I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a statement on this incredibly important issue today. I would like to begin by acknowledging the bipartisan approach that our leaders from both the government and the opposition have taken on this issue, and I commend them for that. As the Leader of the Opposition said, national security is and always will be above politics. I also commend the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition for their informed and measured statements on this issue.
I am proud that Australia is able to play a role in the global response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq to prevent genocide and to relieve suffering. Labor unreservedly condemns the evil of IS and the genocide it is inflicting on minorities in Iraq. We also seek to do all we can to support the new Iraqi government, which will be formed on or around 10 September.
The events that have unfolded in Iraq have horrified Australians. They have horrified the world. There have been acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale, including beheadings and other killings, forced conversions, slavery and sexual abuse. The United Nations has reported that:
Children have been present at the executions, which take the form of beheading or shooting in the head at close range.
Bodies are placed on public display, often on crucifixes, for up to three days, serving as a warning to local residents.
Women have been sold into marriage. The British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had confirmed that at least 27 Yazidi women had been kidnapped by IS in Iraq, taken to Syria, forced to convert and sold into marriage for around $1,000 each to other IS fighters. The group said it was aware that some 300 Yazidi women had been kidnapped and transported to Syria but had so far documented the sale into marriage of 27.
There has been persecution of Christians, Yazidis, Shiah, Turkmens and other ethnic groups. As the UN Deputy High Commissioner for human rights said, these are communities that have lived side by side on the same soil for centuries and, in some cases, for millennia. Amnesty International has said that IS has launched a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, carrying out war crimes, including mass summary killings and abductions, against ethnic and religious minorities. According to the UN, more than 1.6 million people have been displaced this year by violence in Iraq and at least 1,420 were killed in Iraq in August alone. The evidence is overwhelming, and we must respond.
Naturally, over the past weeks and months, many have drawn comparisons with the 2003 war in Iraq. Naturally, there have been concerns that we may repeat the mistakes of 2003 and the war that followed. I do believe that the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake. I opposed it then and I stand by that view now. But I want to make it very clear that the situation in Iraq today is entirely different to the situation in 2003.
In the late 1990s I worked on the Iraq desk in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, so I was across what had come out of the UNSCOM mission in Iraq. The United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, was an inspection regime created in 1991 to oversee Iraqi compliance with the destruction of chemical, biological and missile weapons facilities and also to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency's efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons facilities in the aftermath of the Gulf War. UNSCOM conducted this mission from 1991 to 1999, including for the last two years under the direction of Australian Richard Butler. UNSCOM uncovered significant undeclared proscribed weapons programs, destroyed elements of these programs, including equipment, facilities and materials, and mapped out and verified the full extent of these programs in the face of Iraq's serious efforts to deceive and conceal. Even to a mid-ranking DFAT employee like me, it seemed obvious that the continued existence of comprehensive WMD programs in 2003 was unlikely. So I supported Labor's position in 2003 to oppose the war and I believe this position has indeed been vindicated.
In 2003, we went to Iraq without the approval of the UN Security Council, without the approval of the Iraqi government, without an effective plan to win peace, without clear objectives and without widespread international support. Today the situation is entirely different. As the leader of the opposition spelt out, we have three clear objectives: one, responding effectively to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq to prevent genocide and to relieve suffering; two, promoting a unity government in Iraq that is inclusive and can achieve national cohesion —a government that would reject sectarianism and the alienation of minorities, enabling effective security and control of Iraqi territory, and we must not act in a way that would leave Iraq in a worse position; and, three, denying motivation and opportunity for Australian foreign fighters.
The UN Secretary-General has called for the international community to take very decisive and determined actions to prevent atrocities in Iraq. He said that the crisis in Iraq was very worrisome, and that the activities by Islamic State are totally unacceptable. He says:
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. But all these actions should be supported by all the international community.
… 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.
Iraq's ambassador to Australia has also confirmed yesterday and again this morning on local ABC radio, that the Iraqi government supports Australia's involvement in this mission; that Iraq 'had been consulted via all of the right channels between the two sides,' to quote him.
The desire to compare this situation to 2003 is understandable, but the comparison is misguided. The situations are entirely different. That said, we must also use the lessons learned from 2003 to proceed with caution but we must not use them to hold us back.
I want to take this opportunity to offer my unreserved support for the dedicated and professional men and women of our Australian Defence Force who will be involved in this mission. Members might have seen the piece Out of darkness comes a shining mission, by Brendan Nicholson, in today's Australian. I would like to quote from this excellent piece:
For RAAF pilot Liesl Franklin, parachuting relief supplies to 17,000 trapped, hungry and terrified Iraqi civilians was one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.
Flight Lieutenant Franklin, 28, was one of two pilots aboard the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft that delivered tonnes of supplies to the town of Amerli, which was surrounded by Islamic State terrorists.
Flight Lieutenant Franklin said: You can get wrapped up in the details of the mission, but at the end of the day you’re there trying to help these people who have been in the most unfortunate situation.'
She goes on to say: It’s devastating and it’s great to be part of the organisation that’s helping them. If it means they can survive another day, then we’ve done our job. They have a considerable battle ahead.
I commend Flight Lieutenant Franklin and her colleagues, and assure them that they have the full support of the Australian Labor Party. This is a decision that is not taken lightly—the decision to send Australian men and women into harm's way is never taken lightly. There are risks in acting, of course, but I believe the risks in ignoring the situation and taking no action are far, far greater.