Statement on Iraq

4 September 2014

Today in the Parliament, I joined with my colleagues to debate the situation in Iraq and Australia's involvement in the current crisis.

Statement on Indulgence

This parliament is again debating the question of when we should intervene as a sovereign nation to assist another sovereign nation where lives are threatened. This is an issue on which I have spoken in this place before in the context of our involvement in Afghanistan and on which I expect to rise again in the future. The question of Australian intervention overseas has a long history. In 1991, Bob Hawke quoted Neville Chamberlain from 1938, when Chamberlain had said, 'Why should we be concerned with a faraway country of which we know little? Hawke said the response to Chamberlain's question was provided by the horrific events that followed. He said to the parliament, 'The great lesson of this century is that peace is bought at too high a price if that price is the appeasement of aggression.'

There are times when the international community has made mistakes in intervening. Many have argued we should not have intervened in Vietnam and in retrospect, I think, almost everybody agrees we should have intervened earlier in Srebrenica and Rwanda.

In the context of considering Iraq, the intervention in 2003, as the member for Sydney has pointed out, colours every debate. The decision to rush to war is, I think, broadly recognised to have been a mistake in 2003 and the errors should weigh heavily on the shoulders of all of us. In 2003, the lack of international support and the lack of support from the majority of Iraqi peoples were factors which played into the mistakes that occurred in the intervention in Iraq. The question today when this parliament is discussing the government's decision to supply weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga is whether this is the right way in which we should intervene.

Everyone in this debate recognises that IS is a brutal force. They have engaged in mass killings of men and women and children. They have engaged in the brutal slaughter in medieval fashion of journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley. IS have killed Christians, Yazidis, Sunni and Shiite. It claims theological underpinnings but no religion supports the rape of women, the killing of children, the murder of innocents. IS poses a clear danger to Iraqis who wish to live in peace. According to the UN refugee agency, around 1.2 million Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes.

Labor have said very clearly that we do not want regular forces on the ground in Iraq and we welcome the Prime Minister ruling out sending Australian combat troops to Iraq. My views on this, as those of the member for Sydney, are shaped by former Labor Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, who has been instrumental in shaping the notion of a responsibility to protect. He argues that a set of criteria ought to apply to considering any instance of Australian involvement in assisting those at risk in other countries.

The first of those criteria is just cause: is there a threat of serious and irreparable harm to human beings? It is very clear that this is a looming genocide. The second is right intention: is the intention of the military action to prevent human suffering or for other motives? I think it is clear in this instance that the main intention of the military action is to prevent human suffering. The third is final resort: has every other measure besides military intervention been taken into account? It is clear that, without weapons, there is a real risk that Iraqi security forces will not be able to hold off IS and protect the people in the Kurdish regions. The fourth is legitimate authority. We have been advised in this case that the proposed actions have been authorised by the government of Iraq.

The fifth is proportional means: are the minimum necessary means being applied to secure human protection? This is clearly met by humanitarian drops of food, water and medicine. As for arming the Peshmerga, that is the most challenging to the tests I have mentioned so far, but is my view that, without arming the Peshmerga, it is difficult to see how they will be able to protect themselves against the ruthless advance of IS.

The sixth criterion is reasonable prospect: is it likely that the action will protect human life and are the consequences of this action sure not to be worse than no action at all? Again, we cannot be absolutely certain of this, but the advance of IS does pose an existential threat to the people in the Kurdish regions of Iraq.

My views are also shaped by the words of the UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, who said:

The international community must show solidarity.

Not a single country or any organization can handle this international terrorism. This has been a global concern. Therefore, I really appreciate some key countries which have been showing very determined, decisive actions …

He went on to say:

… without addressing this issue through certain means, including military and counter-terrorism actions, we will just end up allowing these terrorist activities to continue.

That view is an important one to take into account in considering Australia's action in the region.

My views on 'responsibility to protect' are shaped too by Michael Ignatieff, a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard while I was there, who also has been a very thoughtful scholar about the challenges for international law in considering when to intervene in another nation for humanitarian reasons. The tests which he has laid down in his writings are, I believe, met in this instance.

In order for there to be lasting security for the people who are threatened by IS, it is absolutely vital that the Iraqi government govern for all Iraqis. The mistakes that were made under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are mistakes that I hope will not be repeated under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. I think it is vital for a lasting peace in Iraq and for its people to be able to continue their lives in safe and secure circumstances that the new Iraqi government be as inclusive as possible. Eli Berman and David Kilcullen, two eloquent writers on counter-terrorism, have made the point that the growth of insurgent movements is so often fuelled by a failure of government to provide the basics—electricity, education, health care and welfare services—where that failure can turn young men to extremism for moral and material sustenance. So it is vital that Australia assist for humanitarian purposes, and I call on the government to rethink its short-sighted cuts to Australia's foreign aid budget.

Australia is a country which under Labor moved towards providing a more generous level of foreign aid; the new government has cut foreign aid. Ultimately, foreign aid is an important underpinning of security which ensures that we are more rarely called upon to make interventions such as this one. As the member for Sydney has noted, the response from Australia to the Syria crisis has been miserly indeed. The United Nations has called for $6½ billion; we have given just $30 million.


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