Feb 10, 2003

Ministerial Statements: Iraq


10 February 2003

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (7.07 p.m.) —The end of the Cold War brought the prospect of international stability and peace. The world community had great hope for ending divisions and advancing the cause of common humanity. The vehicle for this was of course to be the United Nations—no longer hamstrung by a polarised geopolitical environment. Now as we enter the 21st century that earlier optimism has faded and the world community faces the very real prospect that religious differences will replace the political ideological battles of the past.

There are many brutal evil dictatorships in the world today and without question Saddam Hussein is one of them. The litany of his human rights violations against his own people have been extensively documented and include the use of chemical weapons, torture and a secret police force. While the evils of the Iraqi regime are indisputable, the question that we must ask ourselves is: does this justify Australia’s support for the new US foreign policy doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and should our armed forces be involved in its implementation?

The proponents of military action have failed to fulfil their own preconditions for war. No substantial links between Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and the events of September 11 have been established. Indeed, one can argue that this has been a distraction from the chase for Osama bin Laden, which seems to have been forgotten. We know that links have been established with groups in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Yemen, Somalia and even Germany—I hope that no-one is suggesting military action against these countries.

There is no proof that Saddam Hussein’s much-depleted armed forces pose a clear and immediate threat to the stability of the region and the security of his neighbours. History suggests that the policy of containment of Iraq has indeed been successful. When George Bush Sr and Iraq agreed to an accord in October 1989, George Bush declared `normal relations between the US and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East’. Of course the Middle East envoy was then Donald Rumsfeld, now the US Secretary of Defense. Whatever criticisms can be made of the Iraqi regime, Islamic fundamentalism is not one of them. This is one of the reasons the United States supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, including supplying his regime with weapons of mass destruction, which he then used against both the Iranians and the Kurds.

In light of these facts, I do not believe it is in Australia’s national interest, particularly as we are only a medium-size power in a highly volatile region, to be joining any military action that would undermine the legitimacy and supremacy of international law. Any US-led military action not sanctioned by the United Nations would be illegal under international law.

Unfortunately, it is clear that John Howard has already given a commitment of support to the Bush administration, despite the overwhelming mood of public opinion and without the debate in this House having been completed. US officials are proclaiming that 12 nations have already signed up to a US led coalition of the willing. Nobody believes John Howard when he states that no final decision has been made. Back in October, the foreign minister told the New Zealand High Commissioner that Australia was not in a position, if the UN process broke down, to withdraw our ships and other presence from the Gulf. He was not wrong. Australia has already committed over 2,000 personnel—more than three times the commitment at the height of the 1991 Gulf War, which occurred after the invasion of Kuwait.

This commitment to war includes the SAS, Navy frigates, FA18 Hornets, Chinook troop lift helicopters, C130 Hercules transport aircraft, mine clearance teams and much more. And the Prime Minister would have us believe that no commitment has been made! John Howard is going to show all his peers at Canterbury High School that he was not a wimp after all. Just like the US President, he has never fought in a war but never misses a photo opportunity to be seen with those who bravely serve our nation.

Whilst the Prime Minister is committed to war, it is a different story when it comes to peacekeepers. He told this week’s Bulletin:

I don’t see Australia, for example, providing peacekeepers.

He went on:

An ongoing peacekeeping role is not something that I would seek for a moment.

I have news for the Prime Minister, the man who has nothing but a plan for war: the aftermath of a war on Iraq needs to be considered. The hawks who want to destroy the regime in place from outside have no plan for the future government of Iraq let alone the rebuilding of the nation or how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of refugees the war will create.

During this debate, most of the government members—and in particular the foreign minister—have spoken of Saddam Hussein’s persecution of his own people as if this were a new event. However, it was a different story when political opportunism became the Prime Minister’s modus operandi prior to the 2001 federal election. I recall the member for Moreton, Mr Gary Hardgrave, telling the parliament at the time:

It is offensive of those opposite to talk about the MV Tampa and bandy about the terminology of refugees. The people on board MV Tampa are not refugees; they are occasional tourists …

Perhaps it was because of this extraordinary outburst of intolerance and insensitivity that the member of Moreton was promoted to—guess what!—the Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs. What an indictment. The government that has vilified the victims of the Iraqi regime has also systematically attacked the UN for daring to criticise Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and breaches of international law.

Reports emerged last Friday that the British government has released a dossier on Iraq’s weapons program that was later found to have been largely plagiarised from the work of a postgraduate student. Governments that are condemning the Iraqi government as being deceptive and propaganda driven need to conduct themselves in a fashion that is beyond reproach and does not undermine their own credibility.

There has been criticism of the emotion people have displayed during this debate. I contend there is no more important decision than whether or not this country goes to war. It is not surprising, therefore, that the debate has been emotional. One would be concerned had it not been thus. Not only does such a decision place the men and women of our armed services and those of other countries in harm’s way but it will also lead to the death and injury of tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of innocent Iraqi citizens.

In 1991, the Harvard based International Study Team conducted a comprehensive assessment of child deaths due to the 1991 Gulf War, which lasted just six weeks, and its aftermath. It was estimated that 3½ thousand civilians died during the war and that a further 111,000 civilians died subsequently. Of these, over 70,000 were under the age of 15. The civilian deaths resulted largely from the destruction of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, especially electricity generating power plants, which led to a breakdown in water purification and sanitation. This breakdown caused outbreaks of infectious diseases such cholera, typhoid, malaria, meningitis, polio and hepatitis.

According to former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, the Allies dropped 85,000 tons of bombs—or the equivalent of 7½ Hiroshimas—on primarily civilian infrastructure. Of these bombs only 7 per cent were precision-guided. So much for all the media coverage showing the images of a clean, sanitised, `surgically accurate’ bombing campaign.

Since the end of the 1991 War UNICEF estimates that about 5,000 Iraqis have died every month as a direct result of the sanctions, primarily the very young and the elderly, who bear the harshest brunt of the food and medicine restrictions. Many military analysts believe that a second Gulf War would not be fought in the desert but in urban areas, thus increasing the likelihood that large numbers of innocent civilians will die. And President Bush and Prime Minister Howard are calling this a war to liberate the Iraqi people!

If there is one lesson for the world community from September 11 and the Bali tragedy it is this: military power is not enough in the modern world—security can only be achieved by a victory of humane, democratic values. The international community must act in a manner that reduces terrorism, not inflames tension. There is something perverse about arguing that the cause of democracy is advanced through the use of our own weapons of mass destruction.

While I do recognise the importance of our cultural, political and economic relationship with the United States, I believe that we must continue to tell them that unilateralism can never be the basis of a satisfactory world model and that pre-emptive action should not involve the use of military power. The recent criticism by the US Ambassador of the right of Labor members to speak out, including the member for Werriwa, is an outrage. The US undermines its own advancement of democratic institutions if its representatives do not respect the right of elected members to state their views in the parliament of Australia. Concerns about the Bush administration’s new foreign policy doctrine have been voiced in the President’s own country by people who have held senior ranks in the US government and military. Notable amongst these critics are Marine General Anthony Zinni, former US envoy to the Middle East; General Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser to Republican Presidents Ford and Bush Snr; and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

It is not surprising that there has been criticism of George W. Bush when he makes juvenile comments such as this last September: `This is the guy who tried to kill my dad’—as if he were a Texas Ranger in a B-grade Hollywood movie. His repeated invocation of God invites images of a holy war that does nothing except promote an extreme response from Islamic fundamentalists. At the end of the day, extremism from all sides must not be allowed to control the international political agenda. A desire for peace, security and a future for the next generation are aspirations not confined to one society or another.

There are many conflicts taking place at this time requiring the attention of the world community: Palestine-Israel, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Kashmir and the Korean Peninsula. The Palestine-Israel conflict could be seen as a microcosm. The tragic escalation of violence has brought nothing but insecurity to both sides in the conflict. Israel’s superior military capacity has caused many more Palestinians to be killed, but that has led to greater insecurity for Israeli citizens. It is perfectly rational for citizens in the Middle East and other primarily Islamic regions, including those to our north, to question why the US regards the imposition of its will in Iraq as an urgent priority after more than 30 years of rule by its former ally, Saddam Hussein, but UN resolutions regarding the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories are treated with contempt.

I have written to my electorate outlining my views on this fundamental issue and received hundreds of supportive replies. I have received only one from someone who supported the war. I will be marching for peace with the Walk Against the War Coalition this Sunday from 12 noon at Hyde Park North with my state Labor colleagues Andrew Refshauge, Sandra Nori, Linda Burney and Virginia Judge and thousands of my constituents. I would not be at all surprised if more than 200,000 Australians join us this Sunday. I encourage Australians to vote with their feet and demonstrate that we believe that Iraq should be disarmed but this should occur under the auspices of the UN and in a peaceful manner. I want to repeat a quote from Shakespeare that was in a letter sent to me this week:

Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war, in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervour, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind …

This is a time when the international community must expand its horizons and its thought processes to ensure a peaceful resolution of this conflict. This morning’s initiative from France and Germany is surely preferable to the military option. While the hawks in the US dismiss these countries as `old Europe’, perhaps it is no coincidence that these are the very countries that have endured bombing and the ravages of war first-hand and on a massive scale on their home turf. It is a tragedy that Australia’s Prime Minister is not an advocate of peaceful disarmament of Iraq rather than being a barracker for war.