our forces, to minimise the risk to civilians and to comply with Australia's obligations under international law. Prior to any air strike, the Australian Air Task Group undertakes a detailed and robust process that includes approvals from both Australian and Iraqi authorities. Once a mission is complete and the aircraft have returned, we review each Australian air strike to ensure it was conducted according to those pre-strike approvals. I assure Senator Ludlam that the Australian Defence Force takes all allegations of civilian casualties very seriously. If an allegation is raised following an Air Task Group strike, the matter is investigated and the findings are reported.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Ludlam, a final supplementary question.
Senator LUDLAM: I wonder if the minister might inform the Senate how long she intends it to take for this investigation to occur? Late last year the Australian government passed legislation that weakened the safeguards protecting civilians when our forces are involved in overseas conflicts like Iraq and Syria. Was this move made in anticipation of the Trump administration's dangerous relaxing of civilian protections in conflict?
Senator PAYNE: The Australian government's decisions in relation to targeting in the counter-Daesh coalition efforts in Iraq and Syria were judgements made entirely on our own watch and in relation to advice received from the ADF. Those judgements were made in broad consultation with senior members of the government. In relation to the United States assertions and statements that Senator Ludlam has made, they have no bearing whatsoever on those decisions.