THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
IRAQ – RESPONSE TO PRIME MINISTERIAL STATEMENT
PARLIAMENT OF AUSTRALIA
WEDNESDAY, 3 SEPTEMBER 2014
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When Australians hear their government talk of involvement in Iraq again they have good reason to be cautious.
The disaster of the 2003 invasion colours every debate. And we should never forget its lessons.
As I said in a letter presented to then US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice back in 2003 - the Bush administration, the Blair administration, and our own Howard administration rushed in.
They went in on the basis of false claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction, and before weapons inspectors had time to complete their work.
They went in without international support, without the support of the majority of the Iraqi population, or neighbouring countries.
Australia went in despite the hundreds of thousands of people who took to our streets in protest.
The result? Nearly a decade of conflict, hundreds of thousands dead, and significant instability in the region. In the context of this history, it is right that people urge caution now.
THE SITUATION IN IRAQ NOW
While history should inform our actions, it should not cloud a sober assessment of the facts of the current situation. Islamic State (IS) is an abhorrent, brutal force.
It is an organisation willing to kill anyone who is opposes it.
There are confirmed instances of IS engaging in widespread ethnic and religious cleansing, targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, trafficking, slavery, sexual abuse, destruction of places of religious and cultural significance, and the besieging of entire communities.
There are reports of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, and thousands injured.
These reports are so serious that on Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Council authorised an investigation into mass atrocity crimes in Iraq.
And journalists like Steven Sotloff and James Foley brutally killed for propaganda purposes.
The UN refugee agency says around 1.2 million Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes. A humanitarian disaster already exists in Iraq.
The scale of the crisis has led to calls for the international community to assist. The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon has said: “The international community must ensure solidarity.
Not a single country or organisation can handle this international terrorism.
“This has global concerns so I appreciate some key countries who have been showing very decisive and determined actions…without addressing this issue through certain means, including some military and counter-terrorist actions, we will just end up allowing these terrorist activities to continue.”
The Iraqi Government has asked for help in pushing back IS.
And Iraqi communities here in Australia have called for support too, including Kurds, Yezidhis, Christians, and other minorities.
Labor MPs have met with some of these groups and understand their fears for families and communities left behind in Iraq.
I welcome that the Prime Minister has ruled out sending Australian combat troops to Iraq – as that would be a gravely serious step indeed.
Labor has said clearly that we don’t want Australian regular forces on the ground in Iraq.
But Labor has backed Australia’s involvement in the current humanitarian mission in Iraq.
A RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT
Australia should act, because as a decent international citizen we respect the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’.
‘Responsibility to protect’ is engaged when national authorities are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Former Labor foreign minister, Gareth Evans, championed the idea of ‘responsibility to protect’.
Gareth is the driver of ‘responsibility to protect’ adoption by the UN, and the leading international authority on it.
He uses a set of criteria to judge when ‘responsibility to protect’ should be engaged.
On the current question of Iraq, these principles provide Labor a very useful framework to help guide whether we support Australian involvement – both now and into the future.
1. Just cause – Is the threat a serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings?
• News reports, and briefings provided to the Opposition by Australian security agencies, make clear that communities in northern Iraq face serious threats from Islamic State, and that thousands have already been killed.
• Representatives of Kurdish, Assyrian Christian, and other communities in Australia have argued strongly that their communities in Iraq face genocide from Islamic State, which is highly intolerant of people and communities who do not subscribe to their own extreme version of Sunni Islam, or of Sunnis who oppose their violent jihad.
2. Right intention – Is the main intention of the military action to prevent human suffering or are there other motives?
• Unlike in 2003, there is no intention for regime change of the government of Iraq by US, Australia, or other countries, nor is there any attempt by countries to gain access to Iraq’s natural resources.
3. Final resort – Has every other measure besides military invention been taken into account? (This does not mean that every measure has to have been applied and failed, but that there are reasonable grounds to believe that only military action would work in that situation)
• The Iraqi Security Forces have proven incapable of protecting the communities in northern Iraq. Islamic State has shown it will not negotiate nor follow the rules of war.
• The advice of the security agencies is that the Peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, are the major, effective armed force currently in the northern region capable of resisting Islamic State. They are effective, and they are bearing the brunt of the fighting. Because the fighting is worst in the north, that’s where our help should primarily be directed.
4. Legitimate authority • The Abbott Government has advised the Opposition that current proposed actions have been authorised by the Government of Iraq. That was confirmed yesterday by the Iraqi Ambassador to Australia.
• The support of the UN Secretary-General is also very significant. We now see countries like Canada, which didn’t participate in the invasion in 2003, agreeing to be part of this humanitarian mission.
5. Proportional means – Are the minimum necessary means applied to secure human protection?
• This criterion is readily met for humanitarian aid drops including food, water, and medicine – and I congratulate our air force and other personnel who have already completed these vital missions, saving thousands of lives on Mt Sinjar.
• As for rearming the Peshmerga – the alternative is to watch IS, using sophisticated weapons it has captured on its forward march outgun the only force that has effectively been protecting civilians in the north. We are supporting Iraqis to defend themselves against a merciless enemy. The Peshmerga has for many years provided the Kurdish region of Iraq with a degree of security much better than in many other parts of Iraq.
6. Reasonable prospect – Is it likely that action will protect human life, and are the consequences of this action sure not to be worse than no action at all? • This is perhaps the most difficult question of all, because the history of Western influence in the Middle East is fraught with complexity.
• It’s hard to point to too many examples in which intervention has left a country clearly better off, and unfortunately there are too many instances where the opposite could be said.
• We are rightly cautious, especially after Australia’s previous involvement in Iraq, which saw our brave service men and women sent to fight in the wrong place for the wrong reasons.
• But I believe the humanitarian missions we are currently involved in meet this criteria. Allowing IS to slaughter whole communities cannot be allowed, so we must respond to the Iraqi call for assistance.
Of course, ‘responsibility to protect’ really seeks to answer one key question. That is, in the face of mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity - at what point can the international community no longer stand-by and do nothing?
It is Labor’s belief, based on the assessment of facts I have just provided, that Australia and the world have a ‘responsibility to protect’ and thus an obligation to act.
To borrow a phrase made famous by our chief of army - the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. Australia could no longer walk past. We had to do something in response to such unspeakable horror.
But as important, is making sure Iraq’s neighbours do something in response too.
That means countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and others should be encouraged to stand up and say ‘IS are beyond the pale and we will join in international efforts to defeat them’.
The conflict in Syria has been an important factor underpinning the rise of IS. The spread of IS from Iraq to Syria and then back again – returning much stronger and more brutal – underscores how critical it is for nations in the region to acknowledge this problem is bigger than any one of them.
More than 191,000 people have been killed in Syria. The scale of the humanitarian disaster in Syria has seen the impacts spill over into the region. More than 9 million displaced Syrians have to go somewhere, and that has seen both Lebanon and Jordan take in millions of refugees.
The legal authority doesn’t currently exist for similar support to Syria, but we should be doing a great deal more to assist Syrians in any case.
The UN has called for $6.5 billion in aid for the Syria crisis, the largest ever appeal for funds. Australia, under the Coalition, has given just pledged just $30 million or so in aid – a pathetic response to an enormous humanitarian need.
And we have agreed to take just 2,200 refugees from Syria and 2,200 from Iraq (as part of our regular intake) when millions are displaced and at risk.
ACTION AGAINST IS, NOT ISLAM
As the Opposition Leader said earlier in the week, every action of IS is a betrayal of the millions of good people, of good conscience who follow Islam. The Islamic State does not represent the Islamic faith. That cannot be repeated often enough.
Likewise, action taken against IS is not action against Islam, and we must not allow any misrepresentation that this is the case.
By working with the international community, including countries with large Islamic populations like Indonesia and Malaysia, we can mobilise the power of mainstream Islam against minority extremism.
In fact, I note a group British Imams and scholars recently issued a Fatwa condemning Islamic State as a ‘tyrannical, extremist, heretical’ organisation committing ‘abhorrent’ massacres and persecution.
The Fatwa calls on muslims to oppose IS and follow the law of their homeland – in this case Britain.
Our own security chief, David Irvine, has stressed again and again that Australian muslims are ASIO’s best partners against violent extremists and I acknowledge the hardwork and personal cost that many Australians have borne in order to speak out against extremism.
What I have laid out today is Labor’s assessment of the situation in Iraq at this point in time.
I have explained why we have offered the Government our support for Australia’s humanitarian involvement thus far.
I have outlined the principles that will guide how Labor responds to any proposed further involvement by Australia. Labor believes there are circumstances where Australia has a responsibility to protect.
But as an opposition we also have the responsibility to question – to carefully scrutinise the approach put forward by the Government.
Labor will work constructively with the Government, but we’re no rubber stamp.
We’ll look at the facts and make sensible judgements.
National security is above politics, but such important decisions are never beyond question, interrogation, or criticism.
The decision to send Australian men and women into harm’s way should never be taken lightly, and Labor never will.
Our responsibility to the people of Iraq is to ensure any action Australia is involved in leaves the place better, not worse.
President Obama’s careful, considered response to this matter shows that maybe the international community has learned lessons from the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.