Britain to call on NZ over nerve-agent attack

Author
NZ Herald, Newstalk ZB,
Section
Audio,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 13 March 2018, 5:33PM
Military forces work on a van in Winterslow, England, as investigations continue into the nerve-agent poisoning. (Photo / AP)

The British Government will call on New Zealand to join it in taking reprisals against Russia if Russia does not provide a credible response for the nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

In a very rare move, New Zealand media were called to the British High Commission in Wellington for a briefing on the case this afternoon, saying diplomats worldwide were doing the same, as well as talking to governments.

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a statement to Britain's Parliament in which she said Russia was highly likely to have been behind the attack and had until Wednesday morning (NZ time] to provide a credible response or it would face reprisals.

Helen Smith, the Deputy High Commissioner to New Zealand, said diplomats were briefing the New Zealand Government on Britain's conclusion that Russia was "most likely responsible" for the attack on the Skripals

We'd certainly be looking not just at a bilateral response but also to what we can do with international partners and through international institutions.

"If we have not received a clear and coherent response from the Russians by the end of Tuesday UK time we will take this as a signal that this was a deliberate act by the Russian state against the UK and we will consider a full range of measures which might include things like sanctions, expelling diplomats et cetera. But those will be discussed further by the British Government and British Parliament before any decisions are made." 

LISTEN ABOVE AS HELEN SMITH SPEAKS WITH LARRY WILLIAMS

It is likely as well as bilateral action against Russia, the United Kingdom would take action at the United Nations, including on the Security Council where Russia has a veto power.

It is the first use of nerve agents on British soil since World War II.

Smith said while the use of the Russian nerve gas was on British soil, it did not only affect the United Kingdom.

"This is not just a domestic incident. This is part of a pattern of Russian aggression internationally and needs an international response and we are keen to get our message out and work with partners overseas in terms of understanding potential Russian culpability for this act."

She said it was an attack using a nerve agent which injured 24 other people, including a police officer who remained in a serious condition. "People of any nation could have been caught up in it."

She said the briefings around the world were to drive home the serious nature of the attack.

"Russia has had a sustained campaign of aggression internationally. This ranges from the annexation of Crimea through to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in the UK in 2006, through a whole campaign of cyber espionage, interference in elections and many other things. This has the potential to undermine the international rules-based system which is so important to both the UK and New Zealand."

The Skripals are still critically ill following the attack on March 4 in the southern England city of Salisbury. About 24 others needed medical treatment, including a police officer, and traces of the agent were found at a pub and restaurant visited by the Skripals that day. The nerve agent was identified at Novochok, a military-grade agent developed by Russia.

Skripal was a former Russian spy and informant for Britain's foreign intelligence service.

The British Government believes it was either a direct action by the Russian state or Russia had lost control of its nerve agent programme and allowed it to get into the hand of other agents.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters is yet to comment on the issue.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Peters are due to go to London next month for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting where the Russian situation will be the main topic of conversation in bilateral meetings with the likes of May and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

An advocate for progressing a free trade agreement with Russia, Peters recently said there was no evidence the Russian Government was involved in either the missile strike on MH17 over Ukraine or in interfering in the US election. Russia has denied its involvement in both and investigations and legal proceedings are still underway.

Smith said she was confident Peters shared the UK's values on the rule of law, importance of good governance and rules-based system.

"We have a very good relationship with Winston Peters. He's a very respected operator in international affairs and that will continue. We look forward to a strong, positive conversation with them about this instance."

She would not say whether New Zealand could lose its place as one of the first in line for a free trade agreement with a post-Brexit United Kingdom if it pursued a trade agreement with Russia, saying it was for the New Zealand Government to decide its priorities.

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